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How fire has shaped London – from 1666 to Grenfell
In an excerpt from his new book, Liam Ross considers how London has been shaped by fire safety regulations, and the relationship between architecture, government and fire
The Great Fire of London, which occurred in 1666, destroyed as much of the city as did the Blitz, burning out the medieval centre as far as its defensive walls. The effects of post-fire regulation, from the 1667 Reconstruction Act through to the 1774 Fire Prevention Act, were more wide-reaching. Often cited as the first act of building regulation in the UK, they shaped the urban form, construction materials and detailing of London in ways that are still visible today.
Outlawing timber construction they made mandatory the use of London’s now familiar brick; requiring non-combustible and protruding party walls they defined the height and roof profile of much of the city; controlling the separation between windows as well as their depth, they designed the future city’s facades; regulating the width of plots to facilitate the standardised production of structural components, they reshaped patterns and types of land and property ownership. The terraced houses through which London expanded during the 18th and 19th centuries were “more or less the clauses of [those] building regulations turned into bricks and mortar”(1), and those regulations were shaped most profoundly by a particular way of thinking about and mitigating fire risk.
Three hundred years later, when the Blitz tore holes in that fabric, it cleared the space not only for new buildings but also for new ways of thinking about fire risk and building regulation. The German bombing campaign also accelerated ambitions for “slum clearance” ongoing since the time of Charles Booth. Where those bombs fell, towers later rose.
Like slow-motion dust plumes, post-war rebuilding replaced low-rise, private brick construction with new building types and technologies: the reinforced concrete frames and pre-cast panels of point-towers and slab-blocks, often lined with asbestos. And those new forms of construction likewise depended on new forms of regulation; the Second World War was itself the prompt for the UK’s first national building code; the exigency of post-war reconstruction displaced a patchwork of local authority by-laws with a unitary national code. That is, the Great Fire and the Blitz didn’t just pave the way for isolated building projects; through those regulatory frameworks designed in their wake, they prompted programmes for reconstruction that were city-wide, indeed national in scope.
Like the Great Fire and the Blitz, Grenfell is today prompting change within the UK’s fire-safety legislation, bringing particular scrutiny to those concerned with the testing of materials, and the use of combustible cladding at height. A ban on combustible cladding over 8m has already been imposed, requiring the re-cladding of other buildings, many of them also post-war towers now found to be unsafe. Further regulatory changes are expected, and these will extend the impact of that single fire well beyond its original site.
That is, the Grenfell fire will leave marks on cities across the UK, if not the world. But as we have seen, the marks of many fires are also legible within the built fabric of that one building. Overlaid on Grenfell Tower and its site we have already seen a number of different programmes for the reform of urban fire-safety: those forms of testing now problematised for allowing highly flammable materials to be certified as safe and installed at height; those post-war building standards that supported new building types and modes of construction, but seen as problematic by subsequent governments; and those prescriptive urban and architectural rules that, imposed in the wake of the Great Fire, would replace London’s previously timber buildings.
Our cities are an archaeology of fire; they are formed from successive acts of regulation, each prompted by and learning from particular building fires, each seeking to re-shape our built fabric and its legal frameworks in different ways.
Liam Ross is an architect and senior lecturer in Architectural Design at the University of Edinburgh. This excerpt was taken from Ross’ new book, Pyrotechnic Cities: Architecture, Fire-Safety and Standardisation (London: Routledge, 2022)
(1) Andrew Saint, ‘Lessons from London’, in Cities for the New Millennium (London: Taylor & Francis, 2001). p. 159.