RIBA London 2018


RIBA London Project Architect of the Year

London Main

Bethnal Green Memorial

RIBA Judges comments:

In 1943, one of the worst civilian disasters in modern British history occured in what is now the south east access stair to Bethnal Green Underground Station, used at the time as an air raid shelter. 173 people (including 62 children and babies) were crushed and aspyxiated to death as they rushed to gain shelter during an air raid shelter.

With more deaths than the 1966 Aberfan landslide, and 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster, it is surprising so few know about it to this day. An official enquiry was held days after the disaster but was kept secret until after the war. Despite censored press reports at the time, those involved were told by officials not to talk about it and the story was suppressed for fear of undermining the war effort. In the absence of the truth, rumours spread that a German bomb had landed in the stairwell, which was convenient accidental propaganda and was allowed to prosper.

In 2006, 63 years after the event, Harry Paticas, a Bethnal Green architect noticed a plaque that had been discretely fixed to the stair in 1993 quietly acknowledging the deaths. After some research, he felt strongly that a more fitting memorial was needed that would better acknowledge the tragedy for those who were killed, their families and those who survived.

What followed was an 11 year labour of compassion involving research, investigation, revelations, meeting victim's families and survivors (some telling their story to their families for the first time), the emergence of a charity client to raise money for the project in 2008 (Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust), charity tin rattling, political lobbying, negotiations with TFL (their stairwell and tunnels below), Thames Water (water main below), statutory authorities (gas and electric main below), design, structural co ordination, further negotiation with TFL, further fund raising, etc etc.

The concept for the design is that of an inversion of the negative space within the stairwell where the crush occurred, lifted up and to one side of the stairwell in the corner of the park. The hollowed out negative stairwell is built from sustainably sourced solid teak with conical shaped holes in the roof that at midday throw a light shaft toward the stairwell where the tragedy occurred, one for each life lost.

A polished concrete plinth supports the teak inverted stair, and folds across the site with multiple bronze plates fixed to it with extracts from the accounts of survivors and victim's families. The plinth twists and leads to a bench where those who have just read the accounts can pause and reflect.

The outcome, 11 years after Harry noticed the small plaque, is a striking memorial that is part sculpture, part architecture and that has intellectual conceptual rigour, a poignant justification for its form, a clear consideration to the viewer's experience and spatial interaction, a construction and structural complexity, and is built to an impeccable level of finish and detail.

The project would not have happened without the architect going way beyond the extent of simply 'doing his job'. He created the project from nothing, he researched and established his brief, he discovered the people who he would need to be the client, he helped the client to fund raise and shake tins, he engaged in complex negotiations with multiple parties one would normally have to do for a significant building (and significant fee); he found a way to achieve the memorial and succeeded.

Photographer: Marcela Spadaro

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