Decades on from the Canning Town disaster, and almost a year after Grenfell, the divide between luxury skyscrapers and affordable blocks is wider than ever. How did we get here?by Nick Hilton / May 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
Compared to the immolated husk of Grenfell Tower that looms over West London, a reminder, to both ends of the socio-economic spectrum, of the horror that occurred within, the damage to Ronan Point appeared relatively minor.
50 years ago in May 1968, a small gas explosion in the kitchen on the eighteenth floor of a Canning Town tower block set off a ripple of destruction, which tore down the corner of the building, taking four lives. An inquiry into the disaster concluded that the fireball—created by a leaky brass nut—“was not of exceptional violence,” but that it blew through a load-bearing wall, precipitating the collapse of several floors of the building. “The behaviour of the building following the initial structural damage caused by the explosion was inherent in its design… it was not the result of any fault in workmanship,” concluded the report.
It was proven by subsequent investigations that the overall design and execution of Ronan Point was, in fact, substandard. Issues were found with the fire doors, brackets, windows, and concrete, all of which led to what ought to have been a minor incident turning
into a national tragedy. Architects and lobby groups carried the torch for decades, until, in 1986, the supposedly strengthened reincarnation of Ronan Point was demolished for good.
The repercussions of the Ronan Point disaster are still being felt acutely. Debates about the housing crisis rage on both sides of the political divide, and though the actual questions and issues are quite diverse, one thing is fairly universally accepted: production of social and affordable housing has slowed to the point where the gulf between the haves and have-nots can only widen.
More recently, in the wake of Grenfell, we have experienced a recurrence of the tower block scepticism that engulfed the country in the late 60s, with legitimate concerns about safety and quality mingled with a paranoia that has always accompanied the idea of living our lives stacked upwards, rather than sideways. It’s a fear reinforced by dystopian visions of future urban slums (though, in reality, slums are associated with sprawl) that plays on the claustrophobic fears of people who grew up in the classic two-bed suburbia that bubbles out from city to town to country.
In the housing crisis…