‘But No One Died’: A Brief Reflection on Place and Time

in Anthropology in Action

I’m walking through Glasgow. The River Kelvin runs quietly this morning between lush green banks. Wrapped by trees in the height of new growth and scattered with elderflower blooms, it trickles peacefully down to the Clyde as tourists take photos and selfies below the imposing gothic towers of the university.

No one died. I shouldn’t be so sad, but looking up Renfrew Street at the fire engine still showering the building on a rainy Glasgow morning, I can’t tell whether what is rising is spray or smoke. For once, I’m glad of the rain.

In the night, the urgency of the coils pumping water back up from the Clyde was matched by the distress of the tears of students, and others who loved it, flooding down. The Glasgow School of Art was ablaze four years after a fire which destroyed much of its ‘iconic’ library and an intricate and painstaking restoration project. Designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and completed in 1909, this building was known and loved across the world.

I feel a heavy, dragging sadness, but why? No one died. I started to think about what this means. It was a working art school, not ‘just a building’; it was more than this. What is a building? As a doctoral student studying the closure of psychiatric hospitals, I had turned to Pierre Bourdieu’s (1970) work on habitus, which was rooted in his earlier ethnography of the design of the Berber house, and Mary Douglas’s writing about religion, symbols and the body. Both captured and described something that we know, but don’t always consider. Douglas wrote about how our ways of seeing, understanding, representing and reproducing the world may be inscribed on the body. Bourdieu’s (1977) Theory of Practice discussed the constitutive relationships between our culturally acquired dispositions, experience and interactions in the world, a world that is designed and shaped by people – a built and culturally shaped environment. The aim of the hospital closure on which my ethnography was based was deinstitutionalisation, but the focus of the psychiatric hospital closure efforts was often on moving people from a building – the hospital – to ‘the community’ or ‘their community’. I came to see the hospital building as both reflecting and shaping human relationships, worldviews and inequalities. The buildings were rich in meaning, and they were more than symbolic.

So what meaning does the ‘the Mack’ hold that led so many people to talk of a building as ‘beloved’ or to talk of themselves as being ‘heartbroken’? This calls for many voices, and they will no doubt be expressed in the coming days, as they were four years ago. I can only share my own understanding. These expressions were not simply media-driven hyperbole, but expressions of genuinely felt grief as well. It was a place where many people, including my son (now an architect) and his friends and tutors, studied and explored the world and developed new and creative ideas and artefacts. It holds histories and stories. It embodied its purpose as an art and architecture school through craftsmanship and design – modelling what can be made. Former students emphasised the working environment as one which encouraged and embodied creativity. Also embodying the design and craftsmanship of Mackintosh himself, it links past, present and future. It was a distinctive building which expressed and was created from fine skills and materials, and which had been described as an ‘art nouveau masterpiece’ (Murphy 2018). The three-year restoration project following the previous fire in 2014 had also employed care, craftsmanship, art, skill and the dedication and determination of many people. Once of little interest in Glasgow itself, modernist at the time, Mackintosh’s work had come to be adopted by the city – and by Scotland – as speaking for an important aspect of its culture and identity.

This same week, in the Westminster Parliament, Scottish MPs had walked out of the Chamber of the Commons as a group in protest at the undemocratic contempt they felt the UK government was displaying towards the country it claimed to honour as an essential part of its union – one it doesn’t want to let go. I start to wonder whether and how feelings about this terrible night also connected with recent sociopolitical events.

With this, my thoughts turn to the Grenfell Tower. Just one night before was the anniversary of another terrible fire, in which a contested or an unknown number of people died. One year on, the Queen stood solemnly in green to honour the dead and the public service workers who risked their own safety to rescue the inhabitants and control the fire. It seemed ironic, and this irony was not lost on others too: here was a woman who personifies, and whose role it is to maintain, the structural inequalities that lie at the root of this tragedy. Imperialism morphed into neoliberalism. One year on, the stories of the families who lived and died in Grenfell are being unfolded at the start of a public inquiry.

This was now an iconic building too, but it embodied and represented something very different from ‘the Mack’. There are many doubts about what the Grenfell inquiry will achieve in terms of openness or what lessons will be learnt. Sociologists and others have published a number of analyses in the past year pointing to the UK government’s policy of austerity since 2010, the longer-standing neoliberal history of outsourcing and subcontracting and the firm faith that ‘the market’ renders efficiency and maximises wealth (see, for example, Martin McKee’s 2017 editorial in the British Medical Journal about the social determinants of health, or David Madden’s 2017 editorial in City). Madden (2017: 2–3) argued that

the disaster exemplifies the structural violence of urban life in neoliberal capitalist society, where inequality is incorporated into the landscape and infrastructure of the city and reproduced through predominant forms of urban development. The fire sits precisely at the confluence of so many currents reshaping contemporary social life in the UK and abroad. Urban inequality, economic stagnation, political stasis, the foreclosure and dereliction of alternative futures: they all come together here to lethal effect. However it began, the fire was fed by the broken housing system; the privatisation of local government services; the drive for deregulation no matter the human cost; the racism that perpetuates inferior infrastructure and safety standards for people of colour; and the erasure of the voices and interests of working class and poor people from the concerns of the state.

The manufactured crisis in housing in Britain has seen many in London and other cities living in makeshift shacks under bridges, in road underpasses, office doorways and parks. Yet, I had also observed over this same year the continual creation by ‘the homeless’ of something that resembles home, the clearance and reconstitution of some kind of meaningful and contained space – pictures stuck to the brick wall of a railway bridge, boxes collected from the street arranged to form furniture, little rows of gifted paperbacks and cards to tell their stories. The objects speak too.

Today, the Glasgow fire feels like a terrible and as yet unexplainable, unfathomable fate. The Grenfell fire, however, was predicted by its residents. The terrible prophesy of the Grenfell Action Group (2016) is documented on the internet, in letters and in the media. But the tragedy was allowed by those with power and responsibility to play out. Public knowledge points to the cladding of the building and to the rejection of safety warnings to save money in a sector of housing that was being actively maligned and undermined by state and local governments. The inquiry will proceed to examine the evidence and the business relationships and contracts that formed a key part of this story, but first the people affected are trying to tell the other story of Grenfell as another place of meaning for individuals, families and a community where social deprivation rubs up against ostentatious wealth. It embodied inequality but also the value and richness of the lives lived within its walls. Those walls now stand like a monument in themselves. Their image engenders more anger than sadness for me, but it was not my story.

Within those walls, there are shadows and there are echoes

Buildings are not just designed spaces and artefacts – beautiful or otherwise – and are more than metaphors, even though these things matter in themselves. They have many layers of meaning – some of which are still to be told.

Turning back to the case of the Mack, the initial responses were associated with a more positive set of meanings. One such set of meanings perhaps consisted of a renewed sense of national and cultural identity and a desire for self-determination that are also expressed in the recent politics of the independence movement. ‘We cannot lose this building’, stated Glasgow North East MP Paul Sweeney (BBC News 16 June 2018). In the week that follows, however, two other themes unfolded. First, the sense of shock turned to questions about the role of Kier Construction, a large private-sector building contractor, with references made to a poor safety record in other large-scale public projects (The Herald 18 June 2018, 19 June 2018), and growing attention began to be paid to previous fire safety questions relating to their work and the ability of public bodies to exercise effective oversight (The Herald 24 June 2018). Echoes of Grenfell began to form.

Second, a debate developed about conservation, restoration or replication. For example, Miles Glendinning, a professor of architectural conservation, ‘told BBC Radio Scotland that “remarkable” record-keeping during the restoration process following the 2014 fire meant the art school still exists in digital form: “I think it should be restored and it will be restored”’ (BBC News 17 June 2018). The concept of replication rested on the idea of using the very detailed digital map developed following the previous fire to rebuild the school:

A Glasgow School of Art project team [made] a digital recording reconstruction of the whole building, not just the bit that was affected before, down to the nearest millimetre, outside and in, using photos and measured drawings. … So the building still exists digitally even if the inside is for the moment physically absent.

(Glendinning quoted in BBC News 17 June 2018)

Others, however, challenged the very idea of replication – that however ‘accurate’, what was built would never be the Mack (Murphy 2018) and argued instead for a new school to be designed and built that would create an opportunity for a young architect to envision a new modernist building, as Mackintosh himself had done more than a century before. A kind of outward-looking modernism that was originally scorned in his work is perhaps echoed in the wider political sphere. Questions were posed about authenticity and what the replication of a building that was more than a building would mean.

A connecting theme, perhaps, was that, in the 2014 restoration, despite the attention to digital maps and craftsmanship, very different materials had been used within it – the same ‘cost-saving’ insulation materials now being held up for inspection as the probable cause of the intensity and destructiveness of the Grenfell fire.

It’s been a long time now since Mary Douglas wrote in her essay ‘The Two Bodies’ that ‘the same drive that seeks harmoniously to relate the experience of the physical and social, must affect ideology. Consequently, when once the correspondence between bodily and social controls is traced, the basis will be laid for considering co-varying attitudes in political thought and theology’ (1996: 74–75). Her argument still feels relevant to anthropology today.

Turning to this current issue of Anthropology in Action, the authors examine other aspects of public policy and practice, and offer questions and proposals for how anthropology relates to them. Cassandra Yuill’s reflection following the similarly titled seminar held at The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in May 2018, ‘Is Anthropology Legal?’, discusses the possible impact of new European data privacy legislation – the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – on anthropological research. In doing so, she poses and explores a range of ethical questions that consider data privacy and the relationships of ‘researchers’ and ‘subjects’ that it engenders. Janet Page-Reeves and Lidia Regino share lessons and suggestions from their experience of doing participatory work as anthropologists contributing to health research, and challenge assumptions about the levels of participation in a great deal of research carried out today. Lilian Milanés and Joanna Mishtal provide a case study of the anthropological contribution to public health research and how it can move thinking beyond standard public health questions and their focus on the individual to ask more about health systems and structures that reflect wider social systems and shape those individuals’ interactions with healthcare. Finally, Bronwen Gillespie’s study of a public health programme in Guatemala illuminates how programmes which fail to appreciate or engage with the social context and individuals’ lived experiences of said context are likely to fail.

This is the second issue of Anthropology in Action since its selection by the Knowledge Unlatched scheme to provide open access to research without authors needing to pay to publish. We hope that this new model of open access will prove sustainable and help to promote further an ethical engagement of anthropology with public policy and practice. It is consonant with the aims of Anthropology in Action to support the fundamental tenets of an applied anthropology to bring together theory, method and practice in a way that is comparative and critically engaged and that can speak and respond to current events and troubles.

Christine McCourt, Editor

June 2018


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