Architecture, class and beauty

Adrian Short · 18 June 2017

Many of you will have seen or heard stories that the cladding put on Grenfell Tower was to improve the view of rich(er) neighbours nearby. This cladding is suspected to be a significant factor in the disaster, leading to the rapid and unexpected spread of the fire.

This story isn’t true.

Grenfell Tower reclad

The cladding was designed to improve the appearance of the building but also to insulate it so that residents would be more comfortable and spend less money on heating and cooling bills. And of course saving energy has environmental benefits too.

But this post isn’t about fake news. It’s about another insidious prejudice against poor(er) people: That they should have to choose between survival and beauty.

I’m going to jump straight to the conclusion: This prejudice literally kills people and where it doesn’t kill it leads to miserable lives.

You all know about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the bottom we have survival: shelter, food healthcare. At the top, “self-actualisation”. You deal with basic physical survival first, then you work your way up to beauty, meaning, being your “true” self, whatever that means. In fairness to Maslow, this model was always means to be descriptive not prescriptive. He didn’t say this is how people should live. But that’s often how it’s interpreted, especially under capitalism. Poor people might get “basic” services if they’re lucky. Rich people get great housing, healthcare, food, do two masters’ degrees (one abroad) and buy a few Picassos.

One of the great urban jokes (!?) is that a compensation of living in an ugly building is at least you don’t have to look at it. That’s the neighbours’ problem. But of course they are looking at you, and often with contempt.

So this perception that poor(er) people have “bad taste” and live coarse, ugly lives feeds further discrimination against them. Yes, poor people may be forced to live in ugly buildings. This is an offence to the soul which causes its own problems for them. The prejudice and discrimination this inspires leads to the point where poor people don’t just not deserve beauty but safety also.

There is a very short road from people who are worth less to people who are worthless. If poor people deserve to live in an ugly building but not an unsafe one, how long before that final standard is eroded?

So yes, this is a call to get the basic safety issues right for everyone, including the poorest people. That should go without saying. But it’s also a call to ensure that everyone can have beauty and meaning in their lives, regardless of their income or social status. Both because, as Maslow rightly observes, this is the difference between living and merely surviving, which is everyone’s right. But also because people who don’t get to live beautiful and meaningful lives will be the very first people to die when the chips are down.

And on that basis, if we can safely clad every council tower block in the country even if it’s just for appearance, we should do it. And we should invest in good architecture, parks, museums, education and the arts that is accessible for everyone, including the poorest people.

In the final analysis, there is literally no distinction between survival and beauty in human society or in the lives of individual people.