Accepted Paper:

Pin-pointing failure: the tower block as 'social void' in London  

Author:

Saffron Woodcraft (UCL)

Paper short abstract:

The Grenfell Tower fire and estate demolitions in London have refocused attention on the question of tower block form and failure. This paper argues a pre-occupation with failed architecture obscures a deeper concern with proper ways to live and the 'social void' where 'urban community' should be.

Paper long abstract:

The devastating fire in Grenfell Tower in west London that killed 71 people gave new momentum to a long-running debate about the perceived failure of Britain's post-war high-rise housing estates. A persistent dystopian imaginary circulates around the post-war tower block, which implicates its architectural form in community breakdown, social alienation, crime, violence, and anti-social behaviour. A renaissance in high-rise living in British cities since the 1990s (Baxter, Lees, and Raco 2009) has done little to diminish the dominant discourse of architectural determinism; a tension that discloses the non-obvious meanings invested in tower block 'failure' as a political and cultural imaginary.

This paper will explore how a pre-occupation with failed architecture obscures a deeper concern with proper ways to live together in a dynamic and unstable modern world. Tower block 'failure' is better understood as a moral absence - a 'social void' where community' should be in the form of proper social relations to provide stability and meaning to urban life.

Based on fieldwork with planners and architects, the paper will examine how this concern shapes the terms on which success and failure are imagined in relation to urban development in London and intersects in myriad ways with the futures imagined for the new Legacy neighbourhoods in the Olympic Park.

Panel Env03
Tower block failures: high-rise anthropology