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Working Detail: Madrid Memorial by FAM

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[WORKING DETAIL 10.01.08] Massive blocks of borosilicate glass, normally used for camera lenses, form a shimmering monument to the 2004 train bombings

‘Light was the material which built the structure,’ says Pedro Colón of FAM, the Madrid practice which designed the city’s 11 March Memorial, a glass cylinder located amid a swirl of traffic on a roundabout in front of Atocha station. Inaugurated last March, three years to the day after the 11 March 2004 attacks on four suburban trains left 191 dead, the 11m-high memorial comprises over 15,000 bespoke glass blocks laid with transparent adhesive cured by UV lamps.

The 11 March memorial is the result of a competition, by the city council and the Ministry of Public Works and Economy, which attracted over 300 entries. FAM, which won the compeition in November 2004 sought to provide a place of quiet contemplation and its was the only entry to feature underground space below the roundabout accessed from the station through a tunnel. FAM saw manipulation of light as key to the scheme, and envisaged a glass structure which would illuminate the 500m² subterranean memorial by day and serve as a beacon by night.

Turning this vision into reality within the time-frame required by the client proved challenging. Initially FAM did not even have a source for the massive glass blocks needed for the igloo-like construction. ‘The most complicated bit was finding the glass,’ says Colón. ‘We looked at plastics and resins, but they were not durable enough. We wanted an eternal material.’ The practice wanted a glass which would not need any visible structure, and explored the possibility of using liquid glass before settling on a borosilicate glass, traditionally used for making lenses, which could be used to make the blocks.

To accommodate differential movement between the glass tower and the reinforced concrete slab below, the entire structure sits on approximately 200 shockabsorbing elastomer pads. A crew of 24 worked around the clock to lay approximately 400 glass blocks a day, with an architect continuously on site for quality. control. The delicate glass blocks had to be individually checked for fractures and over 10 per cent were rejected. The blocks also needed a transparent acrylic adhesive to resist rain and wind, and because the adhesive shrinks as it cures, particular care had to be taken to avoid fracturing the glass. A glazed roof enclosure at the top of the cylinder with a minimal visible structure is made from five glass beams connected with steel bolts which support sheets of laminated safety glass.

FAM wanted to feature text on the memorial, and as etching the glass blocks proved prohibitively expensive, the alternative of printing text on an ETFE sheet inflated within the glass structure was adopted and lends an ephemeral quality to the interior, which changes throughout the day as light moves across the surface. A
3D model in Rhino was used to develop the freeform shape of the ETFE lining, which floats within the space and is held in place by a 60mm steel tube which follows the base of the wall (see detail A, right). The ETFE membrane isheld in position by the difference in pressure between the memorial space inside the membrane and the space between the ETFE and the glass cylinder.

The victims’ families objected to the original concept of printing names on the memorial interior and in the final scheme the names of the victims are printed on the walls of the entrance foyer between the station and the main memorial space, while the ETFE fabric is overlaid with a selection of over 20,000 messages in different languages which were left at the station after the bombing. The architects themselves undertook the momentous task of sorting and selecting the messages to be used.

Because controlled environmental conditions are needed to apply acrylic adhesives, the memorial was constructed within a sealed enclosure, which lent an air of mystery and suspense to the project before its opening. Colón says: ‘It became the mysterious place everyone wanted to see - like a magician’s hat.’ The number of visitors, 1,000 a day in the week and up to 2,000 a day at the weekend during the initial months is a testament to the magician’s success.

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