Estate: a journey in three stages…
Andrea Luka Zimmerman
Image: Bryony Campbell
‘The city is man’s most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself’.
Image: Fugitive Images
Hackney, London, 2013. The Haggerston estate is a red brick neo-Georgian former council estate made up of several individual, open access blocks. The estate is situated in the heart of a borough where rents and house prices grow faster than in many other London borough. Samuel House is the last block standing, and soon to be demolished.
Image: London School of Economics
Just over a century ago, in 1900, Charles Booth’s poverty map of Haggerston shows the stretch where Samuel House now stands. There is a black line, which indicates it as being inhabited by the semi-criminal and viscous. Soon after the old estate was demolished and the new Haggerston estate was built by the London City Council between 1910 -30, and it was seen as progress. The estate was then to house the “deserving” working class, and became known in the local vernacular as the “Prestige Blocks”.
In 1980/81 Haggerston estate was transferred to London Borough of Hackney, and began its rapid decline into a so-called “sink” estate. Less than a decade thereafter the Haggerston estate became known as the “heroin capital” of Europe.
Recently the Haggerston estate saw a re-purposing of its housing stock, when a majority of the residents voted in favour of a regeneration project that will demolish, after trying, unsuccessfully, to get the estate refurbished for the past 30 years. There will be no loss of social housing and the development is financed through the sale of private flats, increasing the density to roughly double the amount of flats.
So, what happened, all over again?
When I first moved in to the area in the 1990’s, the Haggerston estate was subject to the hard to-let-scheme, or easy-access as it was later called. This scheme included flats on council estates that were deemed unsuitable for certain tenants groups (i.e. families with young children etc), or which prospective tenants rejected on several occasions.
Over the past four of years I have been producing work [film, photography and public artworks] revolving around the place where I live, the Haggerston estate. In 2009, Lasse Johansson and I founded Fugitive Images, a collaborative platform set up for our work on the Haggerston estate during the time of its suspension between old and new, the past and present, narratives of optimism and the abject, and to explore what progress truly means to the people caught within it.
i am here (2009-2013)
i am here is a site specific public artwork that I, Lasse Johansson and Tristan Fennell made in collaboration with the residents of Haggerston estate in the summer of 2009. As we are long-term residents on the estate it is a project that emerged directly out of our day-to-day experience of living in a place and an area currently undergoing a rapid regeneration.
I’ll begin by describing in some detail the context surrounding the work.
The estate is located in Hackney, East London, and situated along the picturesque Regents canal. The canal was originally built during the industrialization in order to transport mostly raw materials needed by a rapidly expanding industry. Due to changes in demand as well as in modes of transportation it fell into disuse during the latter part of the 20th century.
However with the property boom beginning in the late 1990’s the canal was raised from its hibernation. It found itself in a new economic role, this time it was symbolic and aesthetic rather than as before a tangible, material one. Regents Canal with its scenic views offers plenty of development opportunities for real estate investors. As such it is something like a gold vein running through the borough, increasingly dotted with exclusive warehouse conversions and luxury developments. It is along this route that i am here is installed.
Whilst this rapid transformation has been going on in the area, nothing much changed on Haggerston Estate since the early 1980’s. Though there has been no lack of promises of a brighter future. In fact during the past 30 years proposals to modernise the estate have come and gone with regularity like the seasons. Because of this state of uncertainty any major external and internal repairs were forever postponed.
It was also a situation that created a sense amongst the estate of continuous suspension, a feeling of simultaneously being present and absent, never really knowing whether this would be the last winter spent in the cold and damp flats. Consequently, the estate experienced a steady decline spanning 3 decades.
However in October 2007 everything changed, when the remaining residents on the estate voted in favour of a stock transfer to L&Q housing association, with complete demolition and rebuilt. All the current residents have been offered a flat in the new development and will be temporarily re-housed during the construction phase.
It was the particular combination of the imminent regeneration of the estate, its history of neglect, decline and broken promises, which motivated us to take up a self appointed artist residency at Haggerston estate. We were especially struck by what we perceived as an inherent ambiguity at the core of the regeneration project. On the one hand there was a tangible sense of relief – finally everyone would have a decent flat to live in. Still, we also felt a sense of loss. In fact, the regeneration of the wider area carries with it a certain uneasy sense of inevitability. This made it seem almost unavoidable that the old Haggerston estate, especially its recent past, would soon be buried deep beneath a flagship, state-of-the-art regeneration project.
We feel an intense urge to resist such temptation to erase and forget, mainly as our own experience of the place differs from the common narrative of “trouble estates”.
In equal measures the regeneration process itself intrigues us. How does it manage to manifest itself so forcefully and quite often rather crudely, and yet remain somewhat elusive? What images and practices does it produce, distribute, omit and repress in order to transform the feel of an area in such a fundamental way?
In order to somehow make sense of this process we turned to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and his idea about habitus. Bourdieu called habitus, that which equips us with a sense of how to navigate our daily social world. He construed it as the subtle learned behaviours handed down through patterns of conduct by the social group, its history, culture, language and norms. He described the feeling of being “at home in ones world” as follows: “When habitus encounters a social world of which it is the product, it finds itself ‘as a fish in water’, it does not feel the weight of the water and takes the world about itself for granted”. The regeneration of our area seemed to us to do something similar but so to speak in reversal. By changing the temperature of the area some groups and individuals would begin to feel the weight of the water around them whereas others would be accommodated, take it for granted and feel like a fish in its water.
We began to collect visual materials that emerged out of the regeneration process. Two things struck us about the material collected – first and foremost there was an almost complete absence of the local population that had been living in the area for decades.
We suddenly found ourselves in the peculiar situation of literally living inside of a popular photo opportunity. A situation we became quite familiar with, as we frequently overheard, through the open windows of our flat facing the canal, people speculating about the estate, its possible future and state of decline. Often whilst documenting it with their camera or mobile phone. We felt that the orange boards had turned the facade into a projection screen for people’s fears and prejudices around estate environments, and perhaps more than anything a fear directed towards the people living inside them. In the dual role of being both residents and artists we wanted to intervene into what we perceived as a very one-way communication of being looked at and projected into.Image: Fugitive Images
We addressed this situation through a photo-installation, replacing all the 67 orange boards on the façade of Samuel House with large-scale photographic portraits of current and former residents of the estate.
As to, so to speak, humanize the façade, complicate and return the gaze of the passers-by.
Furthermore, it gave us an opportunity to become a public actor in the very process that produced the visual environment of our increasingly gentrified neighbourhood.
i am here shows the faces of ordinary people so often excluded from the visual material produced to market an up-and-coming area by estate agents, developers, private landlords, local councils and other stakeholders . When we decided to make this visual statement it was important for us to do it without imposing a particular community identity on the participants we were working with. Reason being that none of us really believe in the cosy idea of community as founded on coherence and consensus. What we experienced as a community at Haggerston was rather multiple groups co-existing with each other at times more successful than at others. That is the reason why we chose to title the project i am here instead of say: we are here.
Whilst we developed the ideas for the installation we were quite aware that the work would address multiple audiences. One would certainly be constituted by the residents, another by our landlord and yet another by the flow of people passing by the estate, on the towpath of the canal. We expected the work to have very different meanings and roles to each of these audiences.
Although we thought it was important to leave the work open for interpretation, with a minimum of authorization. That is to allow the work enough space to find its own role, with time perhaps changing roles, through the continuous encounter with its audiences until the day of demolition, at the moment scheduled for 2013.
During the time of the making of i am here the first residents moved into temporary housing in order to make way for the first wave of demolition and rebuilding. We started to photograph the emptied spaces, and continued to look at the issue of visual production and visibilities in relation to estate environments, poverty and regeneration. In particular, we were interested in how what remains can do its own telling. So instead of the people, we made a work on and from the estate entirely without showing people, the publication Estate: Art, Politics and Social Housing in Britain.
Image: Fugitive Images
Estate: Art, Politics and Social Housing in Britain (2010, 2012)
Image: Briony Campbell
Just after i am here was installed I came across a blog entry by a former tenant who had been born on the Haggerston estate called Julia. Her grandparents were the first tenants to move into Lowther House in the early 1930’s. The Haggerston block was for the “deserving” working class, meaning for those that proved (supposedly by not being in rent arrears or out of work) they had upward ambitions (and were able to pay the substantially higher rent). Julia’s family were moved there as part of a slum clearance program, from their house with its outside toilet and no bath, but with a number of sheep and other animals, to a place with an indoor bath, gas, and no animals allowed. Her grandfather could not bear being separated from his beloved animals, especially from his dog, Dinah, who had been his shadow. On his first day in the flat he killed Dinah, and himself.
So, how to remember a place like Haggerston? The regeneration of the area seemed to favor either a nostalgic look at the distant past or a sensationalising of the recent troubled past as a way to justify the obliteration of the old estate. We were intent on resisting the temptation to erase and forget, mainly because our own experience of the estate differs from the often clichéd narrative of “trouble estates,” which evokes a particular kind of social, economic, and psychological place for which the only solution seems to be demolition. There is no denying it has been far from a perfect place over the years; but we must not forget it has also been a home for many people, the place where some were born, spent their childhood, fell in love, and grew old. For us it has been a home and sanctuary offering, amongst other things, an affordable place to live.
We were not interested in simply uncovering a past world from the safe distance of the present, which we believe often caters for a nostalgic engagement with the archive; depicting, for example, a lost world where children played innocently in the early-1930s estate courtyard, a place where “you could always leave your door unlocked,” or the transformation of those playgrounds into air-raid shelters during World War II.
Our interest was rather in how to remember and make sense of the last thirty years of decline at the estate, when it became known as a “sink estate.” Yes, there is ample evidence of vulnerability, illness, and neglect; but there is also ingenuity, a sense of play, resilience, and humor. In this economic milieu of small means we have come across numerous examples of interventions and innovations eloquently displaying a refusal to resign and simply accept the hand one was given.
Image: Fugitive Images
Making this work we seeked a form of telling that would neither fall into the trap of romanticizing poverty by turning it into an aesthetic object, nor construct a simplistic image of poverty and decline. Estate: Art, Politics and Social Housing in Britain brings together four different ways of looking at and thinking through issues related to public housing. The book contains one text, photo essay, and a detailed photographic index by Fugitive Images; a personal essay on living on estates by the writer Paul Hallam; a theoretical text by Victor Buchli, reflecting on the archaeology of the recent past; and a brief history of social housing by the architect Christina Cerulli.
It is our hope that together these different, at times contradictory elements will constitute a work that suggests a mode of inquiry into the evocative, often derogative and contentious term, ‘estate’, here meaning public housing estates rather than a landed estate. Although many people have never set foot on a housing estate, let alone lived in one, most people seen to have strong opinions about them and their inhabitants.
Extracts from Estate: Art, Politics and Social Housing in Britain:
Andrea Luka Zimmerman / Lasse Johansson
There are tendencies indicating that housing management and building design are increasingly modelled on health and safety regulations, as articulated in design ideals and policies such as ‘defensible space’ and ‘Secured by Design’. These ideas have of late engraved themselves on the surface of the urban landscape through an increasing number of gated community type of developments, be they social housing or luxury developments for more affluent citizens. This trend in turn is influenced by the insurance industry through setting the rate of premiums charged to insure the buildings in accordance with how well a new development conforms to such security ideals. This relationship creates a problematic link between the insurance industry and the built environment. In Ground Control, Anna
Minton emphasises that “defensible space and high levels of security are built into virtually all new housing to attract lower insurance premiums, creating a virtuous circle for developers, who charge a premium for it”.
With due respect to security and economic benefit, the key question is whether this is the best way to create the platform for community life to develop? Minton argues that with the increasing fixation on security, which is achieved by locking out, with the help of gates and CCTV cameras, all external and unwanted elements, we are running the risk of creating a false sense of security by excluding the unexpected. It creates a sense that everyone not belonging to the environment is a potential danger in need of surveillance. “By retreating into safe havens, which substitute physical security and complex technological systems to meet emotional needs, this way of living is in danger not only of dividing the landscape but of stymieing people’s emotional lives in the process, by creating the false illusion that life is ‘psychologically snug’ (Giddens) and perfectly safe. When forced to venture out of these environments, the danger is that people are far less able to cope with the ordinary risks that are part of healthy life than they were before.”
‘Defensible’ housing? Or housing that might be more open, less ‘safe’? We hope that this book contributes in some way to an already complex debate; that it not only evokes memories, but also provokes thoughts on a future where exclusivity and exclusion should surely be indefensible”.
“Perhaps estates are always in decline, the ideals and ideas behind them being so grand.
The uncertainty of the street seems preferable, and everyone is to be seen there, even if some of them only step from a taxi to a department store. Every chance encounter on every street where no-one knows much about you. You are just what they see, if they notice you at all, and only what they can guess at.
I feel at once faithful to and a traitor to the estates I was placed in, or those I merely paused on.
A kind of guilt, or sense of failure, in the wandering, though I am never quite sure what the “charge” might be, or why I did not pass the test and settle.
I fear the last estate, the retirement home. The old upholstered armchairs, though so many look decoratively out to sea. Most housing estates I found myself wanting to leave almost immediately on arrival. Too many domestic stories, stories of the damaged, I see and am touched, but I do not really want to look too closely.
I can’t really share in the fascination of the issues that surround estates.
Housing, so far from the world of work, so separate.
The only pleasure was in watching the comings and goings from a window. Or the chance view from a window. People at home, people passing; their rituals and routines.
Every estate I feel as a place I will be caught on or caught out in.
I should start on a store of walking sticks and canes.
I need to leave the estate, and thank you, I can find my own way out”.
“The archaeology of the ‘recent past’ occupies a certain ambiguous position, as the term suggests, which is inherently part of its productive power. Focusing on what are oftentimes the forgotten, underfoot, unnoticed, unremarked upon or overlooked, the objects of archaeologies of the recent past are rarely claimed by historians or preservationists. In this sense it is precisely that which is unclaimed, the abject and wasted that makes it available for appropriation. Yet the archaeology of the recent past is also by definition almost always concerned with the painful and forgotten aspects of recent experience and other elements of social life that fall out of dominant discourses. This is so for the simple reason that the sites of these experiences are oftentimes those that are too difficult to engage with or represent in the present through conventional media or are simply beyond their scope. These are experiences such as recent wartime atrocities, civil conflict, homelessness and other forms of social dispossession or circumstance that are too painful, too volatile or too ephemeral to express otherwise. Such an archaeology is thus well suited to voice and materialise the experiences of those individuals who might normally be excluded by dominant discourses through the archaeological act’s ability to constitute materially and discursively that which could not be constituted before. It is precisely the abject nature of the objects of an archaeology of the recent past that makes them radically available. This is part of such an archaeology’s productive power and why it can be unsettling, destabilising and even threatening at times through its capacity to render the familiar strange and critically constitute the previously un–constitutable, thereby forging an engagement where previously there was none”.
“The origins of British council housing have been traced, by many commentators, in both the response to conditions created by the industrial revolution and a wide range of utopian experiences such as communitarian experiments and cooperatives. The poor living conditions of the working classes in the late 19th century were the trigger for a number of projects and initiatives, such as the construction of workers’ model industrial villages by ‘benevolent’ members of the upper classes. These villages in particular, and the garden city movement that grew out of them, were to become the spatial blueprint for 20th–century council housing, while the ideological under–pinning could be traced in upper–class feelings and beliefs about poverty”.
Image: Fugitive Images Image: Briony Campbell
I am currently in production with Estate, a non-fiction film hybrid, challenging conventional genre boundaries and seeking, rather, a heightened register of telling that is explicitly participatory and collaborative. Estate is centred in a world city long-inhabited by a variety of communities, a territory whose identity is at stake within the unfolding and accelerating narrative of globalised gentrification or ‘development’, and a zone whose building, function and population are being challenged by ‘incursionist’ forces – of speculative capital, architecture and commerce – in ways that challenge the current diversity of ways of being in this location.
Image: Briony Campbell
Estate is the final and most ambitious project in a trilogy of collaborative works on the estate, following the public art/photo-installation i am here and the artists’ book Estate: Art, Politics and Social Housing in Britain. I think of the project as inseparable from the trajectory of its coming into being over many years, and furthermore as I am deeply entrenched in this project, both as a filmmaker but also as a subject: I, too, shall loose my home during the course of its making, and move to a newly built one in its stead.
This project too emerged as a response to a lived experience: from a desire to capture the peculiar moment of the place where I live immediately prior to its complete demolition, and during its re-emergence as it is re-built in one of east London’s many ambitious regeneration projects. Currently Haggerston estate is suspended somewhere between the past and the imminent future, partly demolished and partly re-built.
Image: R M Tunkara
It is trying to make sense of a process that is regarded in public discourse as inevitable, where public housing is said to be dead, made obsolete in a multinational’s world.
Image: Fugitive Images
While around us luxury developments called Avant Garde Tower and Ability Plaza rise into being, a new kind of photo montage billboard depicting prospective (or typical) tenants rise along them. These are usually people in their mid twenties to mid thirties sipping a glass of wine against exposed loft type brick walls, or eating from designer kitchen tables.
Image: Fugitive Images Image: Fugitive Images
Is this who we are imagined by the regenerating stakeholders to become? Is this who we will be once the shell holding our homes is replaced?
Representations are normative. They are powerful, they produce, become real. There are those that can afford to advertise their vision, which is, today, usually corporate. We learn to call progress that which is in fact erasure; call diverse what is homogenous; call vibrant what is controlled.
The tension between the ways the present is presented – corporate image-making, language and slogans chosen to sell not only things but an idea of a future, narratives of so-called progress and the lives unfolding within or even outside these structures – is a messy one.
Margaret Meade said “what we need more than anything is to find common ground with other people”. If our image production, and the increasing corporate visual production of perception has become a subtle but powerful enabler towards making grounds un-common between people, where and what are possible registers of resistance in processes of the making and showing of a film?
Can, as Godard said during his Dziga Vertov period, a tracking shot become a moral issue?
Estate reflects on urgent matters of regeneration, gentrification and architecture; its reasons, possibilities and consequences. But more importantly, it is a film about time and place, dreams and wonder. During this moment, where one structure has broken down, and a new one is about to form, another space unfolds; a space of proposals, of uncertainty, and of absolute initiative. In this opening, how might we ask important questions of our ideas of home, of history, always in the making, and of our capacities of imagination; that which influences not only how we’re seen, but also how we see.
Image: Briony Campbell
I am currently in production with the film, and it will be completed later in 2014.
Andrea Luka Zimmerman, 2013
The text in part emerges from the long-term conversations and writings developed by Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Lasse Johansson, when we made and thought through i am here and Estate: Art, Politics and Social Housing in Britain.
Estate: Art, Politics and Social Housing in Britain is available from Myrdle Court Press, myrdlecourtpress.net
Produced with kind support from the CCW Graduate Fund, University Of The Arts London