Tag Archives: housing

Down at the Occupation of Guinness Trust’s Loughborough Park Estate

The occupation down at the Loughborough Park Estate has already been covered by the Buzz over the last few days, both management’s attempts to smash up the occupied flat to make it unliveable, and the ongoing protests every morning at 9am.

Loughborough Park Estate occupation

While much has been won, and the occupation is at an end, the struggle continues to win secure tenancies in Brixton for the tenants.

There were a handful of people in the evening as I joined them, half of them residents, the room dominated by the chatter of kids colouring and playing. A table full of food was in the other corner, and there are now lights and warmth and a working toilet.

This was a space of protest and a place for residents to meet together and get support from the wider community. Since they moved in — up to ten to eleven years ago now — the Guinness Trust has denied all use of the Loughborough Park Estate community hall to shorthold tenants.

Loughborough Park Estate occupation

I talked to Helen, an assured shorthold tenant (an AST) and one of around forty long-term tenants with shorthold status being displaced by Guinness Trust’s redevelopment plans. A musician with Yaaba Funk and other groups and a capoeira teacher (don’t know about capoeira? You need to find out more about this awesome Brazilian dance/martial arts mix invented by slaves), a filmmaker and artist, it isn’t hard to see she is one of the people that have made Brixton what it is.

We sat in the smaller room and talked briefly about what is happening at the occupation and the goals of the campaign from her point of view:

Q: So if you could just tell me a little about yourself and how you are connected to the occupation

H: I’ve been here– I didn’t take this place over but I am a supporter—and they’re supporting me. I live just over the road and I’ve lived here for eleven years, so I might be one of the longest ones. I’ve been to the meetings, the radical housing activist meetings, so I knew it was a thought, I knew it was going to happen and it’s good, it’s a good little office.

They’ve done this because there are so many people out on a limb, like ourselves who are literally going to be homeless, you know, we are literally going to be living on the streets, we’ve got no where to go. It’s a very difficult time. A very difficult time.

Q: So can you give me just a little back ground on what is happening here, and with Guinness Trust?

Helen: It’s been a long struggle, it’s been going on for a while, and we’ve been fighting for a while with people like the filmmaker Rashid Nix who used to live here.

We’ve kind of known since 2011 or 2012, they started demolishing back about 3 years now– but bit by bit they’ve knocked down bits of the estate and then built it up and people have been, what’s the word? Decanted.

With some people, you know, you’ve got your golden ticket, you’re a tenant and you get into one of the new flats. I’ve been into one of them and they’re really nice. But they’re selling some of them off as well, we know that now.

Some tenants are still chatty and nice, they’ve got a completely different aura. They’re getting somewhere better to live. Our places are a bit knackered really, they need doing up. My boyfriend was asthmatic and it’s nasty with all the green on your walls unless you’re really handy and you’ve got to do it yourself, because they never came in once in 11 years.

Lots of things have gone by the wayside because you know, let’s demolish it, let’s redo it. And there’s all sorts of classes here, it’s a complete class system. You know, you’ve got your tenants, who will be able to stay here, you’ve got your ASTs who are going to get a little pay off, you’ve got your Camelot who are groups of young people who get cheaper rent than what we’ve got and they’ll get a month or two weeks notice and then they’ll get put into another place to oversee and look after.

Q: They’re the company that puts tenants in empty buildings aren’t they.

H: They’re to keep people from squatting, to keep things like this from going on.

Q: So you’re a shorthold tenant?

H: Myself and Betiel, that’s what we are. Didn’t really have any way to change the tenancy, to get a full tenancy, to see a way to do it.

Q: So basically Guinness Trust has been taking your rent for eleven years, without giving you the same status as other tenants?

H: Yes. You know, a funny thing happened the day before yesterday, we were picketing and protesting and I saw this woman that I’ve known, she’s a tenant, and she came over and I suddenly realised she has been here less time than I have, and I thought oh my god! How did that happen then? So there’s not, there’s something wrong going on. She’s got a tenancy, she’s got a flat.

Q: And what about the other tenants?

H: Some of them are supportive, some embarrassed, some just don’t want to know.

Q: What would it look like if you won?

H: One of the flats [laughs]. But I don’t know, so many of my friends are gone now, they were ASTs and they’ve gone.

Q: But were they able to stay in the area?

H: Not all of them, some have gone to Hackney, some to Earl’s Court– It’s really expensive in Brixton, it’s very expensive here, there’s a complete – let’s call it gentrification, regeneration.

As a person who has lived here eleven years I’ve watched it really change. I’ve watched the shops that were vegetable shops change to champagne bars and, you know, the whole sort of different feel of the place.

Places where people lived for thirty years and have now been gutted, they’ve been thrown out, done up, and now you’ve got people who look like Prince Harry’s girlfriend who live there, to be honest [laughs]. Its not even Shoreditch, it’s like Chelsea, it’s very high end, I don’t know what’s happened, I mean, I’m living in it. I’m looking around trying to move and the rents are really high, I’m not sure what to do, I’m a part time worker, I’m an artist and a musician who works with kids. I don’t always earn that much money, so it’s hard.

Q: So what can people do to support you?

H: We’re just hoping to get people together in support, and it would be fantastic if we can actually change things. I just think it’s really wrong the way they’ve treated people.

Loughborough Park Estate occupation

 First posted on the Brixton Buzz, 20 February, 2015

 

Save

Shipping Containers: Industrial Present, Sustainable Future?

Is it nice to live in them, work in them, learn in them, play in them? Are they part of the answer to both the housing and environmental crisis?

Long and narrow rectangles of steel, containers are a part of my childhood, forming the long trains that snaked across our landscape. 417989_10151168966670974_951735433_n

When I moved to L.A., they became part of my landscape in a new way, though I confess I rarely made the trip to the port:

Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach.
Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach.

This is the MSC Fabiola, the largest container ship — it’s scale is almost lost in this picture, at 1,200 feet long it can carry 12,500 containers, and only a handful of ports have the capacity to handle its size and depth:

Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach.
Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach.

The second series of The Wire exemplifies the size, the feel, the tragedy of automation on the docks. Containers are symbolic of trade, the industrial side of consumption. Now, increasingly they are being used as building blocks for places that form part of our daily lives.

I was surprised to find multiple projects in London, beginning with the Container City Project:

Devised by Urban Space Management Ltd, the Container City™ system re uses shipping containers linked together to provide high strength, prefabricated steel modules that can be combined to create a wide variety of building shapes and can be adapted to suit most planning or end user needs.

This modular technology enables construction time to be reduced by up to half those of traditional building techniques while minimalising on site disruption and remaining significantly more environmentally friendly.

What does significantly more environmentally friendly mean? In looking deeper I found this way to measure the impact of building that takes into account not just the sustainability of heating and cooling it over time, but also the materials involved in its construction, the idea of embodied energy:

There are two forms of embodied energy in buildings:

· Initial embodied energy; and
· Recurring embodied energy

The initial embodied energy in buildings represents the non-renewable energy consumed in the acquisition of raw materials, their processing, manufacturing, transportation to site, and construction. This initial embodied energy has two components:

Direct energy the energy used to transport building products to the site, and then to construct the building; and

Indirect energy the energy used to acquire, process, and manufacture the building materials, including any transportation related to these activities.

The recurring embodied energy in buildings represents the non-renewable energy consumed to maintain, repair, restore, refurbish or replace materials, components or systems during the life of the building.

This reflects all the costs of mining, processing and transporting of building materials, while also the cost of construction and then the ongoing cost of inhabiting and maintaining the building.

Recycling containers in this way is not only far more energy efficient than melting them down and attempting to reclaim the metal, but also far more efficient in terms of construction materials and process. This makes them ideal for building genuinely affordable housing. This is a project from Arkatainer (more pictures here) for a YMCA scheme to provide housing for homeless teens:

© Matthew Parsons, Arkitainer.com
© Matthew Parsons, Arkitainer.com

This is stripped down and simple, but there is a huge list of container architecture projects from around the world here at inhabitat,  here at altdotenergy, and here at designcrave. Some of my favourites (though surely the more ornate they become, the more glass they involve, the more energy they use):

Tony's Farm is the biggest organic farm in Shanghai, Tony's Organic Farm Has a New Shipping Container Visitor Center in Shanghai
Tony’s Organic Farm Has a New Shipping Container Visitor Center in Shanghai

 

Dachi Papuashvili's Cross-Shaped Micro Home
Dachi Papuashvili’s Cross-Shaped Micro Home

 

 

Four Room House, Belgian architects Pieter Peelings and Silvia Mertens of Sculp(IT)
Four Room House, Belgian architects Pieter Peelings and Silvia Mertens of Sculp(IT)

1185232_659747480732660_1776861262_n

 

And finally London’s own Container City:

Container-City

Fascinatingly, Container City was also the title of a 2009 video game (see a walk through here), where the container city was instead a shanty town, a makeshift ghetto built of port detritus, filled with criminals that need to be hunted down and destroyed.

container-city-brinkbrink-videos---giant-bomb-c3a1lfps

It is the same kind of look but on a massive scale, rusted out, grafittied. It provides a vision of a possible future far removed from the brightly painted and hip constructions now decorating London, and being built around the world. Given a widening inequality, I’m not sure which is a more realistic depiction of our future.

I’ll definitely be exploring London’s container building and this concept further…

Save

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

A miserable, cold, rainy sort of day, that started with snow and sleet. In spite of that there were a lot of us gathering for the South London feeder march to City Hall.

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

Cressingham Gardens in the house (one of them, you can just barely see, had the best pair of boots I have seen in forever, in campaign colours as well!):

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

Bring Back the Bow Back — nice to see the National Bargee Travellers Association here:

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

Making up and little for the rain and cold, it was good to see tenants emerging from their balconies and doorways, cheering us on, picking up the chants:

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

Fortitude seemed a good title.

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

We met up with the East London contingent at Tower Bridge…scenic, but no place to get a feeling for how many people came together at all.

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

And finally arriving at the Town Hall.

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

Save

Mining & Housing

I never really made the connection between new housing development, mining and the environmental impacts that both have on the earth.

Then the other other day I stumbled across this: ‘Zinc in London Climbs for Second Day Before U.S. Housing Data‘, and it contains this startling information:

Housing starts in the U.S., the second-largest metals consumer, probably climbed 1.2 percent in December from the previous month, according to a Bloomberg survey

New housing, the second largest metals consumer? (What is the first?)

But of course — look at the kind of new luxury housing that is being built (in the face of the enormous unfilled need for social housing, Lambeth’s waiting list of 21,000 people)

A visualisation of the future skyline of the Nine Elms area of the South Bank in west London has been unveiled by the Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership.
A visualisation of the future skyline of the Nine Elms area of the South Bank in west London has been unveiled by the Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership.

I didn’t know much about zinc, most commonly found with nickel and lead (another staple of the construction industry), I found more than I ever wanted to know from the Australian government — where zinc mining is big business.

A large part of the world’s zinc is used as protective galvanised coatings for iron and steel. In Australia, this use accounts for well over half of the domestic sales of zinc. The widespread use of zinc as a protective coating is mainly because of its resistance to normal weathering, and the protection given to steel by the preferential corrosion of zinc when the underlying iron or steel is exposed.

The biggest mines are found in Rahasthan India, Alaska and in Australia. I don’t pretend to fully understand the processes, but it is extremely toxic:

The flotation process is then used to separate the zinc and other valuable sulphide minerals from the waste rock particles or tailings to form a concentrate….Electrolysis and smelting are the two processes used to produce zinc metal in Australia. The electrolytic process is … where zinc concentrate from various Australian mines is roasted to eliminate most of the sulphur as sulphur dioxide and make impure zinc oxide. The roasted concentrate is then leached with sulphuric acid to form zinc sulphate solution…The smelting process …. Zinc and lead concentrates from various mines are blended and sintered or partly melted to combine the fine particles into lumps and remove some sulphur as sulphur dioxide. The sintered product is mixed with coke and smelted in a blast furnace to produce zinc vapour (gas), which is condensed by cooling with a spray of molten lead to form impure molten zinc metal (98.3% zinc). To remove the small amount of lead and cadmium impurities the liquid zinc is twice boiled to zinc vapour and recondensed to produce high purity zinc metal (up to 99.95%).

Zinc is mostly mined underground, unlike copper which is also mentioned in the article and widely used in building for wiring and plumbing. It is pulled from great pits like Morenci in my own Arizona, swallower of whole towns, of graveyards:

Morenci Pit

Or Bisbee:

lavender pit

My 1004844_10151917281020974_710944858_nfamily’s fortunes were tied to mining (my dad made the most wonderful maps, and we helped him) — a terrible thing, being mostly a life of poverty and uncertainty. This is what my dad got from his coworkers when finally laid off by Kennecott after refusing to move to Reno. The golden screw.

Mining provides a livelihood for many, a job that is dangerous but also one of pride, and a love of working underground. In my own part of the world, their history has been based on land stolen by force from Native Americans, the low level violence of prospectors and high level violence of powerful owners running towns, decimating organising work (and often killing or exiling union organisers), discriminating against non-whites. It has meant a boom and bust cycle that has built towns, then destroyed them. Similar violence, greed and exploitation has been repeated in mines worldwide. Pit mining unquestionably destroys the environment, creating the vast, desolate, toxic and terribly beautiful landscapes shown in the pictures above.

All this to build homes on the other side of the country, the other side of the world that will mostly sit empty. Towering boxes of steel and glass that are the least sustainable kind of architecture in terms of energy use, maintenance. Towering boxes of steel that are used as investments toxic to communities being displaced, and toxic to the people who still live there amidst a largely uninhabited wasteland.  This is the feeling on Paddington Basin, along much of the Thames both North and South.

In the struggle over mining and environment my dad always said (quoting a bumper sticker prevalent at the time), if it’s not grown it’s mined. We need metals, they are in everything we use. But by god we should mine them as safely as possible, pay the workers well, use minerals and metals responsibly, be working to reduce our use of them more and more, to reuse and recycle, to replace lost jobs through the creation of new jobs in improving our world to make it greener and more sustainable. This is necessary for our survival.

Instead we strip the earth to build monuments to greed, as unsustainable as the mining practices that make them possible.

 

Save

The Condition of the Working Class in England

engels condition of the working class017(1)In the words of my partner, a corker. It left me with a number of impressions.

The most overpowering is just rage and sadness at how the industrial revolution decimated lives. Half of children dead by the age of 5, average life expectancy from 45 to 50, the malnutrition, cold, damp, misshapen bodies, impotency and infertility, lost limbs, lost lives.

‘The English working men call this ‘social murder’, and accuse our whole society of perpetrating this crime perpetually. Are they wrong? (38)

No. They are not wrong, and Engels’s goal with this work is to prove it. He writes:

I have now to prove that society in England daily and hourly commits what the working-men’s organs, with perfect correctness, characterize as social murder, that it has placed the workers under conditions in which they can neither retain health nor live long; that it undermines the vital force of these workers gradually, little by little, and so hurries them to the grave before their time. I have further to prove that society knows how injurious such conditions are to the health and the life of the workers, and yet does nothing to improve these conditions (107).

The second is just how much this must have contributed to Marx’s thinking in writing Capital, I read it and throughout the empirical and social research I found so many echoes (but they must be considered previews really) of Marx’s more theoretical work making sense of it, bringing its insights into order and revealing a deeper structural functioning. Editor and author of the introduction Dave McLellan notes that it was one of Engels’s articles on this political economy of the factories which first awoke Marx’s interest in economics when he received it as editor of the radical German journal to which Engels was submitting it. I can’t help but think that these two works should be more tightly linked, particularly for those like myself who are nervy of theory too removed from concrete fact. I like to think now, of this being the first volume of their work throughout the volumes of Capital, the understanding of raw suffering and misery, the initial grasping of the roles played by competition (given an entire chapter which proposes that capitalism consists of a never-ending movement between crisis and prosperity and this requires a reserve army of workers) and constantly improving technology, that drove them to fully theorise these things much more elaborately and certainly at far remove from the actual conditions described here. Some of them are revisited in Capital itself, but I found this to be far more persuasive, both why a bigger theory of capitalism was so desperately needed, and to dig into the way it has functioned to impact worker’s lives and how they have struggled against it (which Capital never gets to…).

Third, the character of Engels himself. In the opening dedication ‘To the Working Classes of Great Britain’, he writes

‘I forsook the company and the dinner parties, the port wine and champagne of the middle classes, and devoted my leisure hours almost exclusively to the intercourse with plain Working Men(9)

I can think of no more hilarious opening, and McLellen does right in pointing out (as Engels points out himself in his 1885 preface), how young Engels was: only 24 when he researched and wrote this between 1843-45 while working at his father’s thread factory in Manchester. How imbued he was with the idealism of the Young Hegelians and the even more radical politics of Hess and Marx. He remains in many ways a man of his time and class, with many a cringe-worthy sentence on the nature of the Irish and the stupidity of the working man, and the most amazing failure to see any revolutionary potential in the thousands of women and child workers. He sees instead a fundamentally unnatural system where women work and men actually take care of the home (OMG! the horror!).

Can anyone imagine a more insane state of things?…this condition, which unsexes the man and takes from the woman all womanliness…(155)

On the working classes? He confuses arrests with criminality for example, completely failing to recognise the use of police and prison to dominate and contain. It is hard imagining him treating any factory as an intellectual equal. For the Irish, he does note that it is primarily as an exploited country and as immigrants that they are used to force wages and demands down. But there is a brutal judgment of their humanity running through everything:

In short, the Irish have discovered the minimum of the necessities of life, and are making the English workers acquainted with it. Filth and drunkeness, too, they have brought with them (103)

Fourth, the key observations of the city and its form that he makes. On Manchester:

The town itself is peculiarly built, so that a person may live in it for years, and go in and out daily without coming into contact with a working-people’s quarter or even with workers, that is, so long as he confines himself to his business or to pleasure walks. This arises chiefly from the fact, that by unconscious tacit agreement, as well as with outspoken conscious determination, the working-people’s quarters are sharply separated from the sections of the city reserved for the middle class; or, if this does not succeed, they are concealed with the cloak of charity (57)

He looks at the full layout of the city, with each class inhabiting its sections, and large thoroughfares separating them, lined with shops and activity and closing off from view the inner courts and closes:

The finest part of this arrangement is this, that the members of the money aristocracy can take the shortest road through the middle of all the laboring districts to their place of business, without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and the left. …they suffice to conceal from the eyes of the wealthy men and women of strong stomachs and weak nerves the misery and grime which form the complement to their wealth (58).

The descriptions of thousands of people crammed into tiny closes with pigs and no sewage facilities or drainage or running water are heart breaking.

If anyone wishes to see in how little a space a human being can move, how little air–and such air!–he can breathe, how little of civilization he may share and yet live, it is only necessary to travel hither (65)

He diagrams the closes and courts, the new rows being thrown up shoddily by speculative builders and the methods and materials they use. He also sees them, like Lefebvre long after him, as the birthplaces of struggle:

The great cities are the birthplaces of labour movements; in them the workers first began to reflect upon their own condition, and to struggle against it; in them the opposition between proletariat and bourgeoisie first made itself manifest; from them proceeded the Trade Unions, Chartism, and Socialism. The great cities have transformed the diseases of the social body, which appears in chronic form in the country, into an acute one, and so made manifest its real nature and the means of curing it. Without the great cities and their forcing influence upon the popular intelligence, the working class would be far less advanced than it is. Moreover, they have destroyed the last remnants of the patriarchal relation between working men and employers…(133)

And finally, the accounts of struggle to recover humanity through theft, arson, murder by despairing individuals, and the struggle to organise into unions and associations, to win political change through chartism. There is so much to admire here, even though Engels own theoretical belief in the inevitability of defeat is at war with the hopefulness inspired by worker struggle:

The history of these Unions is a long series of defeats of the working men, interrupted by a few isolated victories. All these efforts naturally cannot alter the economic law according to which wages are determined by the relation between supply and demand in the labour market. Hence the Unions remain powerless against all great forces which influence this relation (224)

He describes long strikes and gun battles. The ‘Rebecca’ disturbances in Wales, in which agricultural workers donned women’s clothing and black face to conduct their rebellion. he prophesied revolution coming at any minute.

He was wrong of course, at least about the imminence of revolution. It reminds me of reading Angela Davis writing in the 60s, that firm belief that change is around the corner. Writing his preface 40 years later, I found it fascinating to discover that that part of his explanation for this failure is the rise of England as the manufacturing hub of a globalised world, exporting to all of Europe and creating a demand for its goods as far away as Africa. This caused the manufacturers to make a compact with workers (my word), raising wages and improving conditions so as not to interrupt production and wildly rising profits with growing markets whose demand outstripped supply. The beginnings of a newly reorganising chains of production and a growing globalisation.

Save

Estate, by Fugitive Images

10401119Estate, Fugitive Images (Myrdle Court Press, London: 2010)

The pursuit of public Housing provision was one of the 20th century’s redeeming contributions. Yet, in the first decade of the 21st century, public housing as an ideal is a contradictory territory resulting from policies that value entrepreneurial charities or a subsidised private sector over state funded and administered housing.

Estate is a timely contribution to the debates entangling millions of individuals and countless neighbourhoods. The starting point is a visual essay on the Haggerston West & Kingsland estates in Hackney, east London, in the process of demolition and re-building. The 56 photographs document the spaces left behind when people were moved out. Despite residents living in limbo for over 30 years as refurbishment plans were continuously proposed, shelved and re-proposed, the images highlight their innovative solutions to the difficulties of continuing to live while an idea and a set of buildings were being abandoned around them. 

This is an incredible book that will move you deeply, even if the true meaning of home and the trauma of losing it hasn’t been burnt into you by life itself. As someone who has experienced eviction and poverty and loss, I confess I have strong feelings about how people write about it, document it, photograph it. But here it is done with a beauty, love, and respect that comes closer to capturing the many shades of what it means and how it is experienced than almost anything I have read. There is no sentimentalization here, no glorification of the working class or a home that after years of landlord neglect has become much less than anyone would wish. Instead it is a deeply felt exploration of meaning from many angles, a teasing out across perspectives, a contextualization of loss and change through words and images and theory.

My favourite section is the first one by Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Lasse Johannson, the experience of living on Hackney’s Haggerston West Estate and watching it slowly emptying of people, introducing the incredible series of photographs from Haggerston and Kingsland Estates, with captions that add another level of depth to what the images make so vivid. I took the photo that heads this review in 2011, wandering down the Regent’s Canal and finding it beautiful and extraordinary long before I met Andrea and Lasse or heard about their work.

Followed by a more literary piece by Paul Hallam, exploring estates in the plural and the singular, winding around the meaning and making of place and poverty, extracting quotes from residents that I confess made me shed a tear or two on the tube. There is much to ponder in Victor Buchli’s Archeology of the Recent Past, and a clear contextualization of the particular within the broader history of Britain’s social housing by Cristina Cerulli.

They come together in a thought-provoking, moving whole. No one can ever have the last, the final, the entire say of what estates mean to those who live in them, what it is like to live in them, what it is like to lose them. That is the point. Estate is simply a gift to those who read it, the gift of a view, a taste, an experience that will make you think and feel deeply.

You can buy it here, from the wonderful Myrdle Court Press. This is an old review, brought forward in anticipation of seeing the film from Fugitive Images, Estate, a reverie, that I have seen some powerful clips from and long been waiting to watch as a whole:

an artist’s film, song cycle and installation to be created and performed by the disappearing community of the Haggerston Estate. It is the final and most ambitious project in a trilogy of collaborative works on the estate led by artist resident Andrea Luka Zimmerman, working closely with architectural researcher and writer David Roberts, following the public art/photo-installation i am here (with Lasse Johansson and Tristan Fenell) and the artists’ book Estate (Myrdle Court Press, with Lasse Johansson, Paul Hallam, Cristina Cerully, Victor Buchli), both of which have gained international acclaim.

Save

Round About a Pound a Week

3368334Maud Pember Reeves ([1913] 1979]
Virago Press

A classic book in many ways, primarily as emblematic of turn-of-the-century Fabian feminism, and at the same time one of the first serious studies of working class women.It is heartbreaking.

I read a large chunk of it in a most horrific yet insanely trendy and expensive hotel we had been put up in last minute as a result of an error in arrangements for a panel. The Mondrian. God. People there dripped money and it heaved with staff anxious to help them and extremely expensive art in terribly bad taste and the ‘prow’ of beaten copper pieces individually soldered had taken two and a half years to create and I sat there in the lobby waiting for my partner without the wherewithal to buy a drink reading about life in cellars and dead babies with tears literally dripping from my nose and the desire to smash all of it. Because we’re heading back there. Back to 1913 — this reads like Dickens but these conditions shamefully lasted well into the 20th Century. Where they should have been abolished forever.

So many babies died. The rest slowly starved, along with their parents. This book contains tables and tables of menus, hard choices, the relationships between housing and illness and death. I love Virago Press,  bless them for republishing it with Sally Alexander to deliver the splendid introduction.

The Fabian Women’s Group was actually founded in the home of Maud Pember Reeves in 1908, by Charlotte Wilson, anarchist and early member of the Fabian society. They followed in a long tradition of philanthropy, but brought together women from multiple radical (to reformist perhaps) traditions who still believed in the move from individual solutions to social ones.

Their goals were not small and have yet to be obtained: ‘The two immediate aims … were equality in citizenship and women’s economic independence’ (xiv).

I’m going to delve more into the Fabian Women’s Group (bookmarked for example, is the understanding of class differences in the struggle for gender equality laid out by Mabel Atkinson in The Economic Foundation of the Women’s Movement (Fabian Tract No. 175)), but I so much loved this wonderful reminiscence about the shifting sands of feminism and the generation gap between older Fabians and younger:

There are also faint residues of Victorian standards of propriety about some of the older women. When I asked Amber Blanco White for a description of her mother’s friends in the FWG, she replied that there “was never any time to meet any of them–they were just a lot of women talking about very serious things.” Her mother thought it was important for girls to study their lessons most of the time: having been well educated herself, and her mother before her, she wanted her daughters to grow up in the same way….Femininity tended to be identified with frivolity–they kept a vigilant watch on this side of their character. In the 1909 annual report of the Group, women were urged to “cast aside feminine slackness and negligence with regard to their own affairs”, and get on with the work of preparing for citizenship (xviii-xix).

The scheme behind this study, the “Mother Allowance Scheme” which attempted to make a measurable impact in infant well-being and survival started within a year of the group’s founding. I think Alexander nails what is important about both the nature of the study and the book that was produced, as this was ‘unique in investigating the daily circumstances of women’s lives, how they coped with continual damp, vermin, inadequate food… (x). I liked this as well:

the conclusions were inescapable–the cause of infant mortality was not that mothers were ignorant or degenerate, but that they had too little money to provide for their own and their families’ essential needs…(xi)

The book is quite full of fantastic descriptions of the area. There are a number of longer quotes courtesy of forgottenbooks.com, I could never have typed them from my vintage hardcopy, but they are worth looking at in full:

TAKE a tram from Victoria to Vauxhall Station. Get out under the railway arch which faces Vauxhall Bridge, and there you will find Ken nington Lane. The railway arch roofs in a din which reduces the roar of trains continually passing overhead to a vibrating, muffled rumble. From either end of the arch comes a close procession of trams, motor-buses, brewers’ drays, coal-lorries, carts filled with unspeakable material for glue factory and tannery, motor-cars, coster barrows, and people. It is a stopping-place for tramcars and motor-buses; therefore little knots of agitated persons continually collect on both pathways, and dive between the vehicles and descending passengers in order to board the particular bus or tram they desire. At rhythmic intervals all traffic through the arch is suspended to allow a flood of trams, buses, drays, and vans, to surge and rattle and bang across the opening of the archway which faces the river.

At the opposite end there is no cross-current. The trams slide away to the right towards the Oval. In front is Kennington Lane, and to the left, at right angles, a narrow street connects with Vauxhall Walk, leading farther on into Lambeth Walk, both locally better known as The Walk. Such is the western gateway to the district stretching north to Lambeth Road, south to Lansdowne Road, and east to Walworth Road, where live the people whose lives form the subject of this book.

They are not the poorest people of the district. Far from it! They are, putting aside the tradesmen whose shops line the big thoroughfares such as Kennington Road or Kennington Park Road, some of the more enviable and settled inhabitants of this part of the world. The poorest people” the river-side casual, the workhouse in-and-out, the bar-room loafer ” are anxiously ignored by these respectable persons whose work is permanent, as permanency goes in Lambeth, and whose wages range from i8s. to 305. a week. They generally are somebody’s labourer, mate, or handyman. Painters’ labourers, plumbers’ labourers, builders’ handymen, dustmen’s mates, printers’ labourers, potters’ labourers, trouncers for carmen, are common amongst them. Or they may be fish-fryers, tailors’ pressers, feather cleaners’ assistants, railway-carriage washers, employees of dust contractors, carmen for Borough Council contractors, or packers of various descriptions (2-3).

The streets they live in are monotonously and drearily decent, lying back from the main arteries, and with little traffic other than a stray barrel organ, a coal-lorry selling by the hundredweight sack, or a taxi-cab going to or from its driver’s dinner at home. At certain hours in the day ” before morning school, at midday, and after four o’clock ” these narrow streets become full of screaming, running, shouting children. Early in the morning men come from every door and pass out of sight. At different times during the evening the same men straggle home again. At all other hours the street is quiet and desperately dull. Less ultra-respectable neighbourhoods may have a certain picturesqueness, or give a sense of community of interest or of careless comradeship, with their untidy women chatting in the doorways and their unoccupied men lounging at the street corners; but in these superior streets a kind of dull aloofness seems to be the order of the day (3).

The houses are outwardly decent–two stories of grimy brick. The roadway is narrow, but on the whole well kept, and on the pavement outside many doors there is to be noticed, in a greater or less condition of freshness, a semicircle of hearthstone, which has for its radius the length of the housewife’s arm as she kneels on the step. In some streets little paved alleyways lead behind the front row of houses, and twist and turn among still smaller dwellings at the back ” dwellings where the front door leads downwards into a room instead of upwards into a passage. Districts of this kind cover dreary acres–the same little two-story house, with or without an inconceivably drearier basement, with the same kind of baker’s shop at the corner faced by the same kind of greengrocer’s shop opposite. The ugly, constantly-recurring school buildings are a relief to the spirit oppressed by the awful monotony (4-5).

The description of the study, and social experiment,  is fairly astonishing in its matter-of-fact summation of widespread desperate poverty that hopefully we will never return to:

A sum of money was placed at the disposal of this committee in order to enable them to study the effect on mother and child of sufficient nourishment before and after birth. Access was obtained to the list of out-patients of a well-known lying in hospital; names and addresses of expectant mothers were taken from the list, and a couple of visitors were instructed to undertake the weekly task of seeing each woman in her own home, supplying the nourishment, and noting the effects. From as long as three months before birth, if possible, till the child was a year old, the visits were to continue. The committee decided that the wives of men receiving over 26s. a week were likely to have already sufficient nourishment, while the wives of men out of work or receiving less than i8s. a week were likely to be living in a state of such misery that the temptation to let the rest of the family share in the mother’s and baby’s nourishment would be too great (8).

As if that weren’t bad enough, they were in for another unexpected surprise when actually faced with the realities of people’s lives:

It was at first proposed to rule out disease, but pulmonary and respiratory disease were found to be so common that to rule them out would be to refuse about half the cases. It was therefore decided to regard such a condition of health as normal, and to refuse only such cases of active or malignant disease in the parents as might, in the doctor’s opinion, completely wreck the child’s chance of a healthy life (9).

And to me unsurprisingly, but to them, busy checking and rechecking the honesty of their subjects (because so much of this book is about middle-class prejudices, though I give them credit for overcoming them to an impressive extent in understanding at least the objective conditions faced by working families):

the budgets have borne out each other in the most striking manner. There seems to be so little choice in the manner of keeping a family on 2os. a week (12).

There are some great little sections of immense detail — hinting at the riches held in the actual archives:

Emma, aged eleven, began as follows: “Mr G’s wages was 19 bob out of that e took thruppons for es diner witch is not mutch e bein sutch a arty man. The rent was six and Mrs G payed fower an six because Bobby’s boots was off is feet and his knew ones was one an six witch makes six and that leaves 12 an 9 and out of that,” etc. It took four pages of painstaking manuscript in a school exercise-book to complete one week (14).

And even these judgmental and haughty women could be humbled — and acknowledged it:

The women who kept their accounts for themselves were found to be better arithmeticians than they were writers. Their addition had a disconcerting way of being correct, even when the visitor seemed to get a different total (14).

There is also some level of self-awareness here, of the intrusion such a study represents and the cost born by the working women involved:

At the beginning of each case the woman seemed to steel herself to sit patiently and bear it while the expected questions or teaching of something should follow (16).

It doesn’t stop Maud Pember Reeves from being a little judgmental, but still she is wise enough to realise that even a serious, well-organised and collective fight would not be enough to materially change very much:

The tenants might do more for themselves if they understood and could use their rights ” if they expected to be more comfortable than they are. They put up with broken and defective grates which burn twice the coal for half the heat; they accept plagues of rats or of vermin as acts of God; they deplore a stopped-up drain without making an effective complaint, because they are afraid of being told to find new quarters if they make too much fuss. If they could or would take concerted action, they could right a great many of the smaller grievances. But, when all is said and done, these reforms could do very little as long as most of the present buildings exist at all, or as long as a family of eight persons can only afford two, or at most three, small rooms (38).

I loved this as well, having done so much tenant organising — and lost my own home as a teenager — it amazes me that anyone could assume that people are happy just to leave their homes, poor as they may be. I have never found that to be true, and possibly has never been true, which is why the fight needs to be to make places better for the people who live there:

strange as it may seem to those whose bi-weekly visit to Lambeth is like a bi-weekly plunge into Hades–the people to whom Lambeth is home want to stay in Lambeth (39).

That fight is on again I think. Give Pember Reeves her due, she was able to recognise it. Just as there is a brilliant section where she patiently explains how they slowly unravelled the reason working class women weren’t feeding their families porridge as recommended by every philanthropic visitor and doctor ever — there was little time to cook it the morning it was to be eaten, cooked the day before it was terrible without milk or sugar — and not one of these families could afford milk or sugar, it was quick to burn in the one old decrepit pot each family used for cooking, and when that pot had been in use the night before for fish stew — well, you can imagine. All this was a major discovery for philanthropy.

I think the gap in understanding between classes is most visible in her descriptions of attitudes and bearing — and clearly this is what the presence of one of these formidable and never-frivolous socialists would most impact. They describe a class without life or humour to any degree, which I cannot believe at all. Possibly because the humour was hidden, or because they could not understand it, or because it was not convenient for a book urging the world to action like this was meant to be. Still, perhaps the below was true for some, and I’m the last person to say a life of such want and misery doesn’t cost:

Want of joy of life was the most salient feature of the children as they grew older. They to readily accepted limitations and qualifications imposed upon them, without that irrational hoping against impossibility and belief in favourable miracles which carry more fortunate children through many disappointments (93).

The outstanding fact about the children was not their stupidity nor their lack of beauty–they were neither stupid nor ugly–it was their puny size and damaged health (193).

I quite loved this:

If the poor were not improvident, they would hardly dare to live their lives at all (146).

I also loved her defense of men, and understanding of their position after children come along:

if he be at all tender-hearted towards his family…he must never smoke, he must never take a glass of ale; he must walk to and from his work in all weathers; he must have no recreations but the continual mending of his children’s boots; he must neither read nor go to picture palaces nor take holidays, if he is to do all that social reformers expect of him when they theoretically parcel out his tiny income (152).

There’s a fascinating little section about someone who was a tenant on the Duchy of Cornwall estate, and early slum clearance schemes which seemed to have made life worse for many (as they still do today as well):

She solved her problem by becoming a tenant of the Duchy of Cornwall estate. She got four tiny rooms for 8s., and kept them spotless. Her husband, who was a painter’s labourer and a devoted gardener, kept the tiny strip of yard gay with flowers, and kept the interior of the damp, ill-contrived little house fresh with “licks of paint” of motley colours and patches and odds and ends of a medley of papers. When work was slack, Mrs. C. simply did not pay the rent at all. As she said: “The Prince er Wales, ‘e won’t sell us up if we keeps the place a credit to ‘im.” She seemed to be right, for they owed a great deal of rent, and were never threatened with ejection. She explained the principle on which she worked as follows: “Me and my young man we keeps the place nice, and wen ‘e’s out er work in the winter I gets twenty loaves and 2 lbs. er sixpenny fer the children, and a snack er meat fer ‘im, and then I begins ter think about payin’ th’ agent out er anythink I ‘as left. I’d be tellin’ a lie if I said I didn’t owe a bit in the rent-book, and now and agen th’ agent gets a shillin’ er two extra fer back money, but ‘e carn’t ‘elp seeing’ ‘ow creditable the place is. That piece er blue paper looks a fair treat through the winder, so ‘e don’t make no fuss.” The house they lived in, and many like it, have been demolished, and a number of well-built houses are appearing in their stead. The Lambeth people declare that the rents have gone up, however, and that the displaced tenants will not be able to return, but this rumour has not been inquired into. What happened to the C.’s overdraft when they were oblidged to turn out is not know. The children of this family were short and stumpy, but of solid build, and certainly had more vigour and staying-power than those of the two other families already mentioned…(183-185)

It ends with a look at the bigger picture and recommendations for change. I quite appreciated her skewering of the men running the country:

Instead, however, of co-operating with parents and seeing to it that its wards are supplied with such primary necessaries, this masculine State, representing only male voters, and, until lately, chiefly those of the richer classes, has been crude and unwise in its relations with all parents guilty of the crime of poverty (215).

It doesn’t really depart from the Fabian philosophy at all, but is surprisingly modern in some ways with its push for a minimum wage to raise the bottom wages, and its talk of the state as guardian. There is much here to critique, but for its time it is a splendid study, and in its subject matter unique as it rescues to some extent a world of experience that might otherwise have been completely lost. These are women who often could not write, whose voices were never heard. Again, something we have fought hard and changed, but I am so afraid it is something that once more we could lose.

Save

Islington Fights Buy-to-Leave: First local policy steps to a Lambeth we can live in?

Islington Council is moving to penalise landlords who buy flats in new highrises  and leave them sitting empty, using a new term I haven’t heard before but describes perfectly a new phenomenon of housing assets instead of homes: Buy-to-Leave. In summary from the Guardian:

Property investors who leave homes empty just to make money from property price rises could be fined or even jailed under proposals made by a London council.

Islington plans to force owners of newly built homes to prove they are occupied. If homes are left empty for longer than three months owners will face high court injunctions which if breached, could bring fines, repossession and, in the worst cases, jail for owners, the council said.

The drastic action has been proposed as the north London borough revealed that 30% of 2,000 homes built in the last six years have nobody on the electoral register and, even when students and foreign tenants are discounted, close to a quarter of homes in five of the newest residential developments appear to be empty.

I’ve been wondering for some time just how many of these new highrise flats going up all over the city were occupied — and racking my brains as to how to measure it — especially as a lot of them are being built in Vauxhall, and there is a possibility that they will be appearing in Brixton. Islington Council has tried to use the electoral register to look at how many are actually serving as permanent residences. The Guardian states:

The boom in investment in homes is being felt across the capital. Research consultancy Molior has found that in developments of more than 20 units in London, over 70% of new-build sales in the £1,000-£1,500 per square foot range were to investors, and over 50% in the £700 to £1,000 per square foot range. It said some are “held as permanently available hotel suites” by the owners.

So I imagine that data is where the below graph published with the story comes from — but aside from being an indictment of greed in a city where so many people are desperate for housing, the sources of the data are remarkably opaque. Perhaps because Molior is a high-price research service for real estate interests.

Islington’s announcement has, of course, caused a ripple of shock and horror across the business community. I saw a link to Forbes, clicked it, and while it was loading this quote appeared on my screen:

Those who condemn wealth are those who have none and see no chance of getting it.
–William Penn Patrick

It made me throw up a little in my mouth. In a world facing sky-rocketing inequality and still reeling from the crisis caused by bankers, not to mention environmental collapse, the condemnation of wealth is not just sour grapes. But such a quote just tells you to expect to a string of cliches rather than any kind of considered response to a council fighting for its constituents and their quality of life. Tim Worstall’s An Englishman’s Home Is No Longer His Castle does not disappoint. In claiming that the council is ‘micromanaging the London housing market’ he writes:

But the most important point really is that property is property. You own something then you get to do as you will with it. If you can’t do what you will then in a certain sense then you don’t in fact own that thing. So this is another step along that road of killing off the idea of private property altogether:

But leave that aside: if people wish to leave a house empty, given that they own that house then they’ve a perfect, nay an absolute, right to do so. Just because that local council isn’t issuing enough planning permissions for new homes doesn’t seem to be a good enough reason to overturn this most basic right to the ownership of those things that, umm, one owns.

This ignores centuries of restrictions on property, because we’ve had centuries of comfort, nay better lives all around, due to a concept of the public good. He’d probably be the first one to complain if a strip club was built next to his house (lowered property values, nuisances, loud drunks, licentious behaviour, umm, I can hear him rant now). Luckily he’s probably protected by zoning or other planning measures. For the public good. We have parks for that too, and public drains and shared streets and street lights even, all sorts of things he takes advantage of without second thought.

Just imagine the terrible impact that vast amounts of uninhabited housing have on a community. I don’t have to imagine it, because I’ve been interviewing older folks living in the remaining social housing in Limehouse. It breaks my heart to hear them mourn the destruction of their communities, as their children have had to move miles away to find housing they can afford.  They don’t feel safe because their neighbourhoods no longer bustle, no longer have life. Those people who do live in those new highrises tend to be there only for a few months at a time, or from Monday to Thursday. Churches are sharing their pastors and shutting down almost all their services and events, local businesses are disappearing, pubs are closing, the streets are empty come weekends. Flats sit empty when council waiting lists for housing run to the tens of thousands. Worstall asks:

What is it about “private property” that the local council doesn’t get here?

But really, what is it about not just urban planning, but the value of the public and society and a community safe to live in that you don’t get?

Islington Council member James Murray writes in the New Statesman the reasoning behind this effort, and he is certainly eloquent (this is for you Tom Bridgman, delivery lead on Regeneration for Lambeth Council):

Off-plan profits hit the headlines last week with reports that a studio flat in Battersea power station, sold for close to £1m in the spring, is now due to go back on the market for up to £1.5m before it has even been built. The old free market assumption that building more housing meets demand and makes prices fall is turned on its head – in this case new housing is not helping the crisis and, by pushing up prices generally, could actually be making it worse.

And among these flats that are sold off-plan, people get particularly outraged when they are bought as “buy-to-leave” investments – flats which are built and then left empty as their values rise. It’s one of the grimmest expressions of how new housing built in London can become a prized asset over a place to live.

It shows, I think, at least a little bit more sophistication in understanding London’s housing market than that shown by Lambeth’s council I’m sad to say — and they really should know by now given what’s happening in the rest of the borough, particularly Myatt’s Field — and more willingness to work to find solutions. This is just a start in addressing the bigger problems, as Murray writes:

Of course ending buy-to-leave would only take the very sharpest end off the housing crisis in London. We also need to help councils build more, to elect a mayor who takes affordability seriously, and to make the private rented sector fit for purpose. But we need to challenge the injustice people feel when new towers rise out the ground and sit there empty. We need to stop a cynicism that threatens to undermine support for building when people can’t see how new homes will help.

When we’re building homes in London, buy-to-leave shows it really matters what we build – and at the very least, new “housing” must provide homes. That really shouldn’t be too much to ask.

It’s definitely something Lambeth’s council should be supporting, looking to implement, and at the least learning from as the planning measures move forward through the challenges from developers.

Save

Utopia London

DVD_coverDirector John Cordell (2010)

Utopia London opens with a statement:

‘Buildings leave the mark of past ideas on a city.’

You see a print of London in which St Paul’s Cathedral stands prominent, to show the power of God. Today, we see everywhere monuments to money. But this is an exploration of a period that fascinates me as much as it does Cordell, the early part of this century when for just a little while an alternative to both of those two visions unfolded as an ideal of constructing a society of equal citizens – this is the filmmaker’s journey through the city he grew up in ‘to map the life and death of London’s egalitarian dream’.

I still find it hard to write about film, particularly a documentary so packed full of actual information I want to master rather than just emotion or spectacle. This has some great shots of the city and the modernist spaces created there, alongside information from architects and historians that I am afraid is mostly paraphrased here as I took furious notes. I miss the clarity of the printed page, a misplaced nostalgia I know, when compared with the ability to experience space through this medium, hear and see these wonderful architects speaking about their buildings and the ideals behind them even as we experience the physical spaces they created in a way that books just can’t manage. Anyway, where I am sure of a quote I put marks around it, I just didn’t have time to transcribe more closely.

Drawn from the website, this is a part of Director Tom Cordell’s statement about the making of the film:

I grew up in the London of the 80s and 90s and it’s still my home.

I’ve always been drawn to the excitement of its post-war landscape; concrete and brick textures, unadorned clean lines, neon glow and dark shadows.

And most Londoners my age that I know feel the same – the modernist city is our landscape.

Yet all our lives we have been told that the same urban spaces are ugly – symbols of a failed, arrogant technocracy. While we’re comfortable celebrating 60s pop culture, many people still hate the buildings of that time.

Worryingly, while I had once thought that popular taste would catch up with the urban building of the 50s, 60s and 70s, it’s now under attack. Major symbols of that time are being destroyed – often with gruesome delight on the part of the wreckers. We urgently need to defend what is left before it is all gone.

I feel the same urgency, hopefully growing among an ever larger population and helped along after seeing much of the footage of the urban slums from the times when such housing was still a dream. I thus appreciated greatly the interspersing of quotations like the following, the filmmakers signposts to how to preserve these spaces:

‘Freedom for the pike is death to the minnows.’
–RH Tawney

The film looks at a series of modernist buildings in chronological order, I think perhaps I shall just share the notes of my main impressions for each, as much of this was still new to me and I am treating it as an introduction more than anything. I am so looking forward to revisiting and reading more about those who built them.

Finsbury Health Centre

Part of the birth of the NHS, and it could not have come too soon! The architect was from Russia, Berthold Lubetkin,  and deeply influence by the Russian Revolution he believed in the linkage between radical art and social progress. He believed that a new architecture could reshape society, whereas our previous architecture had only served to reinforce the split between rich and poor.

This building showed what architecture could do, calling upon a new idiom that was ultra-modern, almost SF, in which to build a new future. The film has a wonderful picture of this building at night that I could not find, but the picture below (and read the article it’s from) shows just how extraordinary this building was in comparison with what had come before:

finsbury health centre

During WWII and the search for national strength and will to resist the bombing, Churchill’s mythologisation of a distant and heroic past was counterposed by a utopian dream of a better future, and this health centre providing free health care was one of the symbols of that as the poster below shows.  The image is from a WWII era poster shown on the website of those who fought (and won) the saving of this wonderful building — and the dream that it represents. Of course, there is still more to do:

yourbritainfightforitnowgames1

Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space
— Mies Van de Rohe

South Bank

I never think of South Bank as utopian dream, this has forced me to it. This is the section where a little background on the County of London plan comes — and the footage presenting it is amazing. Patrick Abercrombie is standing there explaining that you plan a city just as you would plan a garden, you have to give shelter from the wet and cold, there needs to be room to grow, protection, no overcrowding. In 1943 they created a map of London envisioned as a series of interconnected villages, and saw their goal to be the bringing up the poorest to the level of richest. Makes my planner’s heart beat faster this does:

Close-up for upload

South Bank was to be ‘new symbolic heart’, a ‘counterbalance to symbols of money and power facing it across the Thames’. I shall never be able to see it as anything else now, though I didn’t before. In the face of gloom and despair over continued rationing and hardship after the war, the South Bank Centre was built in 1951 with a ‘technicolor launch party for the welfare state’, festival and fun, open air cafes and an attempt to fuse Churchill’s heroic past and dreams of future. This was an effort to show how modern architecture could rebuild public spaces. I have only ever loved it at night when it is beautiful glowing in the lights (so many modernist buildings are their best lit up in the darkness), and of course when it appears in Dr Who, but now I shall remember the hope it brought to a post-war society starved of light and colour and all the food and drink you could want.

Lenin Court

One of the first modernist social housing schemes was also designed by Berthold Lubtekin, on the site where Lenin lived while in London hiding from czarist police. There was supposed to be a bust and monument to Lenin, but with the coming of the cold war, Lenin was buried under the central column of the wonderful central staircase.

My favourite story.

This was supposed to be  ‘An El Dorado for the working class’. Amazing. His apartments were are all given equal weight in design, none better than others, everyone equal. Lubetkin’s slogan? ‘Nothing too good for ordinary people.’ He believed residents should live in a work of art, and that is what he tried to build for them.

I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few or freedom for a few.
— William Morris

Alton East

‘We were trying to build heaven and earth, some of us’, said architect Oliver Cox, his utopian attitude in part based on his respect for Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement.He and his colleagues critiqued the then modern style as being a bit arid, they felt that something had been lost in the idea that people could be enriched by design. I love thinking about people are enriched by design.

The original plan was to build vast estates of council housing on edges of parks, and wealthy communities. Thus the tower block came into being, with layouts designed to preserve trees and give all of the tenants stunning views of a landscape once only enjoyed by the wealthy. They tried to pay as much attention as possible to detail, Cox is shown in the building’s stairwells which are beautifully tiled. They meant to show that quality and love had been put into an area that is normally unloved. A good quote from the film: ‘Architects building in the present for a future they can only imagine.’

Alton West

This was designed by four other architectures in something of a rebellion against Alton East, yet whose inspiration was Le Corbusier (I find that surprising, but no mind).  This western extension was more of a designed formal landscape dominated by massive slab blocks of concrete, a pattern of building ‘that would come to symbolise the welfare state’, but was never meant to. It was meant, again, to maximise views of Richmond Park and integrate the buildings into the landscape they were designed for.

By the time they were building Alton West, however, Labor had lost the 1951 election. The recent hardships ensured that the Tories continued with the welfare state, but they abandoned the idea of a ‘coordinated egalitarian society.’ The LCC was forced to drop plans for building in wealthy park areas like Hampstead, Greenwich and Blackheath and to hand over sites to private developers, building social housing instead on previous slum sites. Thus there was no ability to move beyond designs for Alton West that had been developed for park sites, and these plans were simply reproduced in poor areas. Stepney and Brixton’s Loughborough Estate are examples, and this kind of building began to symbolise the opposite of the original architects’ and planners’ intentions. Instead of the utopian dream of a classless society, they began to symbolise the class divide itself, with concrete a new signifier. Thus East and West Alton still remain separated, with a class barrier even here.

The Alton estate was also the site for much of the filming of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, its architecture used to symbolise the dystopian. But I’ll come back to that in a later post I think.

1964 – Lambeth Towers

I have always loved this building, and always think of it as that wonderful estate where my friend Rosanne lives — fighting a long battle against steadily rising rents.
LambethTowers-2-GF-1967-GI Designed by  architect George Finch, it contained doctor’s offices, a lunch club for pensioners, the registry office — this estate got the closest to what he wanted to do with his architecture, putting all things together into a block so it was interesting and lively and everything was close.

This was in some ways a renewal of the old left vision in struggle with the consumerism of 1950s and 1960s, an attempt to make labour relevant again. The 1960s also contained the promise of technology making possible the dream of less hours, more free time, putting human contentment within reach. This alongside Finch’s belief that everyone deserves this kind of wonderful space, that everyone’s work is important to a society. So he built this place, and man, the views are amazing.

He built eight more of these tower blocks to eliminate as much of the terrible slum housing as possible. In the paraphrased words of Elain Harwood, (architectural historian and author of forthcoming Space, Hope and Brutalism which I am definitely checking out) this showed Lambeth’s commitment to building housing in one of the worst slum housing areas. It represented Lambeth saying ‘look at us’, look at we can do. It makes you sick to see what they are doing now.

Finch built a set of tower blocks and tried to give them a sense of ‘dancing around’ rather than being staidly lined up. His humour and hope overflow, particularly in his sketches of space. He designed Brixton Rec as well, and put himself and his son in several of the wonderful pictures he drew to envision a lively, well-used and well-loved space:

Swimming_pool,_main_hall_web

The same Brixton Rec that is currently at the heart of a very different kind of development driven by a very different kind of council. One that has lost its conviction in the belief and social vision these buildings tried to make material: housing and public space as rights, not as assets.

Alexandra Road

I didn’t know this development at all and fell in love, totally and utterly. It was designed by Neave Brown for Camden as a large development that would address some of the problems of 1950s – 60s building.

It is a wonderful long terraced building, reminded me of pyramids with its splendid concrete and lots of greenery, or perhaps more of mountains. Everywhere has splendid views, and Neave says he was aiming to create a seamless building and ‘continuous public realm.’ I loved his notion of a ‘coherent seamless society’, one that doesn’t say that everyone is the same, but instead buildings  are not simply the markers of status but in the reach of everyone and thus simply markers of difference and personal preference. They are just  buildings you might or might not want to live in. What a wonderful world to aspire to.

3059631875

The pictures don’t do it justice the way video does as it takes you through the space and the changing, unexpected views. There is great footage of a woman who grew up there, talking about how she saw it as a big playground, its stairs strange and magical, full of secret places you could find and be alone in. While interviewing Neave you see children running up one of the concrete slopes, and Neave is delighted saying he designed it like that just so they would do it. It is wonderful, even if, as Neave reflects, it is a little too big and he didn’t consult people as he should have.

Econmics are the method, the object is to change the soul
–Margaret Thatcher

Dawson’s Heights

Just before the big change in everything ushered in by Thatcher, we come to Kate Mackintosh, and her vision of humanised modernism. She found London very claustrophobic coming from Edinburgh, so to design Dawson’s Heights on a hill — she realised how special this sight was. Wanted to create a scheme that had unity, that grew out of the hill. She notes that there was almost certainly a ‘Castle image lurking’, and designed something that was imposing from the outside, but protective of what was inside and underpinned by cooperative ideals. She designed Leigham Court as well, which is another wonderful building Lambeth Council is trying to sell.

So we come to Thatcher, there is footage from her celebration of the 12,000th council house sold. Local governments were required to sell council housing to tenants and unable to build new homes to replace them, rent controls were abolished, more rights to evict were given to landlords.

The 1980s meant collapse.

There’s footage also of Professor Alice Coleman — a geographer who worked for Thatcher, and who argued that these modernist physical designs of council estates encouraged crime and anti-social behaviour. Her words were quite vile in comparing the ethic of council housing to suburban homes, attacking the buildings as much as the dreams behind them.

The documentary ends with the loss of Pimlico School, an incredible modernist building also representative of the new visions for eduction.  With funds long ago cut for its maintenance, the land was recently sold and the building destroyed to build a new academy. The architect John Bancroft was splendid in his rage at ideals betrayed.

This film is just one more effort not just to save buildings, but to save dreams of equality, a struggle for a better society, homes that are safe and secure. Things worth fighting for.

Save

Lambeth College Open Forum, 19 November 2014

Held on Wednesday and announced in the Brixton Blog, it was what I should have been expecting. I thought it might have been more like a meeting, but was actually a small room with about six professionally done schematics and some artists renderings of what the new buildings as a whole might look like hanging on the wall. There were smiling white men in suits, very nice and friendly and anxious to answer any questions we might have. While I was there they outnumbered the community members present.

Lambeth College is almost entirely gone.

I knew that was what they were planning — in spite of our protest’s earlier  ‘victory’ in saving the site for education rather than development as luxury flats, in spite of assurances that Lambeth College is staying in Brixton. Perhaps being bought by the Department of Education was the worst possible outcome given the Tories’ ideological onslaught against public education. Lambeth College was here reduced to a small yellow rectangle engulfed by Trinity Academy and the South Bank University Technical College (SB UTC), neither of which we need here though our other needs are very great. While many people there had been informed through leaflets distributed among those living immediately next door and were very concerned about the height of the new building and the construction (and rightfully so), my own concern as a slightly more distant neighbor was primarily the new use for the land.

So first the issues with Trinity Academy. There is of course a string of hard and repulsive facts about academies in general: academies are failing their students and providing inadequate education, they have been shown corrupt in their dealings with Ofstead (and buying designer tea sets), aren’t hiring qualified personnel, and are being fought tooth and nail by local parent groups along with students and teachers.  There has been some brilliant research done on who the politicians are who are pushing academies, and their links to the people who are profiting off of them here, and an array of well-researched briefings to be found here, collected by the Anti Academies Alliance. All in all they seem like one giant land and profit grab by people trying to make money off our children, while also taking over public resources.

Trinity Academy though? Even if you’re not involved in this longer and broader political struggle, you’ve probably heard about how few students it has, and how insanely over-subsidised it is. The Independent investigated and found only 17 pupils studying on the premises given them by the Tory government at a cost of £18 million pounds. This when:

Imogen Walker, deputy leader of Lambeth Council, said: “We want every child in Lambeth to have the best education possible and a near-empty free school in an area that already has adequate provision will not help that aim in any way.”

The borough estimates it already has 226 spare places in its schools.

An insult really, to a borough reeling from budget cuts and the ongoing slashing of budgets for all teachers and youth workers across the borough, with shortfalls being made good by the eviction of long-term residents in so-called shortlife housing so their artisanal Clapham homes can be flogged off in a process of social cleansing.

The artist’s drawings of the new site show only Trinity Academy, a new four-story building with the giant logo highly visible along the side of it. I was a little sick. In them all the greenery now in the frontage of the school is also gone, the trees cut down, so the building comes right up to the pavement.

2014.11.22 big picture
But talking later with some friends, we realised that equally terrible is the proposed UTC block and their technical programme for teenagers. They write ‘The UTC will equip students with the necessary technical and employability skills sought after by employers.’ That sounds all right, because in this climate of economic recession everyone is worried about their kids being able to find work. This seems to be what they are counting on. I’m so wary. Especially reading this:

The UTC is government funded and was introduced as part of the Academy Programme. The UTC is free to attend
and is independent from local Authority control.

They are sponsored by a University, but the staff are not required to have the same level of expertise or training, and several UTCs can be run by the same board of directors. Essentially it’s the flawed academy model with lower standards and less public oversight (or any oversight at all).

They are offering highly specialised education that starts at 14, by 16 children are supposed to make ‘an informed decision’ about whether they want to specialise in medical or building engineering. There might be a few children capable of deciding that all they want to be is a radiographer at age 14 when they enroll in this place, but this level of specialisation this early seems set up to entrap students into ‘career’ tracks of their parents’ choosing. Because the focus is employability and skills development, it also means they are not geared toward higher education (though the possibility of this is maintained throughout the document in glowing language), thus entering their ‘chosen field’ at the very lowest level of qualification, leaving top level jobs with advancement possibilities to those who follow the higher track of education.

But the employability stuff is the worst. Because what is it that employers want? Training children to work adult hours — even though the latest research is uncovering how teenagers need more sleep and perform better when school starts later. Have they left their own school days so far behind that they can’t see that this erases childhood and leave students without the downtime they need to process what they are learning? I also wonder when we lost the old 9 to 5, and the desire to work less not more:

The UTC day will follow business hours starting at 0830hrs and finishing at 1730hrs

Getting them used to unpaid overtime and REALLY long work days:

All post 16 students will be required to undertake two extension activities, which will take place on two evenings a week

Getting them used to working for free – and taking advantage of their labour in the same way workfare does:

During the year it is anticipated that all students will undertake a period of several weeks of volunteering work during one of the extracurricular sessions.

It seems so cynical to me to have this kind of institution where a college used to be, taking advantage of local community fears of unemployment and parent’s need for something to do with their kids during working hours now that all children’s services have been destroyed. They’re doing this to channel local youth into technical jobs that will always have ceilings without higher education. Clearly this is targeted at poor kids and Black kids, the ones being failed by our current education system and blamed for it, the future drones of Britain.

You can download a scanned pdf here (apologies for the poor quality of the scan). The information sheet is as below, or for download here:

2014.11.19 Information sheet

They seem to be sticking to their timeline as posted earlier by the Brixton Blog, there will definitely be some community action around the public consultation and the plans:

  • End of Feasibility stage – November 2014
  • Design Development – up to end of January 2015
  • Public consultation – January – March 2015
  • Town planning submission – March 2015
  • Town planning decision – June 2015
  • Start on site (subject to approvals) – July 2015
  • Project completion – targeted for early 2018

Save