Category Archives: hideousness

The part played by the public sector in this tragedy

Before and after the ‘refurbishment’, with its deadly flammable cladding

Grenfell Tower was built, Dalrymple notes,

as public housing in 1974. Like all such towers (4,000 of them in Britain) erected at the time, it was an aesthetic blot on the townscape, irredeemably hideous, and destructive of the possibility of civilised sociability.

One reason, Dalrymple explains, that the block of flats was ‘refurbished’ at a cost of more than $10m shortly before the fire

was to improve its appearance slightly, to make it look less Soviet. There was, of course, only so much that could be done in this direction.

Unfortunately, the cladding used to insulate the building, protect it from rain, and improve its appearance

was highly flammable, and it was attached to the building in such a way that it acted as a kind of chimney once the fire began.

Under construction

The local borough council

owned the building but had devolved its management to a non-profit-making management quasi-company that was, in essence, in the public sector, though it paid its senior staff, in effect local-government civil servants, private-sector-sized salaries.

This effectively public-sector management firm

was responsible for choosing the refurbishment and for guaranteeing and certifying that the work done was safe, though similar such work had previously caused fires in buildings like Grenfell Tower. It hired a private contractor, the successor to a company that had previously gone bankrupt after a large claim had been made against it for defective work.

The quasi-public-sector management company

disregarded the tenants’ repeatedly voiced concerns about the lack of proper fire precautions in the building.

An aesthetic blot on the townscape

Dalrymple’s experience of public-sector housing authorities, when he was a doctor with many patients who lived in public housing, was that

they were stone deaf to all justified tenant complaints, unless someone like me made firm representations on the tenants’ behalf.

These authorities, he relates,

were unutterably heartless and dishonest, as well as incompetent. They had to be protected from their clients by bulletproof glass.

Yet

the horrible fire, which is among the most terrifying anyone has witnessed, is being used to demand more public expenditure, raised and administered by the same kind of people who brought such joy to the residents of Grenfell Tower.

The design alone was always destructive of the possibility of civilised sociability

Before and after ‘refurbishment’, aimed at making the building less Soviet

Irredeemably hideous

Under construction

Greetings from Rotherham

Dalrymple spends some time in Rotherham,

a once-industrial town where the interior of the magnificent 15th-century Minster has been improved by the addition of a plywood-partitioned kitchenette to supply old ladies with tea.

He enters

a library in municipal buildings of almost comic hideousness. If I had more money than I have, I would institute an international prize to award to an architect who could design something uglier. I am sure that it would be a prize much competed for by members of the Royal Institute of British Architects, who would win it most years.

The library is

patronised largely by Kurdish refugees, many of whom seem to spend their day looking at the nearest to pornography that the municipal computers permit.

Rotherham public library

Rotherham bus station

Rotherham Minster interior (kitchenette available)

All Saints Church (Rotherham Minster)

Against this I raise my sword-spraycan

Heygate Estate, Walworth. Tim Tinker, 1974

Heygate Estate, Walworth, London. Tim Tinker, 1974

Enemies of Corbusian profanation do not hesitate to act

Whole acres, writes Dalrymple, of man-made surfaces are disfigured in Europe by graffiti,

in which some people, ever on the lookout for something counter-intuitive to say, claim to have found art. This is the tribute money pays to poverty without having to part with anything.

The need to assert (rather than express) oneself in some way, no matter how pointless, becomes imperative in a society in which

  • we are all called upon to be unique individuals
  • celebrity has an exaggerated importance in the mental economy of so many
  • employment is often precarious and is felt to be without dignity
  • powerlessness is obvious (powerlessness in a democracy is more humiliating than powerlessness in a tyranny)
Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London. Denys Lasdun, 1967–76

Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London. Denys Lasdun, 1967–76

Taggers tend to deface

ugly surfaces, often of inhuman size, in which modern urban spaces are so richly, or impoverishingly, supplied. It is true that tagging never improves those surfaces, but they are often in themselves of degrading hideousness.

The epidemiology of graffiti

suggests a subliminal aesthetic criticism. It is a commentary on the kind of building and concrete surface that the fascist modernist architect, Le Corbusier, extolled and desired, with the enthusiasm of a revivalist evangelical, to spread throughout the whole world. In a sense, taggers in England and France are endowed with taste.

Having said that, in Italy or Portugal,

18th-century buildings are not exempted from the attentions of bruised and inflamed young egos.