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Your views: what Owen Hatherley missed about the estate where I live

Owen Hopkins responds to Owen Hatherley’s praise of the abundance of green public space at the Brandon Estate in London 

Riba54905

Riba54905

The Brandon Estate in south London. Photograph by John Pantlin, courtesy of Architectural Press Archive/RIBA Collections

I was interested to read Owen Hatherley extolling the virtues of the Brandon Estate in his recent Outrage piece (AR May 2018), not least because it’s where I’ve lived and been a participant-observer for the last six years. The crux of Hatherley’s argument seemed to be that abundant public space, which is so clearly core to the design of Brandon Estate but not in Lendlease’s redevelopment of the Heygate Estate at nearby Elephant and Castle, is what makes the former ‘humane’ and the latter rather less.

Hatherley describes strolling through the estate on a Sunday afternoon, when he encountered ‘people hanging around in the wide green between the blocks … the football games in the park, the families wandering about, the man selling a tupperware box of cakes to the football players’. His observations, I’m afraid, betray the same superficiality and blinkered vision for which he criticises Alice Coleman and Oscar Newman’s influential take-downs of social housing in the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, Hatherley’s description contains basic inaccuracies: he miscounts the number of towers – there are six rather than the eight he claimed – fails to realise that the Brandon Estate extends much further and is far more varied than the area around the towers, that the football he saw was actually being played on the Kennington Park extension, which is not strictly part of the Brandon Estate, and that some of those on the touch-line include the ever-present drug dealers congregating around an old sofa, rather like in the first season of The Wire. It’s almost as if Hatherley, well known hard-left ideologue, had made up his mind about the Brandon Estate before he arrived.

Despite all this, I (and I imagine the vast majority of my neighbours) like living on the estate. The real picture, however, is rather more complex than the one Hatherley presents. His caricature of the Brandon Estate as some kind of social democratic urban idyll becomes frankly offensive when one considers the violence that has taken place on or very near it. Two months ago, three people were stabbed, one of whom died, in an incident on the edge of the estate, while in May 17-year-old Rhyhiem Ainsworth Barton was shot and killed. It’s unclear precisely where the shooting itself took place, but the shots were reported on Cooks Road, the otherwise quiet residential street that runs through the estate, and just yards from my house.

I’m sure Hatherley would agree with me that while this tragic violence took place on the Brandon Estate, it has little to do with its design. Yet one can’t have it both ways. It is contradictory to insist that Newman’s and Coleman’s focus on estate design, which was taken up so vociferously by the political right as a distraction from the actual causes of poverty, crime and anti-social behavior was wilfully misguided, but at the same time attribute to the design the supposedly utopian scene Hatherley lays before us. Both analyses are determinist, and therefore ignore the complexities of individual estates and of the lives of the people who live on them.

The simplistic equation of council estate automatically equallling good, and regeneration bad, which Hatherley has been peddling for over a decade now, helps no-one. The revisionism over council housing – John Boughton’s recent Municipal Dreams is one of the best accounts – is a positive and necessary counterpoint to the still-pervasive narratives forged during the 1970s and 1980s. Yet we should not at the same time hold up the idea of the council estate as beyond reproach or even some kind of panacea to the housing crisis (a position that is now fashionable in some architectural circles: see the Architecture Foundation’s nostalgic Project Interrupted).

That is not to say the state does not have an important, perhaps even defining, role to play in solving the housing crisis. It is simply that the council house-building programme of the post-war era was a response to a particular set of circumstances which, despite some well publicised failures, by and large dramatically succeeded in elevating the conditions in which millions of people lived. But nor does it mean that a new generation of council housing is the solution to our present crisis 60 years later. We need a solution that responds to our own era and reflects how and where people live now.

The Brandon Estate was one of the few where someone systematically listened to and recorded the views of people who lived there. Developed from a series of interviews with residents in the early 1980s, Tony Parker’s People of Providence is therefore both unique and a uniquely valuable insight into the life of the estate when, like so many other estates, it was at something of a nadir. Nevertheless, reading the interviews, the optimism of the estate’s early years is still palpable – encapsulated in the words of its architect Ted Hollamby: ‘We had the most wonderful work to do … those ideas of making a better world, we thought we were actually doing it’. Yet impossible to ignore are the accounts of the very real and sometimes overwhelming problems of crime, anti-social behaviour and shocking racism.

Near the beginning of the book, Parker asks one of his interviewees whether he could pick one word to sum up the estate. His response: ‘In one word? If you asked me to sum up the estate for you in one word what’d I say? Well, I don’t think I know, not really, it’s very hard isn’t it, just one word? But what I’d say is mixed’. That’s the word I’d use. I’d say if anyone was to spend a day or two days to start with, just walking around and looking at it – that’s what their impression would be: ‘mixed’.

It’s a description that still holds today, and one I think, despite the polarisation of views, that offers a fair impression of council housing as a whole. Mixed.

Owen Hopkins is an architectural writer and Senior Curator of Exhibitions and Education at Sir John Soane’s Museum

Read Owen Hatherley’s original article here