The 7 July Memorial by Carmody Groarke 07.07.09

Written by 

words William Wiles

Carmody Groarke's memorial to the 52 victims of the 7 July 2005 bombings in London opens to the public today. Yesterday, we visited the memorial and interviewed architect Andrew Groarke and lettering designer Phil Baines. There's also some video.

icon What were the key considerations in the design?

Andrew Groarke Obviously it's an enormous task and responsibility to get to grips with, with quite a large project board [including the Royal Parks, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, six delegates on behalf of the bereaved families and Antony Gormley as artistic adviser]. I think what we did was break the conversation down into smaller chunks of issues, so we had entire session debating the issues of site, we had entire session just looking at the consideration of what contemporary memorials are, both war memorials and civilian memorials, and we had entire sessions looking with the project board and specifically the bereaved families at what give the character to this memorial. And the idea of the singular and the collective dropped out very effortlessly as a working concept.

So the idea that the singular loss of life and the collective effect of 52 lives lost has had a dramatic effect on London and society as a whole was a really poignant starting point. And then through design development we gave form to that: the idea that the 52 are arranged in four clusters with equal space around each of the stelae or vertical pillars so that ... at first glance [it's] quite a random field of pillars, but then you start to reveal a sense that ... these lives lost were completely randomly selected, there's this sense that it could have been any one of us - this really poignant thought that the families really wanted to embody in the memorial. At this point, when we had the figure and the form of the 52 and the four clusters, we started developing the landscape, and we also started to look at the nature of the lettering, and how the message of the memorial was put down as well, and that that's where we consulted very closely with professor Phil Baines.

Phil Baines At the time I came to it, the form was all settled ... and with the lettering we had a discussion about it at the beginning and everything became clear in a one-hour discussion, historical precedents of lettering on memorials. But really what it came down to was trying to balance the practicalities of casting in stainless steel with the aesthetics and the size we were working with - there are only so many things you can do, you can't have old-fashioned letters like you might have on a formal memorial, it's just not possible to cast them in this material on that scale. So that led us towards a very simple sans-serif letter. We looked at ideas of trying to capture London, so we looked at the Transport for London font, Johnson - that has a lot of fiddly details and it's specific to TFL. So I went back to more primitive sans-serif forms, and they were really rediscovered by people like John Soane and Joseph Flaxman at the beginning of the 18th century. So that was really the starting point - just to create really simple, good-looking letters, almost primitive letters for this elemental memorial. And that's what drove it.

We talked about a lot of little issues like should they run up or should they run down, and we settled on down, like an English book's spine ... they all start at the same point, so there's no hierarchy of information, the date and the time are the simplest possible transcriptions of those things, there's no colloquial "th" in there, it doesn't say memorial because we know it's a memorial ... so it's all about reductiveness, which isn't a word, but you know what I mean. And I think about the time I was getting involved, Kevin [Carmody] and Andy [Groarke] were revisiting the material for the plaque which in early iterations was carved into granite, and there were misgivings about that mismatch of materials between plaque and column, so it was resolved that the plaque also be stainless steel.

Andrew Groarke But I think we also enjoyed the translation of the idea of solidifying a moment into a solid thing, and the idea that placing lettering should be done in the same way - that it wasn't a laboured carving, it was impregnated into the form at that moment of casting.

icon The steel has come out a very attractive colour - it's almost white ...

Andrew Groarke There's two qualities to this stainless steel - there's the as-cast finish ... and let's be clear, stainless steel normally has these associations of corporate slickness, this kind of mirror polish, you see your own image in it, and we didn't want that, we wanted something slightly more unusual, almost geological.

icon From a distance, it could be stone.

Andrew Groarke Yeah, and the closer you get in, you start to realise that there's a certain idiosyncrasy to the way that the 52 similar elements are made - they take on individual characteristics. And the way that we did that is we used a sand trench casting process. So, a very archaic technique - we could have got an engineer and precision technique to make them all exactly equivalent. We didn't want that - we wanted the process of making these things to make them somehow the same but also slightly characteristic and different. So as you go up closer and closer, taking one pattern, one form, and pressing it into sand 52 times, just the way that molten metal works, being poured from a crucible at 1600 degrees centigrade, makes every single element very, very different in character on three of the four faces. Now the fourth face, which is the bottom of the trench, is always a lot more predictably finished, and that's the one that takes the text, so that the lettering is always cast perfectly. The elements solidify in six seconds, but take a further 24 hours to cool to touch - we wanted to capture this poetic life lost in an instant.

It's a sculpturally derived result not an engineered result.

icon How did you select the location within the park? Was it presented to you?

Andrew Groarke Our site as presented by the client was looking at a broad area, the eastern edge of Hyde Park along Park Lane. The families and the project board had spent a lot of time choosing Hyde Park as a fitting location which is independent from the four bombing locations but somehow very ingrained in an important public space in London, so it has significance in a central public space in London.

What we looked at was the history of Hyde Park, as a royal hunting ground with paths criss-crossing all the way across from gate to gate, from perimeter to perimeter. In the 1970s when Park Lane was widened, you can see this slight landscaped feature along Park Lane, [a ridge] forming the spoil from the earthmoving when it was widened. We saw there was one path between Lovers' Walk and the Broad Walk, which goes all the way down to the Serpentine cafe, which was clipped short as a result of that widening. And we thought that one of the ways of ingraining this memorial into this public park was to tease out an extension of that path, but terminate in this space. Now also we've made this path slightly wider than the preceding path, to take the form of the stelae, but also to correct the way that people behave on this path as opposed to other paths. Now obviously people cross lawns and in that sense the memorial is a kind of solitaire, it can be approached from all sides, but we felt like grounding the memorial in a path which was [part of] an extended network in the history of the park.

And it shouldn't be put on a plinth, this memorial, it should just be the 52 elements planted into what is very ambient parkscape ... you can see we've gently modified the earthworks, the berm, behind the memorial, as a sort of setting that provides a bit of quietening from the road - as you get closer to the plaque at the end all of your view of the traffic is eclipsed at the point. So you're just looking at the plaque almost as something geological built into the earthworks. There are four new plane trees also, which over time will improve the setting, the quiet and repose of this part of the park. Apart from the memorial elements, the rest of the design is very gentle - the same gravel, the same lawn [as the rest of the park] ... The families wanted four benches, but we didn't want to make that part of the memorial for a few reasons - we didn't want to make the memorial solely as an amenity to the park, its remit isn't to provide a place of comfort, it's to communicate a message, a message in memoriam, so we wanted to put the benches slightly off it and have the strength of the memorial as a singular and collective thing. So the benches are placed aside, so a visitor to the memorial can contemplate quietly, inconspicuously, at a little bit of distance.

icon Nevertheless, isn't it a little strange not to use a site associated with the bombings themselves?

Andrew Groarke No, I don't think so, I don't think you could somehow find a common site that was meaningful to all those four bomb locations - they're very different locations, underground, overground, at different sites in London. You couldn't, for example, put the location closer to one site and privilege or give emphasis to one site over another.

picture Gautier Deblonde/DCMS

picture Gautier Deblonde/DCMS

picture Gautier Deblonde/DCMS

video The casting, using a sand trench process..
credit Arup

Leave a comment

Click to show