There is no better place in which the word ‘legacy’ can take a stronger meaning than in the planting of forests. In the depths of Yorkshire’s Dalby Forest lies Forestry Commission’s and Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture, Nissen Hut, which was presented in 2018 as part of the 14-18 NOW programme. Nissen Hut connects forests with the legacy of the First World War.

The Nissen Hut is a portable type of accommodation constructed by corrugated sheets of metal. Usually twenty-seven feet long and sixteen feet wide. Nissen Huts were originally designed by Peter Nissen, a US born Major in 1916. Originally in the 12th Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, he was then transferred to the 103rd Field Company Royal Engineers. He brought his background in engineering to design huts that were cheap to produce and could be constructed in a short space of time for soldiers. The semi-circular huts were used for a variety of purposes from bomb stores to hospitals, barracks to churches. Over one hundred thousand were made during the war, with ten thousand being used for medical reasons. From 1939 they were used to house prisoners of war. They are still used today as storage huts or for shelter from the rain. Nissen was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and awarded the Distinguished Service Order for designing the huts. However, soldiers did complain of the cold within the huts! Whilst he is primarily known for this invention, he also invented a cooker that could cook three meals at the same time, which was massively popular.

World War One not only caused human death and destruction but also to England’s forests, which were shortened by the war. The Forestry Commission was created in 1919, as a consequence of the Forest Act, which commissioned state run forests to create reserves of timber. The huts housed and trained unemployed workers to replant the forests, which we benefit from today. The Forestry Commission has its own art program and has commissioned art across the Public Forest Estate since the 1960s. It also celebrated its centenary in 2019.

Nissen Hut is from Rachel Whiteread, first woman to win the Turner Prize in 1993 and it is her first permanent sculpture in the UK. This sculpture forms part of Whiteread’s Shy Sculpture Series, which aims to depict small buildings in hidden, out of the way areas. Rachel Whiteread’s style of sculpture highlights the ongoing theme of the 14-18 NOW projects of bringing the absent past into the present. No stranger to history memorials, her Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, unveiled in 2000, depicts a library with the pages turned out, the meanings interpreted in different ways. Her block sculptures solidify the internal space of the huts by creating a stone internal cast of a Nissen Hut, turning the interior inside out. An aspect I particularly love is how she was able to create the appearance of both metal and brick within her stone sculpture, shown in the image below.

What Whiteread seems to be most proud of about the work is the way it will become part of the forest, decaying and being affected by the wildlife of the forest. Whilst the memorial stands out now as white and pristine, just like the original Nissen Huts, the Yorkshire Weather will take its toll on the sculpture.

The legacy of the Nissen Hut remains not only in Whiteread’s sculpture but by Peter Nissen’s own great grandson, George Nissen. Nissen has designed a workspace hut called the Nissen Pod that would be placed in the garden in a similar shape to the original hut. I’m sure there has been an increase in sales of these this year. An aspect of the project’s legacy is the creation of educational resources from Forestry Commission.

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