Fragments across today – someone on Tumblr posted up this documentary produced by Adam Curtis in 1984. It’s good, and if you take a 49-and-a-half-minute lunchbreak, you can watch it in your lunchbreak. It’s ostensibly an investigation (or ‘inquiry’) into the incredibly poor quality of British ‘system-build’ (or ‘pre-engineered building’) social housing, which reached its nadir in the Ronan Point disaster of 1968, where a gas build-up and explosion in a system-built tower block killed five people in Newham, East London.
You could, on the other hand, just watch this coruscating last 4 minutes from an unnamed man, possibly head of a tenants’ association. It’s a dense, angry and eloquent indictment of the defense of ‘a professional mistake’ by professionals – always covering their arses. This was a period where the boundaries of the welfare state were already creaking, scrapped over by the two main parties and being implemented almost solely (thanks to Bevan) by local authorities, who were both reluctant to be sole ‘deliverers’ of housing and desperate to make their money go as far as possible to meet building targets. By the time this film was made, many system-build housing units, mainly built in the 1960s, had been or were going to be demolished. The film, in a more understated manner than Curtis’ recent pieces, shows the limitations of ‘expertise’ in the face of such a trajectory, in which it is implied that the warring Labour and Conservative parties and governments vied to outdo each other with higher and higher quantities of units, never mind the method by which those units were produced.
As that final interview suggests, what emerges is something far more nuanced than simply an exposé of the flaws of the system-build method. It examines a way of thinking, a way of doing ‘policy’ where those in charge were mainly concerned with numbers and aesthetics rather than high-quality housing. As Richard Crossman, Wilson’s Housing Minister, put it ‘the only thing is to make sure they’re done by good architects and well-landscaped, and that will get over any danger of monotony.’ Building contractors, of course, were eager for this method to be taken up widely, and the systems to build and produce the housing were much more complicated than more traditional construction, so many councils often did not have the ‘expertise’ to understand the game, nor did they have the appropriate checks in place to monitor them (oh hi there, PFI).
METAPHOR ALERT: The ‘inquiry’ finds that demolition is the best way of discovering more about construction – ‘as councils demolished the blocks, they’re finding that many of the connections [needed to make the buildings structurally sound] are simply not there.’ Unsurprisingly, tenants themselves were often the first people to identify problems. In many cases, people had to gouge out the walls themselves to discover faulty structures. Time and money, time and money, always the explanatory refrain for why corners were cut. Time and money command the experts and they can only obey. Of course money and time returned – years and pounds spent investigating, rectifying or destroying deficient buildings. Much of this the time and money fell on tenants and home-owners, as our friend points out at the end.
And then someone on Twitter: ‘When a judicial enquiry [sic] into the banks is the limit of your political imagination, you really should take a step back and contemplate things’. Curtis’ film calls itself an inquiry, but it makes no recommendations, it sanctions no punishment, it doesn’t even particularly lay blame. To call for an inquiry means to call for a solution within the confines of the structure that allowed the problem to be engineered. How do we respond to the ‘professional’, the official, the authoritative, in this time when we know and want so many sacred cows to have their throats slit in front of us just to confirm what we already know? When do the amateurs get their say? Can it only be as here, in (implied, never legitimated) judgement, delivered in the clear words of someone whose claim ‘not to be an expert’ is immediately followed by a sharper analysis than any local authority suit or structural engineer could give? It is only when the tower actually crumbles (or it is torn down by popular will or by government) that the amateurs can speak: usually they take the opportunity, for they are rarely granted it. ‘It’s difficult, as an amateur, to criticise the professionals’. Where I live at any rate, I think it might be getting easier every day.