In the days and weeks following the 2017 Grenfell Tower tragedy, in which 72 people lost their lives in a fire that consumed the 24-storey apartment block in North Kensington, London, dozens of memorials appeared in the vicinity of the building . People brought flowers and pictures and green ribbons. They made hearts and mosaics. They painted graffiti. They went on quiet walks.
Five years later, many of these spontaneous creations are still there. They speak powerfully to the pain and loss in the community. But due to lack of maintenance and ownership, or simply because they are not designed to withstand the elements and the passage of time, they are already showing signs of decay. The risk of them disappearing completely comes with the fear that the memory of what happened will also be lost.
That is why the Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission was created in 2019. The purpose was to formalize how the website will be remembered and to ensure that the community is heard.
In May 2022, the commission published an interim report entitled Remembering Grenfell: Our Journey So Far. It tells the breadth of ideas and concerns expressed so far about what form this memorial should take.
Research shows that it is not an easy task to collectively remember a difficult past in this way – via a structure or object that is meant to be endured. For a memorial to serve its purpose, it must be peaceful and reflective. It should promote memory, hope and community. Respect is fundamental.
How to create a suitable memorial
The Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission represents three main communities: grieving family members; survivors of 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 until January 2023.
A design brief will then be developed to open a public competition between April 2023 and April 2024. The plan is to start building the memorial by December 2024.
So far, as the report shows, about 20% of the bereaved individuals, 6.2% of former residents of Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk (which has now been fully relocated to new homes) and 28% of the residents of the wider Lancaster Housing Estate. already shared their views. This is a good starting point.
With more than 2,000 participants, it’s a challenge to acknowledge the views of everyone affected, and to design something together that includes all those views. As the authors of the report put it, “part of the way forward may be to accept that we can not make all the pain go away or make it better.”
Many grieving family members are still grieving and are simply not ready to get involved in the memorial service. Nevertheless, the commission is determined to “never make a decision by numbers, without thinking about whether it meets the needs of grieving families as well as others.” The silence of these community members should also be part of the remembrance process.
The site of the memorial will become a sacred space, a place where the remains of the unidentified victims will be laid to rest and a place where those who were can be honored by their families.
The report speaks to people’s hope that the memorial will realize the pain of families and also their collective determination that it will never happen again. “Justice,” the authors write, “is incredibly important to the Grenfell community.”
Ultimately, the goal is for the site to become a beacon to ensure that the nation does not forget this shameful episode. And that it will never be used as housing again.
The forms that the memorial can take
In line with other memorial projects around the world, participants highlighted several key concepts that should support the design: peaceful and reflective; respect and remembrance; hope and positivity; community and love. The report shows how these ideas are put forward:
Perhaps our disappointment, anger, fear, guilt, and sadness through art can find a place of respect in the heart of the memorial, rather than being silenced or set aside.
Three options for the structure itself are explored: a garden (possibly with a water function and a play area for children); a work of art or monument; or a building.
The National Memorial Arboretum, in Staffordshire, which is the UK’s center of remembrance for fallen servants, shows how gardens can provide the quiet people needed 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 shows that landscapes designed to be therapeutic can help with the grieving process.
Artworks and monuments have also been shown to be effective memorials, especially when they include information about those who have lost their lives. To commemorate those who died during Argentina’s military dictatorship (1976-1983), the Park of Memory was created in 2004 and consists of a garden and memorials, with the names of all the disappearances inscribed on long walls.
The Grenfell Commission’s report emphasizes that there is still no consensus on how much information can be used in the memorial, whether in the form of pictures or personal stories.
Few people were in favor of a building, possibly a museum, as it could bring tourists to the area and adversely affect the peacefulness of the memorial. But as my research shows, combining the authenticity of a historical site with the pedagogical aspect of memory can work. The Otto Weidt Museum in Berlin combines the factory in which Weidt, a pacifist factory owner, tried to help Jewish workers escape from the Gestapo, with a documentation center located next door.
Some people have suggested a separate exhibition on the Grenfell disaster that will be held at the Museum of London. Separating the spaces for reflection and education is a common solution, as Buenos Aires did. The main memorial museum is not located in the Park of Memory, but in the former ESMA building, the Argentine army mechanic school and clandestine torture center.
The Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission has no influence on the future of the tower itself – whether it is retained or demolished – as it is the government’s responsibility.
The tower is a constant reminder of the tragedy. For many, it causes a great deal of pressure on their mental health. Grieving families, former and current residents of the area may need more time. Some may never be ready to talk about how to commemorate this tragedy.
A separate memorial, whatever form it takes, will be a place for all, to remember and to fight for justice, devised in a truly grassroots way. I encourage you to read the commission’s report in full. The challenge it has faced is as sad and difficult as it is commendable. And its members are in it for the long term.