First as Facade, then as Tragedy:
Slow Violence in the Grenfell Tower Blaze
‘Grenfell: System Failure’ at the Marylebone Theatre
Who is to blame when the root cause of a tragedy lies in multiple shortcomings, systems failures, poor materials, and appalling mismanagement? The latest dramatisation of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry raises troubling questions and offers few comforting answers – Igor Rogelja reviews the play.
‘If it hasn’t happened then it wouldn’t happen. It is as if he needed a disaster before he or the government would act.’ – Sam Webb, witness statement1.
When studying catastrophic failure, a key task is to determine a disaster’s didactic potential. Deciding which lessons must be learned or what past experiences have been ignored become questions that transcend the moment of failure and place a historical responsibility on those charged with forensic analysis. Every disaster rewrites the rulebook until a new one hits. But the individual failings that led to the great loss of life in the Grenfell Tower fire were preventable and known. What was unexpected was the ‘revenge effect’, as Edward Tenner would call it, of the complex assemblage of aluminium composite materials, firefighting practices, regulatory culling, and a shirking of responsibility of both mundane and extraordinary varieties.
The opening quotation, taken from architect Sam Webb’s statement about a civil servant in charge of fire safety regulations, forms part of a selection of documents that have been staged as the verbatim play ‘Grenfell: System Failure’. After performances at the Playground Theatre and the Tabernacle, the Marylebone Theatre is the last venue to host the play, which is second in the series after ‘Grenfell: Value Engineering’ and uses a selection of texts from the Grenfell inquiry’s thousands of pages of evidence as its script. It’s a steep learning curve.
The audience is quickly introduced to the crucial villain of the story, the highly flammable polyethylene (PE) core of the aluminium cladding that covers building facades all over the world. We learn how the UPVC window jambs failed and why polyisocyanurate foam insulation boards contributed to the rate of spread. Before the first act is over, we become familiar with the London Fire Brigade’s jargon and parse through the tedious corpo-speak of panel manufacturers and distributors.
There are emotional, distressing moments throughout, to be sure. Reminding us that real people died in horrific circumstances pierces the din of technical detail. Yet the play maintains a commendable dedication to the technical evidence. Commendable, because it is not easy to bring dramatic narrative to inert cladding. When complex systems like infrastructures work, they are often said to be invisible, a boring backstage on which the exciting play of modern life relies. Things are rarely so simple though; a motorway offers seamless mobility for the suburban commuter but can form a topography of violence to the communities carved up by transport infrastructure.2
By quite literally putting the backstage on the main stage, ‘Grenfell: System Failure’ compels us to reappraise how violence works. The fast violence of the fire was made possible by the slow violence of exclusion and underinvestment by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The tower, built in 1972 as part of the Lancaster West Estate, replaced earlier Victorian housing stock that had deteriorated into slum status and had been the site of the 1958 Notting Hill race riots.
The high modernist ambition of the original estate plan, complete with generous community amenities and a shopping centre, was soon thwarted by financial constraints. After a series of calamities involving asbestos and a cockroach infestation in 19823, the ageing concrete tower came to be seen by the local authority as a problem to be managed. Initially, the council’s focus was on crime and resulted in a security-driven segmentation of the estate: walkways were cut apart, access points reduced.
In the last round of interventions, the problem gained wholly aesthetic dimensions. A brand new academy school, clad heavily in combustible panels of turquoise, teal and grey, was built on the estate. The concrete tower was considered an ‘eyesore’4 next to the academy, and a decision was made to dress the tower in grey cladding to provide a more visually pleasing backdrop. It is a dark irony that the panels that hid the social housing identity of the tower also fuelled the blaze that killed 72 of its inhabitants.
The slow violence of exclusion that led to the shrouding of the tower is not always apparent. It is often directed at those whose voices are easily ignored. It refuses to conform to our news cycles, electoral horizons or fashions of urban design. Hiding as a chronic condition, it is hard to pin down or quantify. Though once it assumes an acute state, we see its true form: a systemic failure fed by long-standing discrimination, institutional incompetence and pervasive greed.
Troublingly, blaming systemic failure can flatten agency and brings the potential for atomising responsibility, both moral and legal. Following any disaster, the intense pressure from bereaved relatives and survivors gets magnified by a public eager for justice to be meted out. But complex failure is not easy to pin down on any one actor, giving those implicated plenty of wiggle room. The play’s script assiduously traces such dodging of responsibility. Businesses blame subcontractors, bureaucrats cite procedural limitations, politicians feign ignorance and everyone ends up blaming ‘the system’. What if they are all correct? After all, the interaction of materials and practices that led to the blaze defies simplistic accounts of cause and effect. So, how do we distribute the agency of failure?
In his critique of political theorist Jane Bennett’s vital materialism (an approach emphasising how ‘thingness’ complicates agency and causality), ‘The Material Politics of Infrastructure’, Andrew Barry warns that by highlighting the politics of socio-material assemblages, we fail to answer how materials are made political. The framing of failure as an assemblage of actors, both human and non-human, does open us to the unexpected interaction between polyethylene and the Conservative’s deregulation drive, but it is the task of the analyst to determine how PE cladding was governed, how its properties were monitored (or not), and why cheaper panelling was used in the first place. The play takes on the role of the analyst, and it does it very well.
By the end of the performance, an unsettling feeling lingers in the auditorium. Disasters like Grenfell reveal the suspected embeddedness of our lives into systems over which any human individual has little control. This is a disarming and frightful moment, but it also allows a reappraisal of how systems work, how they can perpetuate slow-moving violence and materialise power relations. The magnitude of this task can be overwhelming. In the closing scene, Hisam Choucair (played by Shahzad Ali), who lost six members of his family in the fire, returns to the stage having just been asked if he has anything else to add. Mentioning the atrocity of racism5 and the lack of urgency given to the tower’s occupants because of their ethnic background, he urges the inquiry to look into these issues before ultimately pausing to say: ‘I’m sorry, but I’m overwhelmed by your question, … I can’t really respond in the manner that I feel I should.’
‘Grenfell: System Failure’ is on at the Marylebone Theatre until 26 March.
The play, as the selection of evidence comprising both scripts, is also available for purchase here.
IGOR ROGELJA is Lecturer in Global Politics at European and International Social and Political Studies (EISPS), working mostly on international infrastructure and Chinese politics. Apart from his field research, Igor works on bringing insights from the anthropology of infrastructure into global politics to better understand how infrastructures interact with political and physical space.
Proofread and standfirst written by NICHOLAS LACKENBY.
Lead image: ‘Grenfell: System Failure’ logo. © Nick of Time Productions