Samuel House, London E8, used to stand on the north bank of Regent’s canal to the east of Kingsland Road. On Google Street View it still does, and an anonymised woman in sandals is perpetually wheeling her anonymised child in a pram past the façade.
It’s July 2014, according to the photo’s tag, and it looks like a warm day: mum’s in a sunhat and they’re both in sandals. By this point most of the windows have been smashed out, and if you follow the canal and turn right up Clarissa Street, the fort of demolition-site hoarding continues into a grilled gate. Through it, you can see a crane looming behind the building: here it’s still May 2014 and cloudy. Click through the gate, though, and it’s suddenly September 2011 in the courtyard, with sunlight falling on cars, hanging baskets, brightly-painted bollards and a lone removals van.
The story of the Haggerston Estate is the story of social housing in Britain – a story told by James Meek in the London Review of Books – in microcosm. London County Council built it between 1935 and 1948 as a slum-clearance project, trying to plumb in the edifying qualities of English Literature by theming the building’s names round the novelist Samuel Richardson (1689–1761). In 1965, the Greater London Council took over, and by the Seventies they’d reclassified it as a “problem” estate, sacking the resident caretaker, withdrawing maintenance, withholding repairs, and prompting rounds and rounds of rent strikes.
When it passed to Hackney Council in 1980, some of the buildings were emptied for refurbishment and tenants not offered the opportunity to return. This was the era of Right to Buy; an awakening to the logic of the market, and a dismissal of the project of social housing as an idle, unproductive daydream. The key workers who’d been moved in didn’t hang around when the policy of permanent neglect became clearer, and by the 1990s Haggerston had been branded the heroin capital of Europe.
The artist and filmmaker Andrea Luka Zimmerman moved to Samuel House in 1997, among people who had, in many cases, been told they were there temporarily. By 2004, the building had – officially at least – stopped accepting tenants.
Hackney Homes made its intentions vividly obvious in April 2007, when it covered the windows of the empty flats in the intimidating orange colour more commonly used for hazardous chemicals. The residents were balloted on a stock transfer to the housing association L & Q, pending the demolition of the estate and their rehousing elsewhere. Having fruitlessly campaigned for the estate’s basic maintenance for 30 years, they voted 71 per cent in favour. Demolition began on the estate 2010, and reached Samuel House by 2014. By February, the building was deserted; by October, it was gone.
If those decades sound like a kind of limbo, Zimmerman’s recent film Estate: A Reverie (2015) shows it as a space of sudden possibility – a period in which, basically left to their own devices, the tenants turned it into a mini-utopia. In 2009, she, another resident called Lasse Johanssen, and a photographer called Tristan Fennell made portraits of the people who still lived there to paste over the orange boards.
The film shows them going up, and goes on to extend them over longer, more intimate spans. We start with a name, and a number of years’ residence. Matilda (52 years) is the longest; we meet her dusting her immaculate living-room and telling us she feels it’s part of her, this place; part of her husband, and of her daughter. Even one of her grandsons was born there. “I’m funny like that,” she tells us. The brilliantly dapper Eric (30 years), by contrast, doesn’t want to die here; he wants to go back to Grenada, where his girlfriend’s ashes are.
Elsewhere, Anna (19 years) paints polka-dots in the stairway and goes inside with her family to pray to a plaster Virgin Mary; Elam and Lorna (19 years) go through a photo album. We watch John H (33 years) lost partly in the spasms of Parkinson’s and partly in enjoyment as he watches himself play accordion on Zimmerman’s laptop. Jeff (31 years), is also visibly ill, and tells us a life story full of homelessness, of being forced in winter to do something which would get him a cell for the night. He comes up in the film’s dedication, with the handful of others who didn’t live to see it finished.
Estate doesn’t idealise what was often a difficult place to live: early in the film, Julia, who’s being living there 24 years, walks round the building and remembers how her grandfather had come there in 1937 from up in Hackney, where he’d had a donkey, a pony, ducks, geese and chickens. When he moved in, he gassed himself – and his dog, Dinah – because he couldn’t keep even her. Animals become a motif, taking us away from the solely urban but also towards Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976), Alain Tanner and John Berger’s film about a group of characters connected by names, a farm, and the possibility of a different, more utopian future.
Berger, in fact, read sections of his novel King (1999) over Taskafa: Stories of the Street, Zimmerman’s 2013 film about Istanbul’s attempt to sever its links with its past by culling its street dogs. He wrote this about Estate:
I believe this project will achieve something very significant for the times we are living in. It will remind us – and how appropriate this is for the medium of film – that, both politically and humanly, the past is not behind us, not obsolescent, but beside us and urgent.
Who knows how long it’ll take Google to update their photos. Maybe the photo car will come back around when the tenants of Haggerston Estate have been rehoused nearby, and the new building, The City Mills, is finished; prices for the still-available 2– and 3–bed flats in the “Skyline Collection” run from £839,950 to £999,950.
But for six weeks some of the film’s spirit of community and solidarity travels down the road to the PEER Gallery, Hoxton, for Real Estates, a six-week series of events on housing and spatial justice in East London which takes Estate as its starting-point. The Focus E15 Campaigners will have the fifth week. The DIG Collective – about whom Iain Sinclair recently wrote – have the fourth. Other weeks look at homelessness, demolition and redevelopment.
The exhibition will run from 18 February to 28 March.