Review of Estates

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

Beautiful things tend to be fragile. For example, although I find it terrifying and awesome I would never call St Paul’s beautiful. It is too solid, permanent and authoritative a building to be called beautiful.


Estates is a beautiful book full of fragility and human life, apparently focused on the the Haggerston West & Kingsland Estates in Hackney, East London, but broadening out to touch on a variety of topics from public housing to art to innovation.

The book contains 56 pictures of the spaces and objects that people left behind them as they were “decanted” (in the strange jargon of housing) from their homes to make way for a long planned and long opposed estate renovation.

These pictures are beautiful. Full of the improvised solution that necessity brings on and the discarded remnants of life. They stand in stark contrast with the playful, sometimes opaque art that housing associations and others commission to rejuvenate areas. The pictures reminded me of Winston Smith’s final, plotted act of rebellion against Big Brother, to hold deep inside himself his revulsion and to let it out at the moment of death.

As well as these private acts we also learn about the public acts of resistance. We learn about the many different master plans and protests. The local newspaper stories and the vagaries of funding streams and strategic documents. We learn about these through a semi-tragic lens, since we know how the story ends before it even starts.

Governments place great emphasis in ensuring that their plans and schemes appear to be coherent.  Having worked for housing associations, local authorities and community development foundations, I know that staff will talk through strategies endlessly to ensure that all the points are joined together and nothing is left out.

It was only when I read Estates that I realised the terror that this coherence can induce. Over a period of 30 years residents were presented with scores of completely coherent, authoritative, worked out and apparently final statements about how their homes would be demolished and how they would be displaced.

Since the plans kept changing or being put on hold, all that was left emotionally was the nagging sense that people in authority did not want you in your home and that they were scheming to remove you and that this could happen at almost any point.

I used to walk past the estate on my way to East London when I lived in Camden. I would walk down the canal and look at the now boarded up windows and wonder why they had been covered in strange luminous orange hoardings. I half thought it might be some kind of public art. It was certainly not beautiful but it seemed like a demonstration of intent. Intent for what, I was not sure. It was only after reading Estates that I started to assemble the critical faculties to really understand the meaning of these orange hoardings.

Check out the publishers (Myrtle Court Press) here http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150571805247730&set=a.10150532166947730.377214.523627729&type=1&theater

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