Judging from the mainstream media reports in the UK, the area around the location of a massive fire which gutted Grenfell Tower, a large apartment tower in west London, is something of a war zone, a place where anger and bitterness is ready to burst open into displays of violence.
As it is with so much else to do with the msm, this was not the case.
The area was not only calm but in some ways was eerily silent. On every wall and lamppost were signs with photos of missing people, most sadly presumed dead.
Makeshift memorials dotted the streets, particularly outside of churches. Many people set up areas to give away free food and water to anyone passing by and also to police officers and journalists, many of whom were clearly overwhelmed by the scene.
Many locals in similar towers near by looked out of their window with a combination of visible anger and frustration. One local told me privately that their shattered community had become a ‘tourist attraction’. Others had large signs draped across the parapets asking for justice for their community, such people want the right kind of attention to be focused on their area.
While many businesses were converted into makeshift donation points, others continued to operate on a normal basis, something which is surreal and at the same time lends a sense of normalcy to a community upon which the shadow of a burnt out tower now reigns supreme. The smiling faces at local pubs and coffee houses show that within a small area, a wide range of human emotions and activities were commencing simultaneously.
Far from being chaotic as many have implied, if anything, people were more polite and calmer than usual on a long boiling summer’s day in a concrete clad part of a major city. However, behind the veneer of ordinary ‘hellos and goodbyes’ was the unavoidable, that a modern urban disaster that was almost certainly made worse by the hand of irresponsible individuals, was looming large. Everyone stopped to lock up at the burnt tower as they walked pass, as though there was a giant magnet inside the charred remains of the building in which many dead bodies still sit, waiting for their final resting place.
In one area, left-wing political activists set up a small sound system through which they allowed others to address the crowds who by that time had gathered.
Every speaker approached things from a similar perspective, that of anger at the poor standards of safety, anger at a UK government that acts with an arrogant indifference to their plight and most spoke openly and enthusiastically about their support for Jeremy Corbyn, Britain’s surging opposition leader.
The anger however was a political anger. I speak as someone who came expecting rage, instead I found people organised and united against what they see as common foes: big yet irresponsible government and likewise, big yet irresponsible business.
It is a worrying thought though that the longer government neglects to listen to the angry voices, the more likely the angry voices will turn into angry people on the brink of something physical.
Is the government so foolish as to not realise this? Or do they simply not care?
While some have said that it is wrong to politicise the incident, for the people who gathered, those who lived near by and in similar accommodations from other parts of the city, it was a deeply political issue and for obvious reasons. The property was built by the state and managed by a private company at the behest of the local government, numerous complaints about fire safety from locals were ignored at all levels of government. It is simply impossible to say that there was no political angle.
However, what becomes starkly clear is that even if political heads electorally roll and I have no doubt that they will, even if a new culture of real safety comes into play and I certainly hope that it does, the failures that led to the disaster at Grenfell Tower in London are part of a political and indeed philosophical culture that has widely failed the people it was supposed to help.
Throughout much of the world, across many continents, the horrors of the Second World War led many people to re-consider the role of society in a future that many hoped would be better than a recent passed which produced the horrors of the War. The most deadly event in history led many to think that it was time to change the thinking that is connected to the violent hand of man.
This led to among other things, the idea that old communities were outdated and some certainly were. The slums which blighted post-war societies, including those like the United States which did not face any bombardment on the mainland, were simply awful. Everything from the lack of electricity, to no proper windows and doors and no in-door plumbing blighted major cities in the age of electricity, the jet engine and television.
One of the most common solutions to slum clearance was the construction of large tower blocs where ‘streets in the sky’ would offer the most downtrodden in society, a glimpse at a future that they might have otherwise been left out of. Such schemes were at the time embraced by both left and right wing politicians.
At first many residents loved their new apartments in the sky. New construction, indoor plumbing, modern kitchens, normal bedrooms, electricity and a futuristic ethos that was miles away from the view-less slums.
But then reality set in from all directions.
At a practical level, in countries like the UK and US in particular, the new modern buildings that required a great deal of attention and maintenance were neglected due to either a real or purported lack of funds.
Architects that wanted to provide spaces for leisure, sport and relaxation were often horrified to see their originally plans slashed by bureaucrats which rendered a sterling vision of the future into one which was partly blinded. Furthermore, many corners were often cut in terms of sound construction techniques which led to many early structural failures.
Then there was the human side. For years, the debate over modern tower blocs used to house the poor revolved around two polar perspectives. One side focuses exclusively on the lack of adequate public funds and efforts to maintain the structures and their accompanying facilities.
The other side blames the nature of poor individuals in urban settings for being incapable of such living, often pointing out that in many cities wealthy people also live in tower blocs of a not entirely dissimilar nature and do so with relatively few problems.
There is however a difference. Men and women were not meant to live in cities in the sky. They are often architectural marvels and occasionally eye-sores, but this is not a manner in which people were accustomed to living throughout human history.
The vast majority of the world’s population will never pilot a plane, take a journey in a submarine or attempt to go into space. These are aberrational vocations that take a particular kind of individual to embark on. One must consciously decide that one wants to go where others have not gone and in unique ways at that.
Those who elect to buy expensive apartments in skyscrapers do so consciously. They have made a decision to invest a great deal of money in order to live in a certain way.
By contrast, the poor who were housed in the kinds of towers like the one which was gutted by flame in London, did not have a choice. Of course they were at first grateful for the opportunity, but sooner or later human nature set in and an involuntary experiment to put humans in ‘streets in the sky’ failed for many.
The classic case study of where modernist tower living went wrong is Pruitt–Igoe, a housing complex made up of several towers in the American city of St. Louis.
The estate was meant to give slum-dwellers of St. Louis a glimpse into the future. Instead, Pruitt–Igoe became the victim of poor building, worse maintenance, lack of opportunity and an environment that due to human factors deteriorated rapidly from a futuristic dream to a crime ridden slum from which one couldn’t even escape by easily taking a walk down the street.
After opening in 1956, the entire area was demolished by 1976. Twenty years is a very short lifespan for any building, let alone such ambitious ones.
The demolition of Pruitt–Igoe was immortalised in the 1983 film Koyaanisqatsi which was a visual and musical meditation on everything wrong with the modern west.
The fire at London’s Grenfell Tower is the clearest indication yet that the 21st century is no better suited to the 1950s attempt to create a future than was the 20th century. Interestingly, the Grenfell Tower in London opened up just two years prior to the final demolition of Pruitt–Igoe.
It is a peculiar fact of life that even the worst politicians are far easier to remove than the worst buildings. I have no doubt that the credibility of the politicians presiding over the prelude and aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire will soon be voted out of office.
What is less clear is what the new leaders will do about the hundreds of buildings like Grenfell?
The immediate solution is to make all such structures safe for living in. The longer term solution will be to phase out such buildings by offering re-location opportunities to more traditional properties either as houses or low-rise apartments.
The amount of post-industrial commercial space that is rotting in many big cities is the perfect opportunity to build such places and most of the owners would happily part with their properties for a reasonable price which contrary to what many say, government can afford.
While the calm but unmistakable anger and sorrow on the streets of London was due to the fact that many people felt their governments have failed them. In the long term, many may take the view that modernism failed them.
Like all forms of idealism, the ‘perfect modern home’ eventually goes up in flames one way or another. One can only hope that such a realisation takes hold in the wider public conscientiousness before another actual major fire occurs.