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Architecture & Morality:
The Fall of Grenfell Tower

[1]1,661 words

Czech version here [2]

Facts are important, but stories are more important. Facts are isolated data that can easily be forgotten, but stories coalesce to form the infrastructure of our worldview. The stories that we learn inform our worldview and our worldview filters the stories that we hear in an ongoing feedback loop. This is why it’s so important to control the narrative.

When Grenfell Tower went up in flames on the morning of 14th June, the narrative practically wrote itself. Here we had the poorest people in the country living next door to the wealthiest. The first victim to be named was a Syrian refugee, Mohammed Alhajali. Two miles away, the penthouse flat in the tower block at 3 Merchant Square was recently sold for £7.5 million, perhaps by one of those Russian oligarchs, semi-mythical creatures who buy up reams of expensive property in the desirable areas of London seemingly on a whim. A tale of two cities, a tale of two immigrants.

As the story continues, the residents of 3 Merchant Square are protected by smoke detectors and sprinklers in each flat whilst the poor residents in Grenfell Tower have no sprinklers and apparently a few faulty smoke detectors. Worse still, Grenfell Tower had only last year had a refurbishment which was designed to improve its appearance to outside observers (i.e. to the purchasers of those luxury flats). As we now know, having all become leading experts in the cladding of tall buildings in the last week, the insulating fascia built on the exterior of Grenfell Tower seems to have acted as a chimney, spreading the fire all around the building.

So the story is one of poor, immigrant favela dwellers whose safety doesn’t matter at all but whose ugly building must be dangerously disguised so as not to upset the delicate sensibilities of neighbouring millionaires. This narrative was immediately and effortlessly translated into one of murderous, racist Tory scum ethnically cleansing Kensington and Chelsea. The former narrative has some merit but the way that it so easily slips into the latter interpretation is due to the fact that the assumptions of the Left have become hegemonic throughout the British political system. The poor are shat upon by Left-wing governments and by Right-wing governments but the shit only seems to stick from the Right. The truth is that all the main political parties in Britain are neoliberal Social Democrats but the Left has been able to ideologically weaponize Grenfell Tower because it has retained its mythology of championing the underdog and returning power to the people. This is the source of Corbyn’s success. The Right maintains its belief in neoliberalism but salves its conscience with social democracy. Although its heart is more with neoliberalism it no longer has Thatcher’s capacity for telling the right stories about opportunity and independence. It essentially agrees with the left that neoliberalism leads to embarrassing juxtapositions like those revealed in North Kensington. It is only on the left of British politics that a positive vision is being offered to people and it is starting to create its own feedback loops.

Grenfell Tower was built in 1974 in the Brutalist style. The term “Brutalist” comes from the French béton brut, raw concrete, and it denotes an architectural style characterised by industrial, prefabricated construction techniques, and a modernist aesthetic that delights in rough, angular edges and bold linear and curvilinear shapes. It’s fair to say that the Brutalist style never endeared itself to popular consciousness. But then that was never really a particularly high priority. The main driver behind the post-war housing boom in Britain was the huge amount of homes that had been destroyed during the war. Successive post-war governments regarded it as their duty to build sufficient numbers of homes to make up for that shortfall. It’s easy with hindsight to see the creation of high rise social housing as an incubator for crime and social breakdown but it’s important to remember that these projects were approached with an idealistic attitude at the time. The futuristic aesthetic of modernist architecture in general and Brutalism in particular was wedded to a notion of social progress and technological innovation, and the buildings were often enthusiastically embraced by those working class Britons who were to be homed in them. To some extent, the earlier garden town and model village utopian ideals were in the background of the post-war social housing projects.

During the last decade, Brutalism has started to come back in fashion with many regional campaigns underway to save important examples of post-war architecture. Ernő Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower has now become a desirable residence attracting the young and affluent gentrifiers whose presence feeds in to the narrative of social cleansing. So there is a certain irony to the fact that it was felt necessary to clad the exterior of Grenfell Tower in order to hide its Brutalist façade. In fact, the cladding fixed onto Grenfell Tower gave it the appearance of a building designed in the International style, all glass and steel, which is so ubiquitous in cities around the world. The irony, of course, inheres in the fact that the International style is itself a rather outmoded architectural form and Brutalism is achingly de rigueur amongst the young style setters. In addition to this, it is noteworthy that during the course of the development of modernist architecture the concrete exterior, rough and weathered, was the face of social housing whilst the flat, sleek glass façade was the face of commerce and business. It is as though the intention behind the exterior cladding was to disguise the fact that this building was a living space, to elide the presence of its inhabitants, a desire that found too intense a fulfilment in the inferno of June 14th.

The story here again writes itself. The forces of neoliberalism, having been unleashed, are ruthlessly consuming all impediments to the free flow of global capital. The sooner all social housing is burned to the ground (enabling the realisation of the true land value) the better. And this story maps itself onto the Left/Right divide in a clear fashion. But the inverse side of this story, that of the people who are dragged around the world in the wake of global capital, does not seem readily prefabricated to fit easily onto the political divide. But it is precisely in this asymmetry between the global movement of capital and the global movement of people that we should be asserting a new perspective on the political system because the global flow of capital and the global flow of people are at once the same phenomenon expressed at different levels. To pretend, as the left does, that it is possible to oppose capitalism whilst supporting the free movement of people is disingenuous. As I said earlier, they are only able to pull this off because they still have a founding mythology which can be utilised in a way that galvanizes support. The fact that it is disingenuous, that it is a faux solution that would actually exacerbate the problems it claims to solve, is secondary to its alluring power as a story.

It seems to me that any anti-capitalist movement or tendency should be very careful about the claims it makes for itself. Global capitalism reminds me very much of the prophesied AI singularity, the moment in history when machines will surpass human power and take over the planet. Is this not what capital has already done? Capital is already way beyond the level of metaphor; it really is a self-organising machine feeding off the human prey. Anyone who seeks to mitigate the socially disruptive effects of capitalism should really focus on those areas that are still within our control. Regaining control of the borders is one such area and this is why Brexit is such an important issue.

The affluent hipsters who apply a type of historical revisionism to Brutalist architecture are certainly right about one thing: the parochial, even when ugly, is preferable to internationalist blandness. Securing the borders won’t halt the flow of capital (nor should it) but it may give us an opportunity to create our own parochial feedback loop within the greater flow. Doing so will necessitate a rethinking of what constitutes a citizen and may even lead to an immigration policy that isn’t predicated on suicidal insanity.

Returning to Grenfell Tower, this type of social housing was initially a project of the Labour Party although it was also pursued by the Conservatives. It was a necessary solution to the problem of housing shortage after the war. There is a problem with affordable housing in Britain today and at the recent election the Labour Party pledged to build half a million more council houses, even though an obvious and more environmentally friendly solution would be to dampen demand with restrictions on the number of people allowed to enter the country. The dangers of this “more capital/more immigration” model are not just confined to the problems of overcrowding and the costs of ongoing maintenance, but also spill out into more sinister social developments such as Rochdale and the promotion of Jihad.

The correct response to Grenfell Tower would be to pursue a hard Brexit so that the population can be allowed to stabilize and the necessity of building large numbers of new homes can be stymied. Resources might then be applied (and applied more generously) to those who are already living in social or private rental accommodation. This would be a positive and achievable goal for the Right. It would though require the Right to make an us/them distinction, something about which it has proven itself spineless in the past. Nonetheless, the elite’s misstep with the Brexit referendum does give us the opportunity to make the case for our brand of politics: a politics of social cohesion and stability predicated on strong borders. It is a positive political message that can create a narrative of genuine morality rather than the present narrative of self-righteous moralism.