Simon Jenkins: Broader lessons from the Grenfell Tower Fire

Simon Jenkins, a dean of London’s urban critics and journalists (and former Editor for The Times) writes in The Guardian that the Grenfell disaster reveals more than issues of fire protection.  He argues that the very idea of residential towers is fundamentally flawed and anti-urban.

“Towers are again raising their heads across the urban landscape, creatures of egotistical architects, greedy developers and priapic mayors.. They do not converse with their context, they thumb their noses at it.

“They are antisocial, high-maintenance, disempowering, unnecessary, mostly ugly, and they can never be truly safe. No tower is fireproof. No fire engine can reach up 20 storeys, period…

“The housing expert Anne Power spoke of the craving of architects and planners at the time for “something distinctive and prestigious”. Architects even invented a vocabulary to justify what was in effect a sales pitch. They would build “vertical streets … villages in the sky … new cities for a new age”. Social consequences were damned….  

“The most “crowded” parts of London are not around towers but in eight-storey Victorian terraces. The boulevards of central Paris have treble London’s residential density without towers. Westminster council’s aborted Paddington Pole, at some 60 storeys, had fewer housing units than the high-density street housing suggested by its opponents. The tall blocks wanted by Boris Johnson for Clerkenwell’s Mount Pleasant estate are at a lower density than the low-rise town houses proposed by the consultants Create Streets…”

“Today’s surge in tower building – some 400 are in the pipeline of London’s uncontrolled property market – is driven by a quite different demand. It is from high-income migratory couples and foreign buy-to-leave investors. These people do not want a neighbourhood. Their social life is dispersed. They want a locked gate, a concierge and a pied-à-terre with a view. They want a gated community in the sky. When I moved from a tower flat to a street flat, I encountered a completely different city, exchanging what amounted to a self-catering hotel for a community of neighbours.

“Lessons will need to be “learned” from the Grenfell disaster. But I hope they extend beyond just more sprinklers and safer cladding. They should plead for the sensitive planning of a modern, sociable city. This has nothing to do with the nature of property tenure, with wealth or poverty, or with population density. Streets can be just as densely packed as towers. By whom they are occupied is a matter for housing policy. What matters in the long term is how flexible the buildings are, how they interact with each other and their surroundings. No one asked such questions of Grenfell.

“North Kensington used to be a tough area, and has long been under pressure from inward migration. That it has responded so well is, I believe, because of its topography, its intimate streets and squares and its relatively subtle rich/poor mix. Towers are here wholly out of place and character. Their plutocratic reincarnation, backed by developer-led mayors Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, signals only a crumbling, atomised urban society.

“Such atomisation delivers ugly, inappropriate buildings under distant, careless custodians. That is the true message of the Grenfell tragedy.”

Full article:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/15/lessons-grenfell-tower-safer-cladding-tower-blocks