Env03
Tower block failures: high-rise anthropology

Convenors:
Constance Smith (University of Manchester)
Saffron Woodcraft (UCL)
Discussant:
Gillian Evans (University of Manchester)
Stream:
Environment
Location:
Examination Schools Room 15
Start time:
20 September, 2018 at 9:00
Session slots:
2

Short abstract:

Whether as political category, site of collapse or shattered home, tower block failure exposes precarity but can also act as a catalyst for urban transformation. How are urban success and failure imagined and materialised in relation to the tower block? What would a high-rise anthropology look like?

Long abstract:

This panel will explore how notions of urban success and failure are imagined and materialised in relation to the architecture of the tower block. In the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster in London and recent devastating tower block collapses in cities such as Nairobi, Mumbai, and Rio de Janeiro, failed buildings have exposed the injustices of austerity politics, the volatility of construction materials, and disregard for regulations and planning. These catastrophic failures have also reanimated debates about 'proper' forms of urban living, the political economy of the city and the widening inequalities and insecurities that seem to characterise contemporary urban life. Yet, tower blocks have also been symbols of modernity, status and aspiration. From UK post-war promises of an inclusive future in the 'cities in the sky' to the edifice complex of skyscraper cities such as New York and Hong Kong, the tower block has been a place of dreams as well as nightmares. Even when they fail, tower blocks continue to shape the sociality, politics and materiality of our cities in important ways, influencing the design of future communities, economies of investment and development, and forms of political activism. Whether as contested symbol, site of collapse or shattered home, tower block failure exposes the precarity of urban life whilst also acting as a catalyst for its transformation. We invite papers that ethnographically explore this shifting terrain. What would a high-rise anthropology look like? How might it illuminate the sociality, matter and imagination of the city at large?