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"Avoiding the mistakes of the past"

Tower block failure discourse and economies of risk management in London's Olympic Park

Saffron Woodcraft

A powerful dystopian imaginary dominates political and cultural representations of Britain’s postwar tower blocks, which continue to be linked to social dysfunction and alienation despite extensive empirical research that challenges such claims. Th is article asks what contested declarations of failure “do” by examining how “tower block failure” is discursively deployed by placemaking professionals—planners, architects, housing managers, regeneration practitioners—engaged in the construction of a “model” mixed-tenure neighborhood in London’s Olympic Park. Examining how the aesthetic figure of the “failed” high-rise housing estate is configured in relation to the normative models of citizenship and community that infuse social and spatial policy, I argue “failure” is entangled with a speculative, future-oriented economy of risk management, which refracts wider questions about the nonobvious forms that power takes in the neoliberal city.

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Introduction

Tower block "failures"? High-rise anthropology

Constance Smith and Saffron Woodcraft

Th e high-rise tower block is an ambiguous construction: a much-maligned architectural form yet a persistent symbol of modernity and aspiration. It is also a fulcrum for discourses about urban failure, broken communities, widening urban inequality, and insecurity. Recent tower block disasters, from the Grenfell Tower fire in London to high-rise collapses in Nairobi, have intensified such debates. In this introduction to the theme section, we explore “tower block failure” as both event and discourse. Engaging with scholarship on global urbanism, verticality, and failure as a generative force, we highlight the particular discursive, social, political, and material constellations of “failure” as it manifests in relation to tower blocks. We propose that exploring what failure sets in motion—following what failure does, rather than what it means—can help inform our understanding of urban transformation.