Architectural tribute to WWII tragedy
March 3, 2009 by admin
Harry Paticas is a young architect with a practice based just up the road from Bethnal Green tube station. He has lost count of the times he has jumped on a train at the station but estimates it took about six months of running up and down the stairs before he even noticed the small plaque placed there to commemorate the victims of the 1943 tragedy.
Struck by the plaque’s modest nature and the large number of people who died – 173 – Harry searched the station, convinced there must be another, more imposing memorial somewhere on the premises. Having found no other trace or whisper of the disaster he began to imagine how it could be commemorated in a more suitable way.
Speaking after last Sunday’s memorial service Harry said: “I kept imagining so many people trapped in what was a very small space. Then I actually had a eureka moment and hit on the idea of casting the space. Casting lets you frame a particular space; it gives it boundaries and an actual visible form and shape.”
Harry sent a photomontage of his idea to a local paper. A creative sub decided it was worth a few inches of column space and came up with the title ‘stairway to heaven’ to describe Harry’s design. The name struck a chord and became, if not history then perhaps at least history in the making.
At this point Harry had still never met anyone with a direct connection to the 1943 disaster, but that was all about to change.
50 years of waiting
Alf Morris, who as a child of 13, was pulled out of the crush on the stairway wrote to the paper, trying to find out more about Harry’s proposal.
Harry took up Alf’s story. He said: “I managed to decipher Alf’s phone number on a fax the paper sent me. I gave him a call and he asked me to visit him. When I arrived at Alf’s home he opened the door and said ‘I’ve waited 50 years for someone like you to come along.’”
Now nearly three years after Harry and Alf first met, the proposed memorial has evolved from that first ‘eureka moment’ into something more specific, at least on paper and in people’s imaginations.
Rising from a concrete base the inverted stairway will be a hollow bronze shell, pierced by 173 holes, one for each person who died. The holes will admit pinpoints of light which will move and become more or less bright, depending on the weather and the sun’s position. Harry sees this movement of light giving the memorial a dynamic, living quality.
Interaction with the natural environment is a motif that recurs in many of Harry’s projects. His Cranbrook Lunar Lighthouse proposal involves illuminating the cornices at the top of six tower blocks on the Cranbrook estate in Bethnal Green. The multi-coloured lights will vary in intensity as they track the waxing and waning of the moon.
Perhaps Harry’s most distinctive creation so far is the Pachamama toilet premiered at last year’s London Festival of Architecture. The Pachamama is a waterless earth and fabric affair, devised after Harry spent three weeks in a shanty town in Lima, Peru. There can’t be many other elegant, architectural constructions based on “an in-depth study of the excreta practice of the Quechua Indians”.
Harry describes himself as a ‘Jack of all trades’ but whether he is designing light shows or toilets he is never short of imagination or inspiration. The moment he paused on the stairs of Bethnal Green tube station and began to realise the scale of the disaster that happened there might just produce one of his most memorable creations yet.
Story by Brigitte Istim
Do you think this memorial is a good idea? Do any of your family remember the tragedy? Send us your comments.