The Stairway to Heaven memorial outside Bethnal Green Tube station has won three prestigious awards for architecture, and is shortlisted for a fourth.
This month the memorial, designed by Harry Paticas, received the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA) top accolade: the 2018 National Award for Architecture.
Stairway to Heaven was among 49 national winners, including the V&A Exhibition Road Quarter and the Cheesegrater building. Earlier in June, Paticas and the Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust also won two regional awards from RIBA: London Architect of the Year and Project of the Year.
Now it has been shortlisted for the New London Architecture Awards 2018. It is running in the Culture and Community category, which awards examples of the best civic projects for local residents and international visitors. The winner will be announced on 4th July.
The history of the Bethnal Green disaster
The Stairway to Heaven was built to commemorate the worst civilian disaster of World War II. On 3rd March 1943, a crowd of people were waiting to enter the underground air raid shelter when a new anti-aircraft rocket fired nearby.
As people rushed down the stairs, thinking it was an enemy bomb, a woman and a child fell. Unable to see what had happened, hundreds of people continued surging forwards, killing 84 women, 62 children and 27 men.
The government, however, prohibited people from talking about it, with the intention to muffle any wartime panic and to maintain morale. An official enquiry was held days after the disaster, but was kept a secret. It was only recently that the witness statements were made public, with many survivors suffering lifelong trauma from the event. And unlike today, there was no counselling to help the survivors.
Stairway to Heaven architect
In 2006 local architect Paticas read an article about survivor, Alf Morris, who at 13 years old was saved from the surging crowd. Paticas felt passionately about bringing the incident to the fore, and wanted to acknowledge the victims and the survivors with more than just a street plaque.
Paticas began the project in 2007, gaining a large amount of public support (200 people turned up to the first public consultation). He worked in tandem with the Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust, a collection of survivors, families of the victims and passionate locals. They didn’t want it to be ‘the forgotten disaster’ any longer. After 11 years of fundraising, designing and campaigning by both Paticas and the Memorial Trust, the structure was unveiled in December 2017.
The concept of the design is an inversion of the negative space of the stairwell. It bears the names of the 173 victims, and has the same number of pinhole spots in its canopy. Underneath is a polished concrete plinth, fixed with bronze plaques and extracts of the accounts of survivors and the victims’ families.
Sandra Scotting, honorary secretary and trustee of the Memorial Trust, said: ‘For all of us it has been a labour of love over these last 11 years and we are all so delighted to see it completed at long last.’
If you enjoyed this, why not read about the fascinating history of Fish Island.