To avoid future tragedies we need a true understanding of the causes of this one
Should I write a column about Grenfell? Should I write about a need to review our regulatory landscape, the implications of prevailing procurement routes, or architects’ duty of care to a diversity of stakeholders? Is it ok to co-opt it to make a point or serve some agenda I may have? Should I stay silent? Or would it be negligent of me not to speak out against the injustices that are arguably complicit in this tragedy?
It was striking how adeptly and quickly journalists, politicians, campaigners, and Facebook users presented the tragedy as evidence in support of an extraordinarily diverse set of agendas. ‘Green targets’ were being blamed by some while others seemed to miss the insulative properties of the cladding altogether, claiming it was only there to protect sensitive posh eyes from aesthetics associated with social housing. It somehow managed to work as an illustration for any persuasion.
This always happens of course, but for me, and I’d imagine others in our profession, it was especially chilling because this is a topic we know something about. We all write specifications and risk assessments, work to meet multifarious requirements, to balance the needs and desires of diverse groups of stakeholders, to nurture a design such that it can survive out there on its own among greedy beleaguered contractors.
We are all acutely aware of how conceivable it is for something to go wrong in this complex landscape. This is our world and we know that it bears no resemblance to the sensationalist reductive headlines.
Co-opting a tragedy for personal agendas is shocking but unsurprising in this climate. This phenomenon of fake victims demonstrates an extraordinary but telling level of callousness. It feels like tremendously bad taste to capitalise on others’ misfortune, even if it is for a good cause.
We are all acutely aware of how conceivable it is for something to go wrong in this complex landscape
The media has shown us how easy it is to spin the story to support any agenda and this decouples the call to arms from the cause. The chaotic media coverage of Grenfell is arguably following the now familiar pattern of stirring up a hysteria as a preface to clumsily or covertly exacerbating the root cause with superficial fixes.
Naomi Klein describes this pattern of ‘shock tactics’ with terrifying clarity: ‘Wait for a crisis, declare a moment of what is sometimes called “extraordinary politics”, suspend some or all democratic norms – and then ram the corporate wishlist through as quickly as possible.’
Phin Harper last year wrote similarly of the ‘housing crisis’, arguing that that term itself was counterproductive: ‘From “economic crisis” to “refugee crisis”, the narrative of perpetual catastrophe is being deployed to divert attention from root causes, allowing flawed retrogressive proposals to be pushed upon a panicked public.’
I could see this happening here if we’re not careful. On the day after the fire I was invited to sign numerous petitions, all well-meaning, but indicative of a more insidious issue. Our society can be impressively reactive. I could see it becoming very difficult to improve the thermal performance of existing buildings or reuse existing buildings at all.
I could see additional layers of consultants deployed in the name of oversight making communication more convoluted. I could see premiums being charged in the name of health and safety but actually paying for those best at shirking responsibility to better legally protect themselves. I can see larger proportions of budgets being diverted away from materials or labour and into ineffectual bureaucracy and risk aversion.
Something that especially frightens me is the potential for regulations to become longer, more complicated, and more difficult to understand and implement. In recent years, road safety researchers have been promoting a reduction in the amount of signage and clutter bombarding drivers.
The studies show that excessive or misplaced safety measures have two negative effects: to give the illusion of safety (crudely, if it’s green it’s definitely safe to go); and overwhelming the drivers with excessive information, drawing attention away from the other road users that these regulations are there to protect. This is not about anarchic deregulation, it’s about smarter, clearer, effectual regulation.
Arguably the largest disservice we can do to those who lost their lives, homes, and loved ones is to fail to learn from this disaster. We can’t not make changes to prevent future tragedies, but surely these changes need to come from an understanding of the causes of the tragedy and not volatile being-seen-to-be-doing-something measures or, most terrifying, counterproductive, pro-corporate, undemocratic measures that favour a few, while setting up the rest for the next crisis.
Maria Smith is director of architecture and engineering at Interrobang