I spent a very interesting day last Friday at the University of Central Lancashire as a participant in one of a series of AHRC funded research network workshops called Modern Futures. Essentially, the project aims to explore the ways in which Modernist architecture in Britain is understood and can be evaluated both today and for the future. The workshop began with a series of short talks from graphic designers, photographers, heritage professionals and enthusiasts that highlighted the different ways in which Modernism is valued and documented.
Two sets of images from the day kept cropping up in my mind’s eye as I rumbled back from Preston on one of those routinely uncomfortable, heating-free, bastardized things the ‘Serco and Abellio joint venture' aka ‘Northern Rail’ exploitatively like to call carriages.
The first was Andy Lock’s haunting and sad photographs of a now virtually abandoned Scottish council estate called Deans South, where late 1960s houses of a similar type to those found in parts of Cumbernauld New Town lie derelict in amongst picturesque expanses of lawn and ornamental shrubbery.
In contrast, the second came from Esther Johnson’s delightful film The View From My Window Tells Me I’m Home (2012), which records the lives and thoughts of ten residents of the Golden Lane estate in London. This was a sunny, warm, and humane reverie on life within one of the seminal high-density, high-rise estates of the postwar era, designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon and completed between 1957 and 1962.
|Photo by Anna Armstrong|
Like so many other estates across London, Golden Lane was part of that postwar, socially democratic impulse to provide good, modern, rented council housing for ordinary people, who were either living in slum conditions, or had been blitzed out of their homes in the war (and it’s a measure of the size of both those problems when you realise that architects and planners were still working on this nearly twenty years after the war had ended).
In today's de-regulated State/state however, a mix of tenants and owners occupy the flats and maisonettes at Golden Lane. But what owners! As the Modern Futures workshop unfolded, I began to realise the extent to which estates like Golden Lane had become a kind of next-best, overspill estate option (after the Barbican) for affluent and nomadic postwar Modernism buyer-owner-seller fetishists (I wonder which estate might be next? My money’s on Kate Macintosh’s Dawson’s Heights). This - vis-à-vis the remit of the Modern Futures project - is but one way in which we are now forced to understand postwar Modernism today: social consensus debased by an ultra-marketised world, where postwar council estates are cherry-picked for their architectural significance and colonized by arty types who criticize the tenants for not putting in the right type of replacement window while displaying themselves in sun-filled online photoshoots, sitting primly on the edge of their Ercol studio couch within their carefully ‘curated’ lives.
I should stress that Esther’s film itself played no part in this, and that it was scrupulously objective and balanced throughout in the way it addressed both tenants and buyers, and in how it perceptively toned down any whiff of designery-ness. The film was lovely, but for me there was a single, fingernails scraping down the kitchen blackboard moment, when one of the Golden Lane residents spoke of how he began to look for something modern to live in because he had already ‘worked the tranche’ of older and more traditional houses in the London suburbs. Ugh. 'Worked the tranche'. As Smash Hits used to say when faced with similar instances of self-satisfied pomp, "pass the sick-bag, Alice".
None of this would matter much were it not for the fact that there are nearly 350,000 people on council housing waiting lists in London alone (a number that shoots up to nearly five million across the UK). Next Saturday, on the 31st of January, a coalition of tenants, housing campaigners and trades unions will lead a 'March for Homes', which will head for City Hall in London to demand that councils start to build council housing again, that they begin to control private rents and – especially – stop the threatened demolition of homes on more than fifty estates across the city (nearly always to enable the appropriation of the land by developers who are often shamefully aided and abetted by the councils themselves). Some might say that yes, those estates will always tend to be the Heygate/Aylesbury-type systems-built 'failures', but this is also happening to pretty, intimately designed low-rise estates such as Cressingham Gardens in Lambeth. Might this happen to Golden Lane? I'm not sure, but then it was built by, and is situated within, the City of London. And so it might be safe - especially while its dwellings are apparently being bought up by those who seem to be very familiar with the workings of the City, if their free knowledge and use of the term 'tranche' ('an issue of bonds derived from a pooling of like obligations - eg. securitized mortgage debt - that is differentiated from other issues especially by maturity or rate of return ...') is anything to go by.