In the wake of the Grenfell disaster, BECKY KELLS explores the middle class British tendency to fetishise poverty and Brutalist architecture.
Grenfell Tower was built in 1976, when architects put forward lofty ideas of how social housing tenants should behave, and drew up blueprints to match. Brutalism was born and quickly despised, and today we look at it with ambivalence – a sort of prodigal architectural child. It is either revered – see Balfron and Trellick Towers, both grade 2 listed – or covered up, as Grenfell Tower was.
Nearly forty years later, working class poet Paul Farley – who spent much of his childhood in a Brutalist tower block – reads his poem ‘Brutalist’ at the University of St Andrews. ‘Try living in one’, he begins, shortly after prophetically suggesting that Corbusian houses are ‘machines for dying in.’ Farley’s poem exists as an apt reminder of how middle class intellectuals view buildings like Trellick and Balfron, whilst many people feel who live inside feel trapped and forgotten.
Grenfell Tower was a far cry from the steel-and-glass designer homes springing up around it. It may have looked sleek, postmodern and nondescript before the fire, but it had one staircase for 24 floors, no central fire alarm system and no sprinklers. Grenfell Tower was clad with something that made it look like a multimillion pound apartment complex, but this in itself was a cheap and hasty way of ignoring existing safety concerns whilst introducing new ones.
It is unsurprising that those who live in London’s high-rises fail to see the aesthetic allure. On the flipside of Grenfell Tower, Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets is classed as an architectural relic, and was recently sold to private developers, with social tenants being decanted into alternative (less ‘aesthetic’) housing. An ex-tenant reported on conditions inside the block in 2013, as she prepared to be moved:
The council aren’t doing any repairs at all to the block – anything that needs doing – they put in new gardens and things like that, which are obviously for the *next* lot of people. But anything, like the tiles coming up in the corridor, anything like that, they’ll just wait, so it’s getting even worse there.
Although in effect, Balfron and Grenfell are polar opposites – Balfron’s brutalism is celebrated while Grenfell’s was covered up – in both cases, their aesthetic value has always been prioritized over those who live in them.
A pre-‘refurbishment’ Grenfell tower had all the markers of Brutalism, and whatever your political stance, Brutalism has a certain grittiness to it. It is an emblem of 20th century history; an emblem of hope for regulated and comfortable social housing. It doesn’t matter if you see a utopian dream torn apart by a seething underclass, or a mass implementation of inadequate housing that has failed some of our country’s most vulnerable people. The point is that we have forgotten that high-rises were homes for the working class before they were artistic emblems.
Yet, perhaps Brutalist high-rises have always been detached from their functionality. When Le Corbusier put forward his ideas for a ‘radiant city’ – the perfect model of architecture that subtly yet surely would guide the behaviour of all who lived within – he had little evidence that this would actually play out. Erno Goldfinger moved into the penthouse flat of Balfron Tower in order to observe the functionality of his masterpiece – but then retired to a standard terraced house just two months later. Meanwhile, the social tenants of Balfron and Trellick would spend several troubled decades fending off hard drug users and vandals, who would wander in through the unsecured main entrances. Perhaps it is possible to live in a Brutalist relic – but only if you have the money to leave if you dislike it.
Architects and urban planners may have had the best intentions, but their design decisions come across as patronizing and overbearing. Alison and Peter Smithson provided a detached analysis of Robin Hood Gardens – Alison delicately assumes that the location in the East India Docks will remind residents of their ‘industrial heritage’. Peter bemoans hypothetical vandals who may ‘smash’ his creation, then moves on to describe the communal green space, provided to contain potential vandal-children. The whole thing comes across as faintly surreal and comical, until you remember that actual people lived in Robin Hood Gardens for almost fifty years. Farley observes the ironic contrast between upper-middle class Tate gallery goers who subdue working class lives into artistic conceits, and the depressing existence of a life inside a tower block:
And once a year
on Le Corbusier’s birthday, the sun will set
bang on the pre-ordained exact spot
and that is why we put that slab just there.
Around the same time that Balfron’s interior was renovated, Grenfell Tower’s exterior was covered up. The message is loud and clear: the occasional dash of renovated, privately owned Brutalism can be ironically absorbed into the skyline. But for the hundreds of high-rises still occupied by social tenants, it is easier to alter exterior appearance to fit the architectural norm than to fix the problems inside. The residents of Kensington and Chelsea apparently do not want to look at social housing – at least not too much of it. So the response of the council is to cover the social housing up – the artistic equivalent of wishing it away.
Even now that the fire is over, the obsession is still deeply rooted in the visual aspects of the building. Every mainstream news outlet had an image of Grenfell Tower on fire. As people inside the building spoke to loved ones for the last time, the rest of the world – granted the privilege of knowing nobody inside – was invited to look upon the burning building as a spectacle on a screen. More recently, people have taken selfies with the burnt-out tower. Experienced through a camera lens, poverty is fetishised as fascinating and photogenic.
Idealising a building’s exterior is one of the easiest ways to dehumanise the people who happen to be inside it. These buildings are not art. Unless they have undergone a Balfron-esque renovation, high-rise interiors are stuck in a dangerous rut, lacking adequate fire alert and escape systems. Covering the building with flammable yet aesthetic cladding can hardly be called a ‘refurbishment’, just as sweeping a pile of rubbish under a rug cannot be called ‘cleaning’. But it is unsurprising that it was allowed to happen: much of the conversation about post-war high-rises is about how they look, rather than how they function as homes.
Anyone who grew up in a working class community will tell you that it is often negative experiences that bind us together so strongly. In the face of a slow response from the central government, near-silence on the part of Kensington and Chelsea council, and a constant stream of mixed messages about future housing for residents, people from Ladbroke Grove pulled together. They collected thousands of donations, offered their showers and bedrooms, and circulated missing posters long before the mainstream media published an accurate death toll.
The response to this disaster has reminded London what community is. It goes beyond the vague notion of your neighbours – the impersonal exchange of amazon parcels or passive aggressive noise complaints. It is knowing their children’s names, their illnesses, their strengths and their weaknesses and their struggles; it is carrying an elderly woman down the stairs in a burning building, and it is knowing that she lives there in the first place; it is what gave those who live around Latimer Road authority over the news and the council, because they knew that what they were reading about in the news did not match up with their community. But do not make the mistake of romanticising working class people. Their response is so important because it is real – not an artistic conceit contained in a concrete tower block.
If we respected working class people as much as we revered aesthetically pleasing buildings, this would never have happened. Making social housing the centerpiece of an aesthetic debate detracts from the people inside – people living in danger and discomfort while local authorities scramble to ensure that high-rises are pretty from the outside. Farley once again confronts his readers with the harsh reality of life inside a concrete shoe-box, in the final stanza of his poem:
One by one shopkeepers will shut
their doors for good. A newsagent will draw
the line at buttered steps. The final straw
will fill the fields beyond. Now live in it.
We cannot put a face on the person or people responsible for this fire: they are safeguarded by the corporate anonymity of the companies for which they work. In any other crime, anonymity would not be granted. As David Lammy said as he called for corporate manslaughter charges, ‘if you or I committed a crime, we would be arrested and charged’. It is not enough to know that the police enquiry is investigating manslaughter charges, if we do not know the identities of the people who they are investigating.
Now is the time for those responsible for the Grenfell Tower fire to be honest. Covering up an inadequate, unsafe building with a facade was dishonest; suggesting that the death toll was 30 when it is more likely to be 79 (if not double) was dishonest; for the person – or people – who signed off on this cladding to shrug their shoulders, pass the book and deny their guilt would be the greatest dishonesty of all. We cannot let Grenfell Tower be labelled a ‘disaster’, a heartbreaking exception, an anomaly among all of the UK’s post-war towers. Nothing can bring back those who died in a place that was supposed to keep them safe, or the security of those made homeless. Councils across the country must make their high-rises safe.
‘Now live in it’, Farely commands in the final lines of his poem: a call for those who idolize Brutalism to rethink their stance. Reading the end of ‘Brutalist’ feels a bit like stepping into a grave – one with a tower block for a headstone. Even before Grenfell, there was a divide between the receivers of this command – ‘now live in it’ -, and the people on the outside who looked, talked, took pictures – but never quite managed to see all the way inside. There can never again be a situation where the aesthetic preferences of those looking at a building matter more than the people who live within its walls. The residents in Grenfell tower were not listened to, just as working-class tenants were not listened to when social housing was designed. We must listen now. No more deadly facades.
Featured image courtesy of independent.co.uk