The Fifth Anniversary of the Grenfell Tower Fire, Aesthetics, and Social Murder

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Last week was the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, which NC has regularly covered, for all those five years (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here (the latter two being on the “cladding crisis” revealed when Grenfell Towers cladding burned). I was lucky enough to be attending an NC London Meetup a few days afterwards, and here’s a photo from the photo essay I did then:

Nowadays, people wear green for remembrance, and the decayed stump of the tower is covered with banners:

“Forever in our hearts.” Well, perhaps. In this post, I will look superficially at the Inquiry set in motion the day after the fire by then-Prime Minister Theresa May. Then I’ll look at the willingness of some to reframe the Grenfell fire not as a technical matter of poor fire engineering, but in broader social terms. Finally, it seems that those broader terms include — of all things — aesthetics (a topic that seems to have dropped out of mainstream coverage, although it had currency in 2017.

Here is the roadmap of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry:

The Inquiry is investigating a List of Issues that has been separated into two phases. Phase 1 focuses on the factual narrative of the events on the night of 14 June 2017. Hearings for Phase 1 began on 21 May 2018 and concluded on 12 December 2018. The Chairman published his Phase 1 report on 30 October 2019, the contents of which can be found here.

Phase 2 of the Inquiry examines the causes of these events, including how Grenfell Tower came to be in a condition which allowed the fire to spread in the way identified by Phase 1.

(Here is a post on Phase 1 from NC. Covid slowed down Phase 2; evidence taking will conclude, it is hoped, in July.) The Inquiry issued a Fifth Anniversary Statement:

The fifth anniversary of the fire on 14 June provides an occasion to mourn with renewed intensity the tragedy in which so many people suffered a terrifying ordeal as well as losing not only their homes and possessions but in many cases their dearest relatives and friends. The Panel, together with the whole of the Inquiry team, remains acutely conscious of the effect of the disaster on those who were directly involved and on the wider community in North Kensington.

We continue to offer them our deepest sympathy and we repeat our determination to ensure that the Inquiry uncovers [defines?] the full story behind the causes of the tragedy and provides answers to the many questions [but not all?] that continue to trouble them.

The excellent Peter Apps of Inside Housing provides a thread on Phase 2:

(There’s plenty more where that came; I suggest you click through for plenty of grisly detail on the construction and real estate industries in what is still Thatcher’s Britain, and of course the regulators and the vendors).

Now let’s turn to those “broader social terms.” I think a lot of the coverage — even my own — has been sucked into disentangling the technical complexities of cladding, the business and political complexities of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), and so forth. There certainly are a lot of opportunities for rent-seeking, from whatever it is that one does for the price of a dinner, to whatever it is that one does in London real estate. But I do think we need to dolly back from the complexity — which, as usual, is constructed for no good purpose — to take a broader, less nuanced view. For example-

From Unherd, “How Grenfell exposed Britain“:

The inquiry turned out to be much more than a simple examination of a botched refurbishment on a West London estate. Instead it has given the public a rare glimpse of the various structures whose failures contributed to the fire. None of them ought to escape with reputation intact. Not the housing sector, not the construction industry, nor the fire service or central government.

What has emerged is a profoundly depressing portrait of a private sector with a near psychopathic disregard for human life, and a public sector which exists to do little more than serve or imitate it.

It seems to me that “psychopathic” (and “sociopathic”) are coming up on the charts; once seen as hyberbolic, they now approach mere description:

One of the most shocking moments of the inquiry was within the third area of its investigation. This looked broadly at the many failures in the tower’s management. Grenfell housed 37 residents who had disabilities that hindered their ability to escape in an emergency. On the night of the fire, 15 of them died, several alongside friends and relatives who would not leave them in the burning building.

The inquiry heard that the management company had done nothing to identify these residents, or plan for their escape. In fact, when the London Fire Brigade asked if there were any disabled residents in their housing stock, the building’s risk assessor advised that KCTMO should “say you have nobody”, otherwise “questions like why were they not included in the building’s [risk assessment] spring to mind”.

KCTMO staff defended not producing plans for the evacuation on the basis that they were following government guidance from 2011 which said doing so was “usually unrealistic”. This went against other legal provisions, but does appear to have become standard practice in the housing sector — with thousands of disabled people living in high rises with a similar lack of protection.

Startlingly, the Home Office recently announced it would not implement the inquiry’s recommendation that housing providers should be legally obliged to provide such plans.

No doubt the bulidng’s risk assessor was gifted a nice meal afterwards. So it goes.

From Inside Housing, Grenfell Tower Inquiry diary week 79: ‘You could argue that the system was created specifically to enable people to circumvent the rules’:

[Professor [Luke] Bisby’s] conclusions were damning. Describing the move to a ‘performance-based’ system in the 1980s, as part of a flagship deregulation package delivered by Margaret Thatcher, he wrote: “In an effort to increase the ‘freedom’ of industry, the regulatory system became more permissive. No regulatory mechanism was put in place to ensure that those dispensing fire safety advice had the requisite competencies.”

“I mean, you could argue that the system was created specifically to enable people to circumvent the rules,” he told the inquiry.

The new regulatory system, which persists to this day, made it a legal requirement for builders to achieve standards such as that external walls “adequately resist” the spread of fire, but ultimately left it to their judgement as to how this should be done.

“At what point would you know, to a reasonable degree of certainty, whether or not you had met the functional requirement?” asked Richard Millett QC, lead counsel to the inquiry.

“In practical terms?” replied Professor Bisby. “If you had a big fire and everything went horribly wrong.”

One imagines Bisby’s dawning horror at what he was found, and his efforts to come to grips with it by choosing appropriate language.

Red Pepper, Five years of inaction after Grenfell:

We now know just how much the government knew about the risks of cladding – and how governments, both Labour and Conservative, and the civil servants who served them aided and abetted industry to shirk responsibilities and threaten life. This is what happens in a market state, when services are tendered for lucrative contracts and duties dismissed as ‘not economically viable’.

As Brian Martin, the expert without qualifications who had such a profound impact on regulation in Britain, put it, he did not wish to ‘distort the market’ by designating what was safe and unsafe. Mass death followed. The government was warned at various times. It chose to censor core information and protect the interests of cladding and insulation manufacturers, whose economic interests trumped the right to life for the British public. Grenfell as it stands is not followed by a full stop, but a comma. The other criminal disasters are coming. Covid was one, but as the bereaved campaigning for justice for their lost loved ones know only too well, the other disasters are in the post because we are being governed by charlatans.

“Charlatans” is too kind. WSWS, in The Grenfell fire and fight for justice five years on, recalls to our memory the appropriate name for all this:

In his 1845 study The Condition of the Working Class in England. Engels wrote that the ruling elite of the day, in forcing the working class to live in deprivation and squalor, committed “social murder, that it has placed the workers under conditions in which they can neither retain health nor live long; that it undermines the vital force of these workers gradually, little by little, and so hurries them to the grave before their time.”

(Note that this undermining of the “vital source” is exactly what is happening to the Grenfell survivors.)

The “social murder” framing seems to be slowly catching on. From Social Science & Medicine, The reemergence of Engels’ concept of social murder in response to growing social and health inequalities:

Our analysis of the presence in academic journals from 1900 to the present of the social murder concept as conceptualized by Friedrich Engels revealed 1) that it was seldomly used; 2) but when used, it usually contained the key elements of Engels’ concept; and 3) the concept is now reemerging in academic journals. Raphael et al. (2021) suggest that considering the limited success in placing health inequalities and their sources on the Canadian and USA agenda, and the problematic developments in the UK, use of anger arousal and polemic may be means of arousing the public to resist health threatening public policy directions being taken by governing authorities….

In any case of murder, there must be a motived:

Investigations into the 2017 disaster, which killed 72 residents of the London tower block, are continuing. Now analysis of accounts and records shows Kingspan, Arconic, Rydon and Saint-Gobain executives have kept banking millions in salaries, bonuses, shares and dividends. The Times found that since the fire, the four construction giants have collectively posted profits of £4.9 billion – and among them is US industrial conglomerate Arconic. It has paid its three different chief executives at least £17million since 2017. The inquiry was told last year that Arconic knew in 2011 that its cladding panels were “not suitable for use on façades” and performed worse in fire tests than declared on safety certificates.

Of course, a nice meal for signing off on a piece of paper is a motive, too.

Finally, let’s turn to the issue of aesthetics. We ask ourselves: Why was this particular style of cladding used for the Grenfell facade? Interestingly, today’s coverage of the aesthetics issue is a little hazy. From the Financial Times:

Grenfell Tower was being refurbished in part to improve its energy performance. Hence behind the cladding, the walls were fitted with insulation boards. These too fuelled the fire.

No mention of aesthetics whatever. The New York Times mentions aesthetics, but glancingly:

Residents have said that the facade was installed to make their housing project more aesthetically pleasing since it stands close to high-end areas in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

“Residents have said,” eh? This may be true, but it’s also just bad reporting. There’s plenty of contemporaneous discussion of aesthetics and the Grenfell Tower cladding. For example:

Of the Grenfell disaster, [philosopher Sir Roger] Scruton told last night’s audience: “If it hadn’t been so ugly to begin with, the whole problem would never have happened.”

By “ugly,” Scrutom means Brutalist, the then popular style adopted by Grenfell’s architects. Popular once more, Brutalism did not appeal to Grenfells neighbors, as planning documents unearthed by the Independent in 2017 showed:

“Due to its height the tower is visible from the adjacent Avondale Conservation Area to the south and the Ladbroke Conservation Area to the east,” a planning document for the regeneration work reads. “The changes to the existing tower will improve its appearance especially when viewed from the surrounding area.”

The document, published in 2014 and providing a full report on the works, makes repeated reference to the “appearance of the area”. That is the justification for the material used on the outside of the building, which has since been claimed to have contributed to the horror.

That statement included a quote from Nick Paget-Brown, the leader of the council, who remarked on how happy he was to see “first-hand how the cladding has lifted the external appearance of the tower”.

(Despite the confusing “Conservation Area” terminology, Avondale and Ladbroke seem to be rather like Homeowner Associations in the United States; correction welcomed from those who understand British real estate.) From architecture critic Edwin Heathcote:

The cladding [was] “a typical response to gentrification” and argued that “prettification” was partly to blame.

Heathcote also noted:

London is one of the most expensive cities in the world and one of the most rapidly gentrifying.

Far be it from me to translate “aesthetics” and “prettification” to “real estate values.” And there is no reporting that I can find that shows how the Avondale Conservation Area or the Ladbroke Conservation Area influenced the creation of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation’s planning document from which the requirements for the construction of the new facade were derived. Nevertheless. But somehow, I doubt that the Grenfell Tower Inquiry will look into these matters. A pity.

* * *

There’s something quite apt about a structure that conceals a brutal reality behind a smooth and shiny but lethal facade, isn’t there? A facade that turns a place of refuge and comfort into a death trap? However, it does not seem to me that the property owners of the Avondale and Ladbroke Conservation Areas are themselves guilty of the social murder that turned out to be a consequence of their aesthetic preferences; the causal chain is too tenuous. We might, however, look at the process that actualized their choices (as the Inquiry is doing), and perhaps at property ownership itself, and the effects of Thatcherism.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

19 comments

  1. Revenant

    A conservation area is a local authority-enforced zone of enhanced planning controls which aim to preserve a particular neighbourhood character (usually but not always historic appearance; sometimes also use). Conservation areas are usually the most desirable areas and residents put up with restrictions on the colours they can paint their houses, the types of materials and designs they can extend them in etc. in the knowledge that nobody can knock down the perfectly good house nextdoor and build two suburban McMansions to overlook them (which is what is happening to us, not in a conservation area!).

    Large parts of historic London, rich and poor, are conservation areas. Chelsea and Westminster but also Hackney and Mile End. Brutalist tower blocks are not, although the more historic ones are occasionally listed. Outer suburban London is not (Thamesmead, Catford etc), whether speculative tract housing or council estates.

    Reply
    1. Revenant

      PS:

      My understanding is Homeowner Associations have real power over a defined set of residences whereas a conservation area is enforced by the local authority. It is more impersonal because it is enforced by local civil servants and councillors elected from a large population for a whole city or county / district.

      A conservation area is created by a local authority but this can be of its own motion or at the demand of a set of residents, who want to protect the character of their area. There is a lengthy multi-year process to create a conservation area. It tends to attract the local activist “meerkats” (always popping out of their burrow to spy on each other and on threats) as the vigilante informants on infractions.

      On balance, conservation areas are a good thing, given the dreadful nature of current UK local planning which has eviscerated the power of local authorities to impose their own objectives on housing developers because the government has set overriding housebuilding targets that local authorities must deliver and, if not, developers can claim planning permission by default. Our local council is not able to stop the “garden grabbing” development next to us – despite the councillors and seemingly the planning officer wishing to – because we are not in a conservation area but it would have been able to if we were. Given the redevelopment of existing suburbs is not going to create affordable housing (imposing restrictions on mortgage credit would do that!), just degraded housing standards and degraded places for all, the NIMBYism is not hurting the under-housed and is saving nice places.

      Reply
      1. PlutoniumKun

        English/Welsh planning regulations have been gradually chipped away since Thatchers day (Scotland and Northern Ireland have a separate system). The paradox Tory politicians have always faced is that their funders hate any local land regulations while their voters love them (when they apply locally). Hence the constant cycle of new Tory ministers declaring with triumph on arriving in their job that the first thing they will do is get rid of red tape in planning, only to find a year later that the Telegraph is up in arms about horrible developments in leafy Home County suburbs.

        So Conservation Area status is one way to square the circle – it allows local authorities to stiffen regulations in the nicer upmarket areas. They work in the same way that localized zoning ordnances in the US are used to protect the property values of better off people. At their best, they preserve the qualities of towns and historic areas. At their worst, they are just a way to keep annoyingly well connected local residents off the back of harassed local government officials.

        The issue of long distance views is I think very vague in English planning law. People don’t want to see tower blocks or wind turbines from their back window, but its hard to argue that its really impacting on you unless… well, you have a designation such as a listed building or a conservation area.

        Of course the amusing thing is what happens when those wealthy homeowners suddenly discover that the conservation status they sought to protect their investment means that they can’t build the car parking area or swimming pool they want. A few years ago there was an epic legal battle between one ex member of Take That and a Led Zeppelin (or was it Rolling Stones? I can’t recall) over what one or other could do to extend their London home. Here in Ireland, with a similar planning system Van Morrison is notorious for engaging in legal battles with his various wealthy and famous neighbours, including Bono if anyone dares do anything to block his views over Killiney Bay.

        Reply
  2. Sausage Factory

    clicking through that twitter thread is horrific. The corruption, incompetence and sheer greed is like something from the 70s. I can see at least 15 people on there who should be going to prison but how many will?

    Reply
  3. Angie Neer

    I have no substantive comment, just thank you, Lambert, for your coverage of this event. Otherwise it would have only registered on my consciousness with “Oh dear, a tragic fire. Well, these things happen.”

    Reply
  4. digi_owl

    5 years already. I find myself struggling more and more to keep up with the passing days, months, years, decades…

    Reply
    1. Petter

      From The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock – T.S. Eliot

      I grow old … I grow old …
      I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

      Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
      I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
      I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

      I do not think that they will sing to me.

      Reply
  5. attila the hun

    Cladding to make the building look less offensive to the residents of the adjoining upscale neighborhood! Reminds me of a trip to Ireland many years ago. Visited a castle which had been owned by British nobility. When they occupied it, they built a tunnel from the edge of the village to the castle, so that their ragged, dirty servants were able to arrive and leave without being seen by the castle owners, whose sensibilities would have been offended by the sight of them. It’s in the DNA. The upper echelon versus the plebes and it’s been going on forever especially in merry old England and the lands they controlled

    Reply
  6. Mark in Mayenne

    FWIW residents complained of wildly fluctuating mains voltage before thé fire. A spike in mains voltage is perhaps what caused the fridge motor to catch fire.

    Wildly fluctuating mains voltage is what you get when a three phase mains system has no return wire, that is, one that was never installed or was broken, combined with varying loads on the three phases, as you would get when people turn electrical appliances on or off.

    Much attention has been focused on the cladding , and the cladding played its part, but the root cause could be a non existant return wire on a three phase installation, and the failure to investigate complaints of wildly fluctuating mains voltages and correct the underlying problem.

    Reply
    1. Rob

      I’m not sure of this, but has the building been inspected by forensics to fully establish cause of fire? The fridge motor was the were the flames began, but did anyone investigate why it caught fire? I like the 3 phase line of enquiry.

      Reply
  7. The Rev Kev

    The banality of evil. Looking at the people in that tweet, it struck me how this was really the profession managerial class at work. And the only way to rectify this problem is to make examples by sending most of these people to long stints in prison as a warning to others. Not that I expect that to happen in a Thatcher-style UK.

    Reply
  8. PlutoniumKun

    On aesthetics: Going back many years it was Tom Wolfe in ‘From Bauhaus to Our House’ who pointed out that modernist minimalism was so successful because it appealed to capitalists that they could gain the social currency of being ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’ while saving money on annoying things like decoration.

    One of the tragedies of our cities is that the multi decade obsession with clean lines and pure surfaces has degraded our visual environment so much without us really noticing. For the first time in history, you can show someone a photograph of a major urban area, and even a well educated person can’t tell whether it is a city in China, the Middle East, Europe or the US. They are all blended into one miasma of glass and metallic surfaces. Even housing interiors worldwide now use the same palette of light coloured rendered interiors and polished stone features. It can be hard to tell the difference in the sales brochure of a new house in Shenzen or Chicago . And when decorative features are added, as the glorious McMansion Hell website shows, it is usually inept, using super cheap decorative stick-ons which will barely last a decade. Actually, this also applies equally to Shenzen or Chicago.

    Real minimalism requires careful choice of materials for color, form and texture, something the original modernist architects realized. But the industry degraded this to standardized features and, as we’ve seen in Grenfell, even using metallized plastics to achieve the ‘look’. As Wolfe pointed out, many early modernist works were ‘fake’ – Mies van der Rohe stuck external metal flanges on his most famous buildings when he was forbidden to expose internal I-beam structural for…. fire safety reasons (they had to be concrete covered).

    There is an interesting literature on the science of aesthetics – why, for example, are chaotic Italian hill towns so pleasing to the eye while chaotic modern settlements are so horrible? Why are the simple lines and forms of 18th Century classical streets so beautiful while the simple lines and forms of modern planned cities are so boring? One explanation is that our brain seeks to find underlying patterns of complexity in simple forms, and the opposite in complex forms. The limitations of using simple materials such as local stone enforced a ‘pattern’ on medieval town builders that gives the superficially chaotic streetscapes a mathematical order that our brain appreciates. Likewise, we can sense the sophisticated underlying pattern in a building or street that follows the classical orders, or the underlying pattern in a baroque church or early Islamic mosque. The Taj Mahal is beautiful because it combines a very simple form with deep underlying complexity. A Gothic cathedral is beautiful because it combines a very complex form with an underlying mathematical simplicity.

    So yes, aesthetics matter, but modern aesthetics have been reduced to a uniform minimalist sheen that degrades our visual culture and allows business to destroy our cities. Even rapacious Victorian capitalists felt the need to give something back – maybe build an art gallery or a public statue or a green space. Now this has to be squeezed out of corporations as some sort of ‘planning gain’.

    Reply
      1. Appleseed

        Alexander’s magnum opus, The Nature of Order, expands upon the Pattern Language work and outlines CA’s notion that “Beauty” can be achieved by activating the principles of “wholeness” he documents. The whole is constructed in a process of unfolding that is more like poetry than architecture; something spreadsheet sociopaths can never appreciate much less emulate.

        Reply
        1. Hayek's Heelbiter

          Never heard the term “spreadsheet sociopaths”. What a succinct and terrifying phrase applicable to almost all aspects of degraded modern life, even uncontacted Amazonian tribes whose forest boundaries are more and more subject to bureaucratic gerrymandering in Brasilia.
          Definitely adding the phrase to my vocabulary.

          Reply
  9. Alicia_Charisse

    A fire often occurs when people’s irresponsibility meets corruption and incompetence! Lack of evacuation plans is a serious violation! Impressed that people with disabilities could not leave the building! People who did everything possible to make it impossible to put out the fire should be responsible for this. There are a lot of programs that help to manage, control these processes and prevent such mistakes “https://fluix.io/safety-management

    Reply

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