Why the Best Response to the Grenfell Tower Fire Isn’t a Memorial
Memorials play an integral role in marking significant people, moments, or events. In recent years, they have become glorifications of tragedy by attempting to express unimaginable horrors in poetic and beautiful ways. The issue with the many forms that memorials take is that they seek to placate the immediate reaction and hurt of an event, an understandable societal reaction, but one that often feels rote and hallow.
But what if memorials sought to preserve the memory of those affected by offering a solution that addressed how the tragedy occurred? The international response to tragedy has, by default, become to install a statue, build a wall, create a healing water feature, erect an aspirational sculptural object, or simply rename a park. None of these responses are inherently bad—they’re usually well-meaning and on occasion quite moving—but there is another approach available to us: changing the public perception of memorials by looking at them through the lens of solutions, encouraging people to think of them as a testament or proper response to tragedy, not just a plaque that over time goes unnoticed. While this approach might be difficult in some instances, the case of Grenfell Tower fire in London presents a rather obvious solution.
The question that lingered wasn’t why this happened, but, rather, how did we let this happen. The victims of the fire died because of gross and systemic negligence.
At Grenfell, the tragedy was completely preventable, and many people recognized this in the immediate aftermath. The question that lingered wasn’t why this happened, but, rather, how did we let this happen. The victims of the fire died because of gross and systemic negligence. Social housing isn’t given the same quality of construction as other projects because of budget restrictions and excessive value engineering. Recently, social and affordable housing have been pushed to the forefront of architectural and urban discourse. Some high profile designers are starting to take the issue seriously. But we’re still surrounded by aging buildings that are doomed to fail due to decades of neglect. To find a past example of social housing that works is a rarity, and the social housing situation around the world is in deep crisis. Rather than investing money and time into a memorial, those resources can be put towards studying and prototyping social housing that isn’t built at the expense of its occupants.
It seems that the reason flammable materials were used in Grenfell wasn’t because there was a lack of options available. It was, perhaps worse still, an oversight in material specifications. The insulation installed during the reconstruction was deemed acceptable for a building of Grenfell’s height by the Local Authority Building Control, but was to be used strictly with non-combustible cladding, such as fiber cement panels. Unfortunately, polyethylene filled panels were used instead, making the exterior of the tower layering of combustible cladding panels and synthetic insulation. The materials specified by the manufacturer were used in combinations that had never before been tested. The gross negligence of a whole chain of people, who should have been aware of the material specifications, allowed this to go unnoticed until it was too late.
In Newtown, Connecticut, following the Sandy Hook shooting, legislative decisions on gun control were made at the state level, a new school was built for the community balancing safety and impactful design, and more recently, a memorial commission began accepting submissions for the town’s future memorial. The order of actions they took proves that they had the foresight to address the big problems that led to their tragedy, and only after they had worked towards creating a safer place for their residents and students, did they approach the topic of a memorial. Newtown has become an example people call upon when they reference the plague of mass shootings in America, everyone knows them for their tragedy. But they’ve taken some of the first steps towards revolutionizing how societies, at the local level, can respond to disaster in a way that sparks change and moves the world in a positive direction.
When the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site began, the construction of the Freedom Tower took into account some of the factors that made its predecessor so vulnerable. The new building seems to be another glass tower but the structure and the glass were carefully selected with sensitivity to the site—they rebuilt it stronger than it was before. By addressing part of the issues from the attack, to the extent that they could, and building a beautiful memorial at the base, they created a cooperative response between remembrance and solution.
What perpetuates the problem with Grenfell is the stigma much of the world has against social housing. Thinking that people who utilize the services they are lawfully entitled to are lesser people leads to the design and construction of buildings that are lesser. Even for some architects, engineers and policy people, it remains a highly charged issue. Patrik Schumacher, of Zaha Hadid Architects, a sort of reckless provocateur, has actually called for the abolishment of social and affordable housing. In his “social housing manifesto,” he argues that social housing tenants have no right to precious city-center sites. Schumacher also attacks council tenants, civil servants, public parks, national infrastructure—virtually all of the communal things that shape the urban conditions of our built environment.
In the same way Sandy Hook showed the world that they would not be remembered only for their tragedy, Grenfell has the opportunity to do the same for a different tragedy. The various designers that have been tasked with generating ideas for the site—Adjaye Associates, Cullinan Studio, Levitt Bernstein, Maccreanor Lavington, and others—have the power to use their response to Grenfell as an answer to questions surrounding the larger issue of social housing.
As part of a society where tragedy unfolds around us in a constant series of news cycles, we cannot succumb by simply building memorials and carrying on with our own lives. We must build better societies. Safe buildings—for students and residents, for people—aren’t optional.
Featured image of Grenfell Tower, via Matt Brown on Flickr.