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Printed foil scrims create a fitting memorial

Features, Graphics | March 1, 2008 | By:

Memorial for the victims of the bombings in Madrid uses printed ETFE scrims.

On 11 March 2004 ten bombs ripped open four commuter trains at three Madrid stations during the heart of the Spanish capital’s busy rush hour period. The trains were packed with office workers, students, schoolchildren, and visitors. One hundred ninety one died, and 1,824 were injured. Three years after the blasts ripped ruthlessly through the trains, and so many unsuspecting lives, an evocative memorial to the victims provides a focal point for all those whose lives were touched by the horrific blasts. Placed outside Madrid’s Atocha train station, the memorial recently was unveiled in a simple ceremony by the King of Spain, accompanied by other members of the Spanish royal family.

All the more powerful in its message through the simplicity of concept and construction, the memorial — designed by the young Spanish practice, FAM Arquitectura y Urbanismo S.L — takes the form of an 11m high oval glass cylinder with a diameter of 8m by 10.5m. The composite monument is formed from two constituent parts, the seemingly delicate glass cylinder itself, which rises above a dark underground visitor chamber with blue walls, and the floor, designed for up to 200 people to engage in reflection and contemplation. The two parts are joined together by a round glass window. Together these forms create the impression that the memorial rises as a “shimmer of hope” up towards the city and the sky from the below-ground depths of the train station where so many people died.

The seemingly delicate form intentionally communicates the fragile, fleeting nature of human life. Yet the transparent structure itself is a robust form, built from 15,100 curved borosilicate glass blocks, convex on one side and concave on the other. Each 70mm thick 200mm by 300mm block weighs 8.4kg. The specially manufactured form allowed the glass blocks to be laid in circular rows to create the oval tower. Instead of mortar, the glass blocks were jointed with a transparent liquid-acrylic adhesive that was hardened by ultraviolet lamps.

Inside the glass cylinder, some of the thousands of messages of grief sorrow from the mourning citizens of Madrid spontaneously left at the stations during the days immediately following the attack have been preserved for all to see, read and reflect upon. The words themselves, viewed from the chamber below, seemingly spiral around the light filled space, engraved onto the transparent film of 150µ 97% transparency ETFE vacuum-stablized foil. It took 30 foil sections in all, welded together, to form the transparent lining to the glass tower.

Light floods down into the underground chamber through the glass, reaching the chamber by passing through the messages themselves. The names of all the victims are respectfully engraved on a frosted glass panel within the chamber. “The whole group of messages were printed out with a special plotter into the foil,” explained Miguel Jaenicke Fontao from FAM Arcquitectura. Miguel further explained that the pressure-stabilized ETFE foil was chosen as the medium because its lightness and transparency enabled the architects to realise their vision of floating the messages in space without having to impose an extra load on the glass tower or compromise its structural integrity or clean lines.

Engineering both for the glass structure and ETFE foil liner was sensitively undertaken by the respected Stuttgart based firm of Schlaich, Bergermann und Partner, a practice internationally renowned for their work with architectural membranes and curved structural forms. This special, extraordinary monument presents an unforgettable memorial to an unforgettable event. After dark, the volume of the tower acts as a beacon, radiates softly from lights in the opening at its base. During the day, sunlight on the glass glows as it filters through the tower and reflects off the deep blue surfaces in the underground chamber. Visitors arrive in the deepest blue underground chamber from Atocha station, drawn to gaze upwards from the dark towards the dazzling light overhead.

Helen Elias, a contributing editor for Fabric Architecture, writes about architecture and design from her base in England. Her article about the Aintree Racecourse appeared in the Sept/Oct issue.

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