Peter Deakins first found out about the Grenfell Tower fire when his son texted him an image of a building engulfed in flames. Deakins recalls “the sheer horror of it in itself”, before he realised that the burning tower block was familiar to him. As a young architect in the 1960s, Deakins created the first designs for Grenfell Tower and the Lancaster West Estate.
“It took a few moments to sink in,” he tells RadioTimes.com of the Grenfell disaster. “That it was the tower in the middle of Lancaster Road. It was a terrible shock… It’s appalling, the idea that anything like that could happen.”
He describes how, in 2001, he found out about 9/11 in exactly the same way, via a text message from his son: “It is strange… It’s an equivalent horror, isn’t it really.”
Deakins returned to the Grenfell site after the fire, and experienced a combination of astonishment and horror: “Who would ever have imagined 50 years before, 60 years before, that one would ever have looked at such a thing… that I was involved in?”
Before Grenfell: a Hidden History contends that “once upon a time it [Grenfell Tower] was a symbol of hope”, as one longtime local resident says, but that soon the gutted tower block came to symbolise the social divisions that have plagued North Kensington not just for decades, but for hundreds of years.
In the Victorian era, inequality was written into the fabric of the area, with a wall built to separate the sprawling slum from the wealthier streets. Although the film doesn’t quote him, Charles Dickens once wrote about the district, then known as the Potteries and Piggeries. He describes a “plague spot” amidst “a neighbourhood studded thickly with elegant villas and mansions”.
A deadly outbreak of cholera and typhus in the slum in 1849 forced the authorities to act. Dickens’ shock that “such a state of things” came to a head before change was implemented could almost refer to another tragedy, in practically the same spot over 160 years later.
Fast-forward to the 1960s, and the crumbling 19th-century streets in North Kensington were being demolished: “They were rank,” one longtime resident says bluntly during the BBC2 documentary.
Deakins, at 29 years old, was hired in 1963 to design a huge new council estate to take their place. “We [were] trying to do something that was very much integrated into the local area,” he tells me. In the film, we see Deakins’ original blueprints, which feature a school, shared gardens, a shopping centre, a public library, and swimming pools.
“[Council estates] should be just as good quality… as somewhere else,” Deakins says, explaining how he hoped to create a sense of community for the area.
However, Kensington Council Housing Committee initially rejected Deakins’ original designs – they weren’t “cheap” enough for the committee, Deakins contends on camera – although a watered down version of his plan did in the end go ahead.
“I hoped to do something much more ambitious with it than that,” Deakins says.
A febrile mood followed the fire last year, with residents casting blame on the local council. The blaze seemed to crystallise west London’s social divisions, in an area where rich and poor live cheek by jowl. “If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower,” reads a line from Ben Okri’s poem titled Grenfell Tower, June, 2017. A march on 21st June conflated the tragedy with a call for Theresa May’s resignation. Although its blackened sides are now swathed in tarpaulin, Grenfell Tower looms out of the London skyline.
Still a practising architect, Deakins has much to say about safety regulations and the combustible cladding used on the tower, which fire safety experts at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry identified as a reason the fire spread so quickly the night of the blaze.
“[The cladding] seems to have been pretty inferior,” Deakins says. “One had no idea that the materials were so dreadful.” He believes that its use “grew out of an attitude of mind of trying to do things that are of less quality”.
Asked about the flames’ rapid spread throughout the tower block, Deakins blames slipping safety standards.
“The standards at the time [in the 1960s] were much higher than it appears that they are now,” he says. “I can quite understand the idea of the instructions for people to stay in their flats [the ‘stay put’ policy used by the London Fire Brigade during the blaze], because there was what amounted to be a fire separation between flats.”
“We were under all sorts of checks and double checks to make sure that everything was done properly,” he adds. “We had to go to see the fire department and get drawings checked… they didn’t come to us, we had to go to them.”
By contrast, Deakins believes, safety standards today are below par. “I understand things aren’t like that now,” he says, “that is really quite shocking I think.”
“It goes back to the idea that everybody deserves nice places,” he adds. “Everybody deserves good housing, surely.”
Before Grenfell: a Hidden History airs at 9pm on BBC2 on Wednesday 13th June