The Robin Hood Gardens housing estate designed in late sixties by Alison and Peter Smithson is a masterpiece of new brutalist architecture vintage, Shutterstock

76 residents of the Grenfell Tower are believed to be unaccounted for since Wednesday’s horrific fire, with many speculating that the number of fatalities will increase. Only 30 have been confirmed dead, with some of the bodies still inside the Tower. 24 other people are in hospitals, with 12 of them being in critical care. Today, is the third day searching for bodies amidst the burned remains of what was once a towering example of post-war housing and 1970s brutalist architecture.  

In a press briefing, the Metropolitan Police’s Commander Stuart Cundy, said that the fire was so intense that many of the victims might never be identified, and that retrieving the bodies would be a lengthy and dangerous operation. He confirmed that he expected more casualties: “I do believe that sadly the number will rise.”

The fire has burned the lives, dreams and hopes of many working-class families and people living in the Tower. Some of them were foreigners who had fled their own countries to start a new life in the UK. 

There is something too symbolic and too evocative when it comes to brutalist architecture in post-war Britain. Council housing was part of the welfare state in post-war Britain with huge concrete structures dominating the horizon. Buildings like the Grenfell Tower symbolise the post war belief in common good and a comfortable life for all beyond class limits. On the one hand, these huge concrete blocks, so alien and imposing, were seen as the solution to social deprivation and housing low income families. On the other hand, for those who looked from the outside, such places were always seen as dirty and violent. For the residents of Grenfell Tower, the harsh, concrete walls offered the security of a place they could call home. 

The loss of so many lives and in such a horrible way is painful. It has made everyone feel anger about the way these people were treated and of their fates. But is also painful, because this has happened in people’s homes, in a place where they should feel the most secure and protected. What was once built on utopian ideals and a symbol of social equality has now been destroyed. 

The tragedy has drawn attention to social stratification and extreme divisions between different strata of society. J.G. Ballard’s novel 1975 High-Rise, published a year after the Grenfell Tower was finished, exemplifies such categorisation of people into socioeconomic strata by presenting the lower classes living in the lower floors of a high-rise tower block and the wealthier tenants at the top floors. The novel offers a critique of contemporary society and modernist architecture’s belief in moulding and reshaping social life itself. The symbol of these ideas has now crumpled, and Grenfell Tower symbolises perhaps the end of that era.

Cladding

It is believed that one of the reasons that cladding was used on Grenfell Tower was aesthetic. Residents there have complained that it was used to improve the building’s appearance to the wealthy living in luxury flats in the area around north Kensington. Cladding is low cost and was partly used to update what was seen as the 1970s dreariness of social housing. The Tower was specifically covered with the cheaper and more flammable version of the two available options. 

How to donate to fire victims

While donation centres within the Grenfell area are inundated with donations which they need to sort and distribute, there are sites that are still collecting clothes, such as the Central Gurdwara (The Big Sikh Temple) and Corpus Christi College JCR on Merton Street. Helpful items include nappies, baby food, hot meals, blankets, water and sanitary towels. 

This evening there is a vigil for the victims around Grenfell Tower. A protest, Justice for Grenfell, supported by Grenfell action group, Defend Council Housing, Kensington and Chelsea Momentum, Westway23 and NW London Stand Up to Racism will take place at the Department for Communities and Local Government.