Category Archives: Estates

The decision to block the CPOs on the Aylesbury Estate is good news, but why was it taken?


Sajid Javid recently made the shock decision to overturn Southwark council’s attempt to buy out the last remaining leaseholders in order to begin demolishing the Aylesbury Estate in south London. A shock both because it came from Javid himself (a former investment banker at Deutsche Bank not typically associated as a saviour of social housing) and because it was made on the grounds of ‘human rights’ despite the wealth of available historical examples where such rights were seemingly of secondary importance. Used by Tony Blair as the location for his first speech as Prime Minister and by Channel 4 to depict a damp, dreary scene of satellite dishes and washing lines, the estate has arguably the most turbulent past of any in the UK, pummelled by years of neglect and contempt. The design of the estate has well known architectural shortcomings, both in the inadequate lifespan of the construction method used and the sheer scale of its resolution. However the issues of estate management, affordability and rehousing of existing tenants go well beyond the discourse of design.

The question remains as to why this decision was made at all. Is it part of a wider message projected by the new government’s initial promises of fighting inequality and social injustice? Is it an attempt to declare allegiance to leaseholders as opposed to social renters? Or, more optimistically, is it the beginning of a fresh view on problematic viability calculations on soon to be developed estates?

At face value, the decision seems to be at odds with any government policy on social housing since the 70s. It would be a mistake to extrapolate this move as any meaningful shift towards protecting the rights of those living on threatened estates. It seems unclear how far the government want to develop the recent political construction of a move towards the centre but it is unlikely to generate a sudden swing in its appeal to voters on inner city estates.

The process of estate regeneration in recent years to densify public land is renowned for its complexity and the precarious state in which it can leave residents. Countless examples of ill-fated revamps on estates have produced an entire generation of organised groups such as 35% or Architects for Social Housing (ASH) which campaign actively on behalf or alongside residents. The crucial political fact was recently pointed out by Paul Watt, academic at Birkbeck University, in a talk titled ‘Forgotten Estates,’ where he explained that social housing is one the three pillars, alongside the NHS and state education, which form the foundations of the welfare state. However it is the most likely, he explains, of the three to be left behind within public opinion. While we depend on state healthcare when we fall sick or send our children to state schools, the reality is, for a multitude of reasons, most of us do not live in a council property and therefore do not have direct physical or emotional connections to it as an idea. It may form the subject of superficial televised documentaries in order to expose the dire situation of those faced with eviction, but the simple fact remains that social housing does not rank high enough alongside immigration or the NHS as political treasures worth investing in or dealing with.

It also would be a mistake to explain the decision simply because it referred specifically to leaseholders as opposed to tenants. This episode brings to light once again the catastrophic combination of the Right to Buy and estate demolition. While it must be said that in many cases leaseholders are indeed able to get a good deal for their property which they invariably acquired at a massive discount, there are also huge losses from this process. As recently explained by George Turner, while the principle of buying your own council property at a discount understandably seems an attractive prospect, the eventual reality is that you have only marginally more rights than social tenants. If the price paid by the council for your property in the event of demolition is pegged by its ‘market value,’ then the property is invariably worthless on the open market and often generates a CPO value of around a third of similar local properties. Consequentially this means residents either move out of high value areas such as London as they cannot afford to buy a similar sized property outright or typically take one of the shared ownership offers available on the newly built part of the site.

Javid’s decision noted that ‘The proposed purpose of the order will have considerable economic and social dis-benefits in terms of consequences for those leaseholders remaining on the order land.’ This has called a halt to the demolition phase and brings hopes of a better deal for the eight remaining leaseholders. While Southwark contemplates legal action against this decision, this episode merely confirms the absence of a national level plan to strategically locate new, affordable housing. The lack of available land means invariably councils are pressured into densifying their stock at unsatisfactory levels of affordable housing. This decision will at least make those developing public land to think twice when offering buyouts to those refusing to leave the estate they call home.

Gomorra’s Neapolitan Estates

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Le Vele Estate, Scampia, Naples

Undercover journalist Roberto Saviano brought to light the uncomfortable scale and sophistication with which the Neapolitan mafia, known as La Camorra, operate. Such is the international appeal of neo-realist mafia dramas that the content of Saviano’s investigations inspired a Palme d’Or winning film and more recently two highly successful tv series. The overarching message of Gomorra is to convey the tragic, contradictory and brutal nature of crime brought out of poverty.

Directors Matteo Garrone and Stefano Sollima take us on a tour of a Naples outside the vitrine of the city’s historic centre to its periphery and beyond, to locations where the tributaries of finance have spread all across Europe. From these desaturated vistas a bleak picture is painted of the Italian south, one of widespread youth unemployment, a reliance on the black economy and the dominance of criminal organisations.

Architecturally, Gomorra expresses the failure of the state on the one hand and the unforgivable opulence of the criminal nouveau riche on the other. The Savastano house for example, was the work of meticulous research by the set designers on local clan bosses or aspiring members. The family house (below) is modelled on that of the luxurious villa, with bright pink plaster, ornate window surrounds, porticoes and palm trees. Plagued as they are with paranoia and suspicion, bosses opt for high boundary walls kitted out with CCTV cameras and lined with guards.

Casa Savastano

Many of the filming locations take place around the 1960s estates of Secondigliano and Scampia, north of central Naples. The link between Modernist, high-rise estates and the criminal underworld is one which has long been made in film to exacerbate the common stigma with slab blocks all over the urban West. However the use of architecture as a tool in Gomorra goes beyond merely connecting concrete with crime.

As often as crumbling pieces of prefabricated concrete may be used to denote decay and poverty, Gomorra’s use of construction sites in other cities such as Milan or Rome indicate the presence of progress, newness and, in the case of the narrative, corrupt building contracts. Property is shown to be the preferred destination for depositing illicit money as opposed to other financial instruments, a reassuring tactile object as the fruits of their labour.

The Modernist estates featured in the series are significant, primarily due to the willingness for mafia bosses to associate themselves as part of the working classes. The show’s protagonists function as the nearest identifiable form of governance or authority in the local community while living in relative anonymity within a typical tower block as a way of concealing visible wealth and status. The interiors are luxuriously decorated with gold, velvet and crystals, representing the fascination among the mafia elite with material goods and the influence of cinematic portrayals of the gangster.

One particular estate to feature heavily is the Le Vele estate in Scampia on the northern periphery of Naples. Designed by prolific postwar architect Franz di Salvo, Le Vele were built between 1962-1975 and represent the product of a vast housebuilding program to house between 40,000 and 70,000 inhabitants on previously fertile farmland. Seven 14-storey ‘sails’ make up the Modernist masterplan, each with a narrow internal circulation space modelled on the typical Neapolitan alley. The estate was, like many of its time, plagued with controversy over the construction process and additional community facilities, religious centres and public spaces were never delivered to the original masterplan. Problems began after a 1980 earthquake when local residents became homeless and began squatting Le Vele’s towers, while maintenance, public services and infrastructure plans all but ground to a halt as the estate developed a firm reputation as a place of criminality and widespread drug use.

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Original drawings for Le Vele – Franz di Salvo

The sloped profile of the concrete slab towers feature as a backdrop to many rooftop meetings in the series among clan members, with a connection made between crime, danger and architecture. Views are often taken down the internal spaces of the estate, where a long walkway is connected to a series of ramped access decks leading to individual units. In reality the estate is now only inhabited by around 300 people and the decant process is well underway.

Despite its portrayal, Le Vele has a convenient twin scheme to act as proof, as if there was the need for it, that its demise is not directly the result of its architecture.
Marina Baie les Anges was built around the time of Le Vele, at a similar scale and construction technique. Designed by architect André Minangoy, the vast blocks form part of what is now a luxurious residential resort on the French Riviera, benefiting from continued investment from the booming tourist industry. Tour guides of the buildings are even available at the cost of €3.

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Marina Baie les Anges

The built environment, therefore, takes on an elevated status in the way it can be used on screen. Due to the heavy reliance of the clans on manpower, the architectural fabric of their surroundings becomes a physically vital part of their activities. The use of infrastructure, industrial estates as safehouses for illicit dealings and meetings provides a setting for lawlessness to proliferate. Balconies are used as lookout points, apartments of ordinary ‘civilians’ are subdivided at the will of clans to create hidden rooms, false walls and passageways to allow for retreat and escape.

While Gomorra fulfils its obligation as a gritty, bleak representation of contemporary Naples, the series is keen to reiterate the importance of the local as a way of retaining a sense of identity to the organisation. Architecture is used and manipulated to express themes of power, struggle and danger which either confirm or challenge the cultural preconceptions of a place.

The problems with so-called ‘sink estates’ are not purely architectural

Trellick Tower sits on the northern edge of the Grand Union Canal, overpowering its North Kensington neighbours with all 31-storeys of its Modernist mass. To the untrained eye, this would fit neatly into the recent rhetoric of sink estates as sites of entrenched poverty, a place in the PM’s eyes where you are ‘confronted by concrete slabs dropped from on high, brutal high-rise towers and dark alleyways that are a gift to criminals and drug dealers.’ However these stigmatising comments blur the reality which has played out at Trellick Tower and other notable high-rise estates. For all the derision directed at its architect Erno Goldfinger over the years, several key factors have decided it’s present state which could be referred to that of a Brutalist paradise for private buyers.

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Commissioned directly by the GLC in 1966, Trellick Tower was one of an endless list of high rise concrete slab blocks, often quickly attributed to Le Corbusier’s ideas on mass production housing many years prior. As the honeymoon period quickly wore off in the early 1970s as faith in the Modernist dream dissipated, Trellick Tower became synonymous with all the issues of deprivation Cameron described in his Sunday Times article only a few weeks ago. However its fortunes changed with the formation of a residents’ association in 1984, improving the security system and enlarging and protecting the lift shafts from vandals. Slowly public perception changed as buyers became attracted to its proximity to popular Notting Hill, especially for those able to secure huge discounts under Right to Buy. In 1998 came its listing at Grade II status, immunising it from any possible threats of destruction and redevelopment, improving its value both in monetary terms and as a piece of architectural heritage. Last year for example a 2-bed flat went on the market at £650,000. In short, its location, maintenance, protection and its sell off into private hands have all determined the social status it commands today and not, as has recently been implied with other estates built in the heyday of public sector led council housing, as a result of its architecture.

 

Now it goes without saying that there are many who will welcome the demolition of 1960s estates with open arms, freed from the chains of poorly maintained and managed council housing onto pastures new. However, in the case of blanket demolition and rebuild, does this really make the problem go away? Is the idea of a like for like replacement even possible given the current restrictions to finance within local authorities and the implications of a proposed housing policy which forces a council to immediately sell its stock on the open market if it is considered ‘high value.’

 

Among architects, local authorities and housing associations a small but important tendency is starting to appear across Europe and even the UK, that of renovation and re-use as a sensible means to retain the structure of an existing community and also using intelligent measures which work on both social and financial grounds. Pioneering work by French office Lacaton + Vassal has now percolated into the UK, with practices such as Mae taking a leading step in this regard. Mae’s Hillington Square project in King’s Lynn is an unlikely hero thanks to this momentum generated in the face of extreme challenges for social housing in the UK.

 

The dangers of this generalised branding of postwar estates as grim poverty stricken blemishes on UK society fails spectacularly to acknowledge a period which was characterised by some of the most imaginative and ambitious design and planning by any Western government in modern times. Estates such as the Barbican, Alexandra Road and the Brunswick Centre have all stood the test of time due to their respective architectural qualities but far more significantly by their location and the ways these have been managed, organised and inhabited.