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Can memorialisation be a form of urban protest?

Perhaps the arch footpath of the demolished Heygate estate should be preserved, a reminder of the London that was.

Oli Mould Samuel Merrill
4 February 2016
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On September 21st 2015, the Queen Elizabeth Hall of the South Bank Centre closed its doors for two years to undergo essential maintenance work. This also meant the disappearance of the only view the public could get of Cyprien Galliard’s sculpture ‘Cenotapth to 12 Riverford Road, Pollockshaws, Glasgow’ (pictured above). This esoteric, masterful and breath-taking sculpture was only visible from inside the building (located as it was in the ‘secret garden’ of the Hall’s unroofed interior, a space originally visible to the public through the glass windows of the Hall’s foyer).

The demolition of the Riverford Road tower blocks in 2008 commenced a large regeneration scheme that was originally planned to culminate in the levelling of the Red Road tower blocks live on the opening day of the Commonwealth Games. A public outcry forced an apology from the organisers of the Games, but the Red Road flats where eventually brought down in a controlled demolition in October 2015.

The celebratory, more than efficient way by which these complicated building structures were brought down evoked the mediated spectacle of a city’s ability to eradicate its (in this case, social housing) history and a violent silencing of a city’s contested modernist history. 

...the future of this subversive memorial is uncertain. Much like the future of the very modernist utopian ideal that it depicts.Galliard’s attempt to resist this silencing is thus contentious, as exemplified further by his decision to construct this cenotaph from the ‘recycled concrete and building detritus’ of the demolished Riverford Road Tower. This memorial is far more than a traditional totem to a modernist past and Galliard himself spoke of how the artistic installation ‘fights against nostalgia’. In other words, he created an active piece that brings new artistic and symbolic overtures of memorialisation to bear on the remembrance of the modernist utopian dreams that passed away with the demolition of the estates. Architectural historian Adrian Forty has shown that concrete has a reflexive relationship with both memorialisation and modernity, and so with the Cenotaph, the material residues of these Glaswegian buildings may be smashed, but Galliard has reassembled them to produce a monument that carries those modernist materialisms, and places their full weight on the contemporary city. Now, however, with the closure of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the future of this subversive memorial is uncertain. Much like the future of the very modernist utopian ideal that it references.

This is because recently David Cameron announced a new housing development initiative that will demolish the few reminders of this dream that we have left, the derogatorily termed ‘sink estates’, at once ‘brutal’ and ‘a gift to criminals and drug dealers’. Reigniting Alice Coleman and Oscar Newman’s poverty-by-design arguments, these proposals are set to usher in the further gentrification of these estates’ urban neighbourhoods. Many critics see these plans as an ideological assault on the country’s remaining council housing, and as adding more fuel to the housing crisis fire.

Is it time that we take inspiration from Galliard and utilise the (seemingly ever-increasing) ruins that this ‘regeneration’ process is creating for more poignant and subversive processes? The materiality of these so-called ‘sink estates’ is the cause of their perceived malignity, but also the reason many campaigners champion their preservation. Reclaiming the objectified and fragmented scraps of their history to utilise as markers to past communities is one way to ensure that their historical struggles and causalities are not forgotten. And, as architectural geographer Jane Jacobs and Stephen Cairnes have argued in their recent book Buildings Must Die, the death of buildings is something that rarely enters into the thought process of creating new urban places (housing or otherwise). If we bring to fore how buildings die (socially and materially), perhaps then it can inform more justly how they should be created?

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The Heygate bridge

Take for example the 1970s Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle, which has become a symbol of London’s gentrification. Since the Elephant and Castle master plan was released in 2004, which included the demolition of the homes of some 3000 people who lived at the Heygate, these regeneration plans have come under fierce criticism from anti-gentrification campaigners. It is seen as emblematic of London’s housing crisis, and its redevelopment is regularly held up as a classic case of private developers’ profitability margins being put before the needs of residents. A modernist housing estate catering for low-income residents, the Heygate was soon derided as ‘anti-social’ by politicians and perceived to be riddled with high crime rates and people locked into poverty. The Think Tank Policy Exchange (one of David Cameron’s reported ‘favourite think tanks’) stated in 2013 (page 19), “it never established any true sense of community and quickly established a reputation for violence and crime”. 

Now, in its place, vast glass towers of luxury flats are being built, with very few units even remotely affordableHowever, many campaigners argue against this, and point to many voices of former residents that stress the over-riding sense of community that the area espoused, its vibrantly mixed population, its stock of affordable council housing, and instead blame chronic and deliberate under-investment in basic maintenance for the area’s poor reputation and its structural and social problems. Now, in its place, vast glass towers of luxury flats are being built, with very few units even remotely affordable to the people who once lived on the estate.

One of the few remaining elements of the original estate is the concrete relic of a footbridge that spans Heygate Street, a walkway that once connected two sections of the estate (pictured above). Currently the bridge is being used by the developers as a means to transport material, but once it is no longer useful as means of facilitating the redevelopment, it will be removed.

But what if it was preserved instead? It’s concrete materiality and modernist aesthetics are a stark reminder of Heygate Estate, and a poignant actualised memory of the historical legacy of the site’s council housing past. But in the spirit of Galliard’s Cenotaph, more than just for nostalgia, preserving this remaining infrastructural fragment of the Heygate could etch these (highly contested) histories into the urban landscape and resists the site developers’ and investors’ prevalent nostrophobia. It could be a permanent memento of the art of council housing, something to remind future generations that urban living once aspired to be affordable, communal and socially just, even if the result was contested and, for some, problematic.

If preserved the bridge would become London’s most recent memorial arch, less triumphant than those which stand in traffic islands around Hyde Park certainly, but surely for those who grew-up and lived on the Heygate with just as much, if not more, meaning.

The heritage protection of Heygate’s concrete arch and its use as a memorial would also help it avoid the fate of another of the city’s arches, that which was demolished all too rapidly in the early 1960s to allow for Euston Station’s modernist re-rendering. Fragments of that arch returned to the lawns in front of the station briefly this year as part of an artistic exhibition that was symptomatic of resurgent calls for the arch’s reconstruction and the retrospective mourning of a new generation of Londoners. While those calls might be said to reflect the same conservative distaste for London’s modern architecture that led to the demolition of the Heygate, they also generally illustrate how redevelopment decisions do not always stand the test of time. Might Londoners of fifty years forth be longing for the return of Heygate? The possibility that they might, coupled with the rapidity of our current era’s urban change and gentrification, suggests that taking stock of a building’s death and reassembling its material and social fragments to produce a more informed future is more important than ever. Preserving the Heygate’s remaining ‘street in the sky’ would thus be an optimistic gesture, especially if we consider Forty’s claim that when “confronted by a concrete memorial, we face an object that advertises the double aspect of modernity – of a journey into a better future, but which at the same time, as a memorial, reverts to a moment of past time.”

Across London growing numbers of people are establishing groups and networks to fight for the little corner of their city. Resisting the rampant gentrification that is so apparent in our cities no doubt requires an ever-increasing suite of resources. But for those battles and places that have already seemingly been lost (like the Heygate), there are still ways in which we can resist the forces that have bought about these losses. In other words, by enabling these places’ unloved modernist pasts to haunt their neoliberal futures, we must summon up further energy and fight for the past as much as the future.

 

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