I live in Aberdeen, a long way from Grenfell Tower. But experience makes me feel close.
My father was a town planner. The MARS (modern architectural research) group, a think tank, impressed him. Its 1937 plan for London said:
By draining London of its parasitic elements by means of arterial roads, the historic centre could be given freedom to breathe. Parks could be created in the built-up areas, whence the population had migrated either to the suburbs or to the towers in the central area.
When I was a medical student before Grenfell was built I delivered a baby in a high flat in a Lambeth tower block. The biggest issue was what to do with the placenta. There were no rose beds for it to fertilise. Like a fish supper, it went back to St Thomas’s wrapped in newspaper.
For three years my wife and I lived on the tenth floor of a high-rise in Cumbernauld. The views were brilliant. It swayed a bit in the wind but had the “Ronan Point” strengthening.
Ronan Point was a new 22-floor tower block in London. On 16th May 1968 Ivy Hodge got up early in her 18th floor flat and struck a match to light her gas cooker. There was an explosion. It blew out the walls of her living room and bedroom. The walls were load bearing and the corner walls of the flats above collapsed and fell, their falling weight taking out the corners of the flats below, killing four residents. A public inquiry was set up immediately. It issued its first recommendations on August 6 and published its full report on October 14 1968. No tower blocks have collapsed since. But Ronan Point signalled the beginning of the end for new tower block construction.
That was not the only reason. Some of the driving forces had gone, like David Gibson, convener of Glasgow ‘s housing committee, who had a fatal heart attack in 1964, and T Dan Smith of Newcastle, jailed for corruption in 1974; and subsidy policies were changing. The utopian dreams of Gemeinschaft (community) induced by architects and engendered by bodies like the MARS group had faded, despite the architectural critic Wolf von Eckart writing in Harpers Magazine in 1965:
Leonardo da Vinci, nearly five hundred years ago, envisioned a city where all the vehicles move underground, leaving man to move freely in the sun. Leonardo might also have sketched Cumbernauld’s town center, a soaring citadel surrounded by meadow
Nikolaus Pevsner in his Reith Lectures later published as The Englishness of English Art, said that the seventeenth century Scottish castle, and its sheer height as a block of building, quite absent in England, “may well have predisposed the Scots towards their towering blocks of flats”. But Gibson’s Red Road flats owed much more to constituents chapping his door about their damp decrepit decaying sandstone tenements, his wish to keep Glaswegians in Glasgow, and a desire to help local industry by building big towers with steel frames.
Plukes and blowdowns
West central belt attitudes to modern architecture are equivocal. In his “Personal View of Modern Architecture” the critic Reyner Banham identified Charles Rennie Mackintosh as a founder of modernity, and captions a full page photograph of the Glasgow School of Art Library: “His best work was all in and around the city of Glasgow, where the citizens have permitted a few small examples to remain. Understandably, he died in exile in England”. At the September 1993 “Blowdown” of Sir Basil Spence’s Queen Elizabeth Square blocks in Hutchestown-Gorbals, debris killed one onlooker and injured four. And Cumbernauld’s “soaring citadel” won Pluke on the Plinth titles in 2001 and 2005.
Aberdeen (‘where architecture goes to die’) was the last recipient of the title, in 2015. But our response was that of Scotland’s Earls Marischal: “They have said! What say they? Let them say.”
Public housing in Aberdeen has always been distinctive. The influence of Karl Ehn’s 1930 Karl Marx Hof in Vienna is very apparent in the Rosemount Square municipal flats designed in 1938. A four-by-four is not a Chelsea tractor but a granite block with two flats upstairs and two downstairs. We have never resorted to “blowdowns.” Our tower block management has been effective and our letting policies have been strict. We went on using local designers and builders to construct new towers until the mid 1980s.
Public inquiry and interest
I chaired the first public inquiry set up under the 2005 Inquiries Act, which sets the rules for Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s Grenfell Tower Inquiry. His task is far more difficult than mine. I dealt with a well-understood hazard, E.coli O157. As a bacteriologist I had the full support of the affected children’s parents. The villain of the piece, a butcher, had been sent to prison before the public hearings started.
Sir Martin can do nothing about his skin colour, his education at a grammar school in Tunbridge Wells, or his received accent, and it is reasonable to assume that he knows nothing much more about fires than the person on the Clapham omnibus. But he will appoint expert assessors, and is himself is an expert on contracts and the interpretation of regulations. I expect that his report will join Fennell’s (Kings Cross Underground Fire, 31 dead, identification of one body took 16 years) and Lord Cullen’s (Piper Alpha, 167 dead, most killed by toxic smoke) as grim and compelling reading, describing events leading up to the catastrophe, why and what happened, its immediate aftermath, and recommendations to prevent a repetition.
Image by Natalie Oxford CC BY 4.0