One of the most important and yet overlooked elements of the technology of our civilisation is the city. The roads, the bridges, the buildings the utilities – all of the mechanisms that allow humans to live in very close proximity at great scale, for mutual benefit. Cities developed not merely because people wanted to live close to each other for social reasons, which has always been the case (though not always in such numbers), but because humans needed to be close to economic resources. The design and architecture of our cities has been an immensely political function, allowing the planners to organise our societies according to their preferences and judgement.
The most famous case of a battle over politicised architecture, perhaps, dates back to the nineteen-sixties, and the deeply compelling contest between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Moses, the brutalist, masculine engineer, versus Jacobs, the ecologist, feminist social activist. Countless books have documented their struggles, between Moses’ urge to dominate the environment, and Jacobs’ instinct for integration and collaboration. To get a sense of the power of political city planning, Langdon Winner recalls the early story of Moses’ Long Island Parkway, with its low overpasses. Those overpasses were deliberately lowered in order to prevent busses from travelling those roads, and minimising the chances of poorer, less economically well off people actually travelling to Long Island. Bridges, then, with a politics unto themselves, bestowed upon them by the prejudice of Robert Moses.
The story of the Grenfell Tower tragedy is replete with references to politics – austerity, deprivation, and inequality all feature in attempts to explain and understand. Today, at Prime Minister’s Questions, Theresa May pointed out that the Blair government introduced the cladding, and the fire regulations, in a vain attempt to deflect some of the blame being hurled at the current British government. Yet no doubt one could go back and argue that the tower itself was last renovated under John Major, and built under Edward Heath’s government. Still further one could go back to the aftermath of the second world war, and the decisions taken about housing and accommodation strategies, and find in those stories the roots of the tragedy of June 2017.
Buildings are never just concrete and steel. They are statements of human purpose, deliberately marked parameters that define our social relativities. They empower and they imprison, they facilitate expression, and they silence us. Their locations and supporting infrastructure define what we might become, and their potential for clustering of orders of people – classes, perhaps – has a deterministic quality. So when a building burns down, and people die, it is not merely a tragedy, though it is most certainly that; it is a reflection of the political orthodoxy, of social norms broadly accepted in Britain. Grenfell Tower was part of a sweeping housing strategy formulated in the post-War reconstituted Britain, thoughtful, yes, but excessively paternalistic. As Jane Jacobs put it, ‘[t]he trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes, and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so.’ (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Vintage 1992, p.271) City structures were always primarily a people problem, but rarely recognised as that. Instead, city structures have been seen in terms of numbers and engineering, volumes and targets. As we search for solutions to this tragedy, one hopes that a human-centric solution can be found – but perhaps that’s too revolutionary an idea.