Verity-Jane Keefe’s latest film questions whether we should feel any nostalgia at all for the Welfare State
The subject of the latest work by artist and filmmaker Verity-Jane Keefe is the demolition of three social housing blocks in Dagenham. Shot as a series of long, composed frames, the film depicts - in a brutally matter-of-fact way - the forlorn moment when homes become rubble. A digger slams through the wall of a living room, tipping PVC windows and wiring into the abyss. Bathrooms, still tiled, crumble awkwardly into staircases. Outside, concrete dust cascades down the facade as serene as a waterfall.
Against this very backdrop of destruction, we hear the disembodied voices of past residents, neighbours, maintenance staff, council officials and the Decanting Officer (a vaguely Dantean title). There is an uncanny disjunct, between the variety of commentaries and opinions and the relentlessness of the demolition. Everywhere, signs of the towers’ past occupation: the heat shadow above a radiator; Disney princess wallpaper flapping in the breeze; bygone fashions revealed in an archaeology of linoleum. At times the images synchronise with nostalgic memories, at others the flimsiness of the construction is reinforced by tales of the hardship of living in prefabricated flats (with floors so thin you could hear a door slam many storeys below). Sometimes the voices don’t relate directly to the images at all, but describe the stigma of the estate, or the political and economic logic that led to its deconstruction.
Yet through it all though we are confronted with the actual stuff of social housing, quite literally its bricks and mortar. In the midst of a raging national debate about the future of Britain’s homes - their affordability, quality and quantity - this insistence on their material reality has a strange power to focus the mind beyond questions of ideology or policy. Impartiality is normally understood as objectivity, or non-opinion, and yet this is achieved here a very different way: through the cycling of many different opinions, the rolling back and forth between extremes. The film is as nuanced and complex as the issue at stake and it is not clear finally whether we should mourn or celebrate the estate’s demise. (Barking and Dagenham Council named the project a ‘landmark’ demolition and marked its 2013 commencement ceremony with an abseiling display and sign unfurling more befitting the crescendo of an action flick.)
The title of the film refers to the ambivalent nickname afforded three monolithic towers overshadowing the A13 motorway, so-called for their colourful patchwork of prefabricated concrete panels. Legoland (né Castle Green), was built in 1969, and like many suburban housing estates of the same era, had a troubled history. However, Keefe deftly avoids clichés. The all-too-familiar metanarratives of underfunding, crime and poor maintenance (as well as sporadic attempts at superficial ‘regeneration’) emerge naturally and subtly, as the fascinating history of the place is retold by those most closely implicated in its daily life.
As the Decanting Officer describes the complexities of rehousing an estate with a combined capacity of 700 people, we see labourers busy erecting wooden frames - the stubs of the three towers cast in sunset. Splayed in the popular ‘close’ and ‘cul-de-sac’ patterns of the New Urbanists, and clad in the yellow clay of London stock bricks, at first it seems the remaining residents are all to be relocated into a cluster of new builds. The hoardings advertise ‘149 high-quality three-, four- and five-bedroom houses, and one- and two-bedroom flats,’ seducing the viewer with visions of idyllic natural scenes (lakes not yet excavated) and indicating the drive time to Canary Wharf (not a primary concern of Legoland’s departing residents). The marketing suite for the new ‘Castle Green Place’ development, with its flashy kitsch interiors, is evidently not aimed at the remaining social housing tenants, but rather a new metropolitan elite. In any case, the supply shortfall of new homes would make a direct decanting impossible.
The film is as compelling as it is visually rich, and at its core poses a serious dilemma. On the one hand, the Welfare State aspired to provide a home for everyone, but to do this sacrifices had to be made in build quality and maintenance. On the other hand, the aspiration of the free market is to only build for those who can afford to buy, and even these homes (while hopefully more sturdy) are not being provided in anything close to the numbers required. In other words, replete with its squat interiors, its derelict infrastructure and its now unfashionable ideology, should we feel at all nostalgic for the Welfare State? Legoland thoughtfully leaves the question open-ended.