With Grenfell Tower, we are faced with a monument to loss and destruction, writes Eddie Blake
If you close your eyes you can picture the Great Pyramid of Giza. It comes to you instantly. You can picture the shape, heavy, pushing against the sky. Some images stay with you, somehow more than a memory, as if you knew them before you knew words.
Buildings have this capacity to escape from reality and lodge themselves, as images, in your psyche. The image-building keeps a vestigial connection to the reality it stems from, where it works as a building, where doors slam, where it gets scrawled on, slept in, escaped from and pissed on. The building can act as a record of people’s lives, registering the daily tasks, but then also be a monument to those lives. The building makes that transition simply by reappearing in your mind. Each building has a varied history, with specific uses that precede the generalisation that comes with becoming a monument. In this sense, the act of thinking about the building re-forms it into a symbol; into a vessel for meaning. It is not the designer’s intention that makes it architecture, but the reception and transmission that lends it meaning and makes architecture … architecture.
Some buildings become symbols despite themselves. They become symbols because of what happens to them. The building that was the scene of a disaster first becomes a shorthand for the disaster, and then a shorthand for a whole cloud of meaning surrounding that disaster. The fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower and killed untold numbers of people also fixed the image of the building in our collective unconscious. The image of its grief-scarred husk is now with us.
A building can mutate, from architecture to art. As Adolf Loos wrote, ‘Only a very small part of architecture comes under art: monuments.’ If Grenfell Tower is now a monument, however, it is of the most painful kind, a mausoleum. Except a mausoleum has a considered solemnity, while Grenfell is a vertical mass grave, a bleak abrupt figure of neglect, a permanent embodiment of the trauma of that moment. It is also, of course, a monument to a long moment – to the era of the market society and the neglect that came with that. The prolonged housing crisis, and the substandard housing associated with it, is not a natural occurrence. It is a product of human decisions, and sins of omission; failures to intervene due to a misplaced belief in the market as a mechanism to provide basic human needs such as shelter.
This type of monument is a different order of ruin from those buildings that have fallen into disuse and had the odd bit of lead nicked from the roof. These are buildings that cannot be aesthetically re‑appropriated, they are places that negate nostalgia – their ruination is a reproach, their life stopped abruptly. The damage, representing the condensed grief, is potent. This is when a specific architecture can become a symbol for everything at that time. The single object of a building can hold all the load we need it to, especially shame.
Loos, again, has something to say about the condition of a building when meaning is bestowed on it: ‘If we were to come across a mound in the woods, six foot long by three foot wide, with the soil piled up in a pyramid, a somber mood would come over us and a voice inside us would say, “There is someone buried here.” That is architecture.’
It is hard to untangle the destruction of buildings and the lives they contain. Early in May 1941, the writer Rose Macaulay returned to her flat at Luxborough House, Marylebone. She discovered that her building had been destroyed, killing her neighbours. Her home and all her possessions had been incinerated in the bombing a few nights before. In a letter to a friend and literary collaborator, Daniel George, she wrote: ‘I came up last night … to find Lux House no more – bombed and burned out of existence, and nothing saved. I am bookless, homeless, sans everything but my eyes to weep with … It would have been less trouble to have been bombed myself.’ In 1949, she lamented: ‘I am still haunted and troubled by ghosts, and I can still smell those acrid drifts of smoldering ashes that once were live books.’ It was a decade before she completed another novel.
There is a tradition of ruins being left as ruined monuments. Quneitra, a city in south-west Syria, remains ruined as a document of war trauma. It is a place with a deep past – Paul is said to have had his Damascene moment nearby – and a tragic 20th-century history. It was the site of battles between Syria and Israel over many years. The Syrian state has left the ruins in place and built a museum to memorialise the destruction. It maintains billboards at the ruins of many buildings and effectively preserves it in the condition that the Israeli army left it in in 1974. The former residents of the town have not returned and Syria discourages the repopulation of the area around Quneitra hospital, where a sign reads: ‘Golan Hospital. Destructed by Zionists and changed it to firing target!’ [sic]. The co-option of the sites of mourning, and arguments over their meaning, are nothing new.
Sometimes the ruined building is too potent. The National Democratic Party (NDP) building, a concrete tower block that loomed over the River Nile in Cairo, was gutted on 28 January 2011 during the uprising against Mubarak’s rule. In its burnt state, it served as a potent symbol of the revolt. For four years, architects, activists and government officials debated the fate of the building, which has been part of Cairo’s skyline for over half a century. In 2015, while Egyptian courts gradually absolved Mubarak-era figures, the state also sanctioned the demolition of the building, which had symbolised both its former self and its own overthrow.
Ruins can be symbolic of something else. Something romantic. This ruinous heritage has been revisited. In works such as Rachel Whiteread’s Demolished – B: Clapton Park Estate (1996), which shows the demolition of Hackney tower blocks, we see modernist architectural dreams destroyed. Perhaps it can only be a decadent age that indulges in Ruin Lust. That perverse tendency, which gripped European art and literature in the 18th century, reached its height with the Romantics, and had apparently declined in the early 20th century in the face of devastation that could not be turned to aesthetic or nostalgic advantage. Perhaps it will resurface in time, charged again with artistic and political energy, and we will find ourselves looking once more at blasted or burned cities with a visionary or melancholy eye. What would Ballard, the English laureate of modernist ruin, have to say about the scorched hulk of Grenfell?
If leaving the building poised in limbo is too painful, the choices left are demolition or restoration. Sometimes restoration is a destruction – a travesty. Restoration, as Ruskin had it, ‘means the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed.’ It’s hard to imagine a decent argument to restore Grenfell, but the complete erasure of demolition is unthinkable. No doubt, there will be a very public and fraught debate about what to do with the ruin in the coming months and years.
To look from the Tube window as you pull out of Latimer Road Underground station is arresting. The ruined building sits there as a form of criticism. Somehow its own deeper inviolability, still standing, is a terse reminder. It’s a sight that I had already seen in the media, an image-building that already existed, but then seeing the monument itself always does something different. The specifics of the lives lived and lost become painfully mixed with the generalised horror of the image itself. As long as Grenfell Tower sits on the west London skyline, it will loom. It’s hard to separate the allegory from the reality of the facts. Everyone knows the image of Grenfell, it’s impossible to forget it – close your eyes and you can see it.