Social Murder: On the Grenfell Tower Fire

The British have always been wary of modern architecture, the British upper crust especially so. From the Prince of Wales and his “monstrous carbuncles” to Sir John Betjeman and his iambic fantasies about “heavy bombs” raining down on Slough, a deep suspicion of architectural modernism would appear to be the default position of the bluebloods and their literary hangers-on. The prejudice is perhaps most wittily expressed in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Decline and Fall, in the figure of architect Otto Silenus. Silenus is talking to a journalist who has come to inspect his “surprising creation of ferro-concrete and aluminium”. “The problem of architecture as I see it,” he says, “is the problem of all art – the elimination of the human element from the consideration of the form.”

Well, it wasn’t modernism that did for the “human element” in Grenfell Tower two weeks ago, though it’s clear that the attempts to prettify that building for the sake of the surrounding residents – some of the richest people in the world, mark you – had a fundamental part to play. For whatever one thinks of the “brutalist” style of that 24-story tower block, it was built with working people in mind, at the ragged end of Britain’s post-war, social-democratic settlement. No, what did for Grenfell’s tenants, 80 of whom are now known to have died, was the extent to which, and the manner in which, that settlement was undermined over decades. Their home, or what is left of it, is now a blackened monument to another kind of “decline”: the “managed decline” of poor neighbourhoods as a central plank of the ideology we’ve come to know as neoliberalism. [More here.]