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Grenfell Tower memorial design must bring sense of peace and justice

Words:
John Jervis

As the search begins for a design team, Paul Boateng, co-chair of the Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission, explains the many roles of the memorial for a traumatised and marginalised community

Today, the process begins to find a design team to create a memorial that will act as an enduring tribute to the 72 lives lost in the Grenfell Tower fire in north Kensington on 14 June 2017. A little over seven years on from that night, and almost five years since the founding of the Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission, this is a hugely significant moment for the entire community affected by the tragedy. And it’s one about which the Commission’s co-chair Paul Boateng – the Labour peer and former Member of Parliament for Brent South – feels very strongly.

‘This is a community that I began my practice of law in 50 years ago,’ he explains. ‘It’s a community that I know very well – it’s exciting, diverse, vibrant, and very creative. But it is also a community that is deeply traumatised, and hurt, by the catastrophe itself, but also because it has been consistently ignored, marginalised, and disrespected over decades.’

Along with Thelma Stober, head of legal and company secretary at the Local Government Association, and herself a survivor of the London bombings of 2005, Boateng has been working closely with the Grenfell community, including its 10 representatives on the Commission. As co-chairs, Boateng’s and Stober’s goal has always been to ensure that the voices and wishes of bereaved families, survivors and local residents remain central to the process throughout, guiding both its direction and its outcomes, to achieve a respectful, lasting and sustainable memorial, honouring those who lost their lives.

Boateng says: ‘What this community wants above all is justice. This memorial has to reflect that, but importantly it needs to be a sacred space, a place built and designed to last; it needs to be a place of peace, remembrance and reflection; it needs to have impact, and height, and light, and water.’

With a landscaped garden as a central element, joined by appropriate monuments or structures, the memorial should be peaceful and reflective. It should create a space for thought, and provide a sense of hope and community, but it also needs to be bold, acting as a visible testament to the tragedy. In achieving this, its design will need to engage with the diverse religious and cultural backgrounds in the community, incorporating a spiritual quality that encompasses multiple faiths and accommodates different needs and practices, including private areas for those who need solitude. Boateng sees this diversity very much as a positive.

‘I don’t regard the rich mix of faiths and culture at Grenfell as being in any way challenging,’ he says. ‘It’s a wonderful opportunity, which you have to open yourself up to, and I expect the design teams in this competition to see it likewise. And one of the positive aspects throughout has been the way in which the different faiths in the community have always worked together – that was very clear in the aftermath of these tragic events, and it has been a consistent during the life of the Commission.’

Another aspect of that diversity that Boateng is keen to stress is the Commission’s ongoing contact with young people: ‘We’ve engaged with children and the young throughout, because not only were children among the 72 victims, but today they live in the shadow of Grenfell Tower, that space is central to their lives, so they need to be involved, and it needs to be a place that they have a sense of belonging to. It is a demanding brief. But,’ he adds, ‘that’s why it’s a wonderful opportunity for great, innovative and impactful design.'

Paul Boateng and Thelma Stober, co-chairs of the Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission, at the launch of the Commission’s Remembering Grenfell report in November 2023
Paul Boateng and Thelma Stober, co-chairs of the Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission, at the launch of the Commission’s Remembering Grenfell report in November 2023

Boateng and Stober are determined that the competition will attract ‘the brightest and best globally, who recognise the professional opportunity, and will put the community at the heart of the whole process’. At this stage, interested design teams will need to demonstrate a wide variety of relevant expertise, from architecture and landscape to mechanical and structural engineering. They will also need to show their understanding and experience of designing in collaboration with local communities in an inclusive, compassionate manner. Five teams will be shortlisted in the autumn, at which stage the process will move on to the development of an initial proposal with the involvement of the Grenfell community, to arrive at an exceptional design to which they will feel a strong and lasting connection.

Boateng explains: ‘What we expect of this design process is to produce something that is unique, and a reflection of the community. It’s not a question of taking a bit from here, a bit from there. We expect the competition, and ultimately the whole process, to produce a design that will reflect the experience of a marginalised and disrespected community who have been the victims of the most appalling and systemic neglect, and a failure to protect them. That’s why this memorial has to be impactful, a place of peace and memory. And it has to be a place that is quite literally a monument to a towering injustice.’

An additional complexity is provided by the uncertain future of Grenfell Tower itself, a  matter which remains in the hands of the government. The lack of progress on this front is a cause of frustration for Boateng, and for the Grenfell community, and may well require considerable flexibility on the part of the selected design team.

‘This decision should have been made, frankly, before the election,’ he says. ‘The concern now on the part of the community is that they want to see progress. They want us to get on with this, they have been denied justice, they should not be denied a fitting, impactful and perpetual memorial. There can’t be peace without justice. And inevitably the memorial has to reflect that.’

Asked what he hopes from the design teams applying to this competition, Boateng replies: ‘The very best. I’m serious. Thelma and I see it as our job to reflect this community that’s been too long neglected, and for this community we want nothing but the best. Let that message go out very clearly. It was a unique tragedy and the memorial, and the successful design team, will need to be equally unique.'

You can find the full design brief with details on how to apply here. The selection process is being managed and administered by RIBA Competitions on behalf of the Commission and the Grenfell community. Deadline for submissions for Phase 1 is 11:59 AM on 18 September 2024.

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