Grenfell Tower Memorial design competition kicks off in London

On the heels of Labour’s recent landslide victory, an international design competition was announced this week in the U.K. that invites architects to conceive a memorial for victims of the 2017 Grenfell fire, a tragedy which killed 72 people and displaced hundreds more.

The British government is seeking a “specialist, considerate and community-focused memorial design team,” the brief said. Whoever wins will design a monument and garden at the base of Grenfell Tower on a 36,000-square-foot site that commemorates the “tragic events of 14 June 2017.”

Grenfell survivors who helped assemble the brief said the design should “express the love we have for those we have lost and will remember for ever.” It should be “peaceful and reflective; respectful” and convey “remembrance; hope; community and love.”

map showing site of proposed memorial with surrounding sites
The site is 36,000-square-feet and spreads out into the North Kensington urban fabric. (Courtesy Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission)

The design brief is relatively open-ended, but it does make some specific programmatic requests. First, the names of the 72 victims must abound somewhere in the memorial. Second, the design should feature water as a symbol of tranquillity and light. And lastly, the color green should be included, a motif that references Grenfell protest banners, like those dramatized in Gillian Slovo’s new theatrical production about the disaster.

Some people expressed interest in seeing a covered space at the memorial for meditation and idol reflection, while others want an education and community center. An idea for a museum was pitched, but many residents disproved of that because they worried it would create a “tourist destination.”

Neither an education center, community space, or museum is required, although the brief is open for interpretation. But overall, the end result should be “bold,” “fitting,” and “lasting.”

The international competition is being shepherded by the Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission (GTMC), a 10-person group led by representatives of the bereaved, Grenfell survivors, and local residents of Kensington, the London borough where the fire happened 7 years ago. The commission is co-chaired by Labour MP Lord Boateng and lawyer Thelma Stober of the London Emergencies Trust.

RIBA will manage and administer the selection process on behalf of GTMC. “Any selection process to design a memorial is a huge challenge, but the Grenfell Tower tragedy struck a blow so deeply sad, so shocking and so intense into hearts all around the globe, that to find the right design team, able to draw upon their deepest streams of empathy and delicacy, is a tricky task,” said Jane Duncan, RIBA Competitions Architect Adviser.

Duncan continued: “I ask all architects and designers, wherever you may be, to consider if you have the right skills and experience in dealing with many and diverse stakeholders, in sensitivity of approach and compassion, as well as the innovation and creativity to interpret and deliver a wonderful design to meet a very personal and touching brief. This selection process is a wonderful opportunity to present your most well-rounded team, and express your capabilities, your openness, your imagination, and actually, also, your humanity.”

Grenfell Tower wrapped in covering with memorial site in view
View west across eastern section of the memorial site (Courtesy Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission)

Plans were first announced by the British government to memorialize the fire in March 2018. That year, JAA, a London studio, proposed encasing Grenfell in a black concrete shell, a sarcophagus that reminded viewers of the “tragedy caused through negligence.” JAA’s idea was met with mixed reviews: Then Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad rebuked it as “misery porn.”

Shortly after, Architects for Social Housing (ASH) came out with a less ambiguous proposal that riffed on JAA’s idea. ASH suggested writing the names of public and private officials ostensibly responsible for the 2017 disaster smack dab on Grenfell’s facade for all of London to see.

In 2021, safety inspectors announced that Grenfell Tower may be torn down. (That hasn’t happened, however, the building’s future is still uncertain.) In May 2022, GTMC issued its first progress report, Remembering Grenfell: Our Journey So Far. This was followed by a second progress report in November 2023, Remembering Grenfell: Recommendations and Next Steps to a Memorial.

On July 10, the third report was issued and it formally outlines the competition brief. The U.K. government currently owns the site and has pledged to pay for the memorial, including the $25,000 prizes that will be given to five shortlisted names at the end of the competition’s first phase.

Submissions for the Grenfell Tower memorial must be made no later than September 18. The five shortlisted offices will be named in spring 2025.

The winning team will be expected to have a memorial design (developed with community input) for a planning application by 2027.

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