The fire at the Grenfell Tower housing estate in West London last week has left, at present writing, 79 people missing and presumed dead. The business of figuring out the how and why of the disaster is already underway, and a few probable culprits have been identified, chief among them the callous neglect of officials both local and national. More (and probably worse) will come to light as the formal investigation gets underway. For now, it may be worth taking an additional step back to consider how massive social-housing projects like Grenfell came to be in the first place—and how they’re being built differently today.
The story of high-rise social housing after World War II is littered with travesties, and Grenfell, an uninspired vertical bunker built in 1974, is yet one more instance in a wearisome pattern. At several postwar public housing projects in New York City, new tenants in the 1940s and 1950s were shocked to find their apartments lacked basic fixtures like closet doors and toilet seats. In Manchester in the U.K., the infamous early-’70s Hulme Crescents were declared unfit for habitation just two years after their construction. They subsequently became the favored flophouse of local bands like Joy Division. Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis; Cabrini Green in Chicago; Robin Hood Gardens in London— Grenfell was hardly the worst (its architect has lately claimed it could have stood “another hundred years”), but the litany of persistent problems it faced over the years is far from atypical. Many of these buildings were simply bad to begin with, though the reasons why are complex and in no ways exculpatory of Grenfell’s hapless political stewards.
To varying degrees, social-housing blocks like Grenfell are the godchildren of Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who from as early as the 1920s championed a vision of gleaming towers set in rolling park landscapes. In publicly advocating for his urban ideas, Le Corbusier warned of “architecture or revolution”—only large-scale housing of his type, he claimed, could keep the fed-up masses from rising en masse to protest their squalid living conditions. It was a fine sales pitch, but it also reflected an emerging reality: By the end of World War II, the United States estimated that some 5 million new homes would be needed to house returning veterans. In the country’s biggest cities, severe overcrowding had given rise to the all-to-common “hot bed,” in which shift workers shared a single room at different hours. The situation was scarcely better in Britain, France, or elsewhere in the West, and the simple construction, mass-produced materials, and apparent technological sophistication of Le Corbusier’s model seemed the best and only way for governments to avert total social breakdown.
The exigencies of the time meant that the buildings went up faster than their performance could be assessed—or than improvements to their design could be implemented. The latter was especially unfortunate. In New York, famed planner Robert Moses had always understood that the city’s lofty brick housing projects came with an expiration date: They had been constructed with planned obsolescence in mind, in the full expectation that they would be replaced after a couple decades, presumably by buildings reflecting the lessons of the projects that preceded them. In an era of bold social experiments, postwar public housing both in America and abroad was the boldest of them all, an attempt to forestall a massive housing crunch while simultaneously sending up a trial balloon for a new urban future.
The gamble, as we know, did not pay off. The perception that social-housing projects were a waste of money led, in time, to a political backlash, one that foreclosed the possibility of replacing the buildings in meaningful numbers. In America, the reaction took the form of the Nixon moratorium, which halted all federal expenditure for new public housing; in the U.K., it took the form of the Thatcherite wave, which not only blocked any new construction but sold off many housing estates—pricing out their intended tenants—while systematically starving other estates of necessary funds. At the end of this long, tortuous road stand the smoldering remains of the tower in North Kensington.
At Grenfell, neither the political will nor the funds were in place to avoid the catastrophe of June 14. The reams of ignored maintenance complaints from tenants, as well as a subpar 2012 renovation which added composite cladding panels that may actually have hastened the spread of the fire, are a testament to the pervasive governmental contempt for social housing that’s been the norm since the 1980s.
But should that be the end? While Grenfell seems to fit neatly into the Thatcherian legend of housing estates as places of decline and death, even now the fire is becoming a rallying cry for renewed investment in housing. And advocates should take heart: Designers and builders really have learned the lessons of the first generation of social housing, and more Grenfells are no longer on the menu. Decades of studies and statistical analysis of older developments, combined with new technology and materials, have given rise to a new generation of low-income housing with a focus on ecological sustainability and social and physical resiliency.
In place of Le Corbusier’s towers-in-a-park, social housing is now small-scale and fully integrated into the urban environment, and it’s built to last in ways the projects of yesteryear never were. One could point to the new Via Verde apartments in the Bronx, a paragon of eco-friendly design, replete with rooftop vegetable gardens, or to San Diego’s Cedar Gateway Apartments, built with funds from the Obama administration’s stimulus bill, combining low-cost housing with onsite services for people coping with mental illness, or to a host of new affordable developments in Paris, a city that has lately pledged to build thousands of units in the years to come, not on the periphery but around (and even atop) buildings in the historic center. Largely out of the public eye, housing for the urban poor has been coming along quite nicely, thank you, and it is not repeating the mistakes of the past.
What’s needed is more of it. The tragedy of Grenfell would only be compounded if the image of the charred building served to reinforce the notion that public housing necessarily means creaky, leaky, dangerous old hulks of cracked concrete. Blame for the incident should be apportioned appropriately, falling especially on the bureaucrats for their dereliction of duty, but not sparing the designers whose missteps had dogged the building for so long. For that generation of planners we should reserve an unsparingly critical, yet sympathetic judgment, recognizing where social housing went wrong and pledging to do better in future for those who need it most.