In the days and weeks following the 2017 Grenfell Tower tragedy, in which a fire killed 72 people in a 24-story residential block in North Kensington, London, dozens of monuments appeared around the building. People brought flowers and pictures and green ribbons. He made hearts and mosaics. He painted frescoes. They set out on a silent tour.
Even after five years have passed, many of these spontaneous creations still exist. They speak powerfully to the pain and loss in the community. But due to lack of maintenance and ownership, or simply because they were not designed to withstand the elements and the passage of time, they are already showing signs of decay. The risk of their disappearing altogether comes with the fear that the memory of what happened will also be lost.
This is why the Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission was created in 2019. The aim was to formalize how the site would be remembered and to ensure that the community was heard.
In May 2022, the commission published an interim report titled Remembering Grenfell: Our Journey So Far. It relates to the breadth of views and concerns expressed to date as to what this monument should take.
Research shows that collectively remembering a difficult past in this way—through a structure or object that is intended to be endured—is not an easy task. For a monument to serve its purpose, it has to be peaceful and contemplative. It needs to foster remembrance, hope and community. Respect is fundamental.
How to Build a Suitable Monument
The Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission represents three main communities: members of the bereaved family; survive the fire; and residents of the Lancaster West estate, in which the tower stands. With the help of public engagement company Kaizen, it has sought to reach as many people as possible through recorded conversations, online community meetings and weekend drop-in sessions, and will continue to do so through January 2023.
A design brief will be developed to open a public competition between April 2023 and April 2024. The plan is to start construction of the monument by December 2024.
So far, as stated in the report, about 20% of the bereaved, 6.2% of former residents of Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk (who have now been completely relocated to new homes) and the wider Lancaster housing estate 28% of the residents have it. Have already shared your thoughts. This is a good starting point.
With over 2,000 participants, it’s a challenge to identify the ideas of all those affected, and co-design something that incorporates all of those ideas. As the report’s authors put it, “Part of moving forward may be accepting that we can’t take away all pain or make it better.”
Many bereaved family members are still mourning and are unwilling to be involved in the design of the memorial. The commission is nonetheless adamant “never to make a decision based on numbers, without considering whether it serves the needs of the bereaved families as well as others.” The silence of these community members should also be part of the remembrance process.
The site of the memorial would become a sacred place, a place where the remains of the victims would not be identified and a place where they could be honored by their families.
The report speaks to people’s hopes that the memorial will meet the pain of families and their collective resolve that this will never happen again. “Justice,” the authors write, “is incredibly important to the Grenfell community.”
Ultimately, the aim is that this site becomes a beacon to ensure that the country does not forget this shameful incident. And that it will never be used as a dwelling again.
monuments that may take shape
In keeping with other memorial projects around the world, participants highlight a number of key considerations that should underpin the design: peaceful and reflective; respect and remembrance; hope and positivity; community and love. The report shows how these ideas are being put front and center:
Perhaps through art, our despair, anger, fear, guilt and sorrow may find a place of honor at the center of the monument, rather than being silenced or put on edge.
Three options are being explored for the structure: a garden (potentially with a water feature and a children’s play area); an artifact or monument; or a building.
The National Memorial Arboretum, in Staffordshire, which is the center of remembrance for fallen servicemen in Britain, demonstrates how gardens can provide the calm people need for reflection. Being in nature – experiencing the seasons and the passage of time – also brings a sense of hope and positive thoughts about the future. Research also suggests that scenarios designed to be therapeutic can help with the grieving process.
Artifacts and monuments have also been shown to be effective memorials, especially when they include information about those who lost their lives. To commemorate those killed during the Argentine military dictatorship (1976–1983), the Park of Memory was created in 2004 and includes a garden and memorial, with the names of all the cows engraved on the tall walls.
The Grenfell Commission report highlights that there is no consensus yet about how much information can be used at the memorial, whether in the form of pictures or personal stories.
Some were in favor of a building, potentially a museum, as it could bring tourists to the area and adversely affect the peace of the monument. But as my research shows, combining the authenticity of a historical site with the educational aspect of memory can work. The Otto Weidt Museum in Berlin adjoins the factory to which the pacifist factory owner Weidt tried to help Jewish workers flee the Gestapo, with a documentation center next to it.
Some have suggested a separate exhibition on the Grenfell disaster to be held at the Museum of London. A common solution is to set aside spaces for reflection and learning, as Buenos Aires has done. The main memorial museum is located not in the Park of Memory but in the former ESMA building, the Argentine Army Mechanics School and the Secret Torture Center.
The Grenfell Tower Monuments Commission has no bearing on the future of the tower – whether kept or demolished – as it is the responsibility of the government.
The tower is a constant reminder of the tragedy. For many people this puts a huge strain on their mental health. Bereaved families, former and current residents of the area may need more time. Some may not be ready to talk about how to make this tragedy memorable.
A distinctive memorial, in whatever form it may be, will be a place for all to remember and fight for justice, which has actually been prepared at the grassroots level. I encourage you to read the Commission’s report in its entirety. The challenge it has taken is as sad and difficult as it is admirable. And its members are in it for the long haul.