The estate was designed by Austrian architect Hans Peter Trenton and built between 1963 and 1977, embodying much of the optimism of the time's social housing schemes. Yet despite its utopian beginnings, the estate was subject to rapid decline and, as The Guardian observed in 2012, “has [become] a magnet for film-makers looking to portray crime, deprivation and urban decay”. In 1997, Tony Blair famously made his first speech as Prime Minister at the estate in an effort to demonstrate the government’s commitment to help "the poorest people in our country [who] have been forgotten by government.”
In September 2005, Southwark Council announced an 18-year £1.5bn regeneration scheme for the Aylesbury Estate. Rather than spend £350m modernising the structure, the council ordered its demolition – replacing existing dwellings with modern houses controlled by the local authority. The scheme involves increasing the density of housing from the current 2,700 units to 4,900. Of these 4,900 homes, 2,288 will remain as social housing while the remainder will be sold privately, the sales hoped to fund the whole regeneration scheme. Construction of the new homes will start in 2016 and is expected to complete in 2032.
The plans have been met with significant opposition. In January 2015, a block on the estate was occupied by a group of squatters and housing activists in a protest against the demolition of the estate and the wider gentrification of London, whilst riot police have historically battled with residents protesting their eviction.
The Geffyre Museum in London's latest exhibition, The Aylesbury Estate as Home, explores the concept of the making and unmaking of the home in the context of the Aylesbury Estate. The exhibition is the result a three-year-long academic research project carried out by Dr Richard Baxter, an academic and lecturer at Birkbeck University of London who specialises in modernist high-rise estates. Rather than focus on speculative and non-specific information, the exhibition draws on the first-hand experiences of Aylesbury’s residents, a result of direct interviews with residents carried out by Baxter as part of the study’s fieldwork.
Alongside Baxter’s research, the exhibition features two artworks by London-based French artist Nadege Meriau. While a conceptual film comments on the gradual unmaking of the Aylesbury Estate as a modernist architectural dream, a sculptural installation located in the museum’s stairwell represents the Aylesbury Estate as “an organism that is alive, colourful and very diverse,” explains Meriau. The sculpture is formed from an assortment of papier-mâché bricks suspended from the ceiling. In order to create a physical link to the estate, the papier-mâché used to create the blocks has been combined with an array of materials – predominantly items donated from residents' homes and fragments of petition signs – with a large proportion made by residents or members of the local community during a series of workshops organised by Meriau and Baxter.
Upon the opening of the exhibition at the Geffrye Museum, Disegno met with both Baxter and Meriau to discuss the exhibition, the wider representation of housing estates in popular culture and the importance of exploring topics of social and political importance in museum environments. An edited transcript of the discussion is published below.
Richard, the exhibition is the result of your research study on the Aylesbury Estate. Why focus on that estate?
Richard Baxter My PhD looked at the lived experience of high-rises in inner London. I looked at quite a lot of them: I think there are about 42 within a sample frame and I visited about 20 of them. One of the angsts that I had with that was that I wasn’t able to focus on any one high-rise estate with a great amount of depth. That is why I applied for this funding.
The Aylesbury Estate, at the time, hadn’t been studied in a comprehensive way. It is a hugely historically important estate and bit of social housing in the context of post-war housing that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. It is one of the largest estates in Europe, or was one of the largest estates in Europe. To some extent it symbolises the story of social housing from its total beginnings to what’s going on at the moment in terms of urban regeneration. The exhibition charts that story to some extent.
How does that translate into an exhibition?
Richard In very broad terms the exhibition is about the Aylesbury Estate as home. I suppose within that I have very distinct themes that I am focusing on that come through the panels: thinking through vertical experience, vertical behaviour, and the vertical home. And latterly how home is being dismantled and unmade. Nadege is engaging with some of those ideas but also bringing in some of her own ideas as well.
Nadege Meriau It was important to represent the diversity. The estate is very much alive, which is important to me. It is very colourful but also tender and vulnerable. It is constantly evolving and being made and unmade. When you see it from the outside people tend to think of it as something that is very still and concrete.
Richard Also that temporal historic element comes through. The research project was always supposed to be a broad history of the estate so I talked to the original modernist architects for example. It looks through its history from the original design to the present.
When the Aylesbury Estate was first built it was presented as a manifestation of the modernist architectural dream. The last ten years in its history have been marked by its decline, regeneration, and protests against its regeneration. Was it important to explore this evolution in the exhibition?
Richard I would say that representations of modernist estates are very difficult things to do. There is a lot of complexity to it. There are a lot of very reductive stories or narratives of estates within popular culture so I think one of the things that you try to do is to provide a much more complex and accurate portrayal of an estate that counters that very reductive and simplistic narrative that exists. One of the things that you end up doing is trying to balance things. I think that comes through in the exhibition.
For example, the middle part of the estate’s history has this issue of increase in crime and anti-social behaviour. Historically this did happen but it has been really magnified or exaggerated to some extent in popular culture. We all know about the stereotypes, but it is about accounting for that because objectively it did happen, but also balancing it out with the fact that most of everyday life was still ordinary. It was mundane, people still made home and a lot of people enjoyed their homes and it was positive. Nonetheless, it was against this backdrop of wider estate marginality.
In that respect it can be quite difficult to balance these issues. The other issue is urban regeneration. So you can provide a very negative portrayal of urban regeneration such as the displacement of home and the dismantlement that occurs but at the same time it is also accounting for: A) the homemaking that still happens, the friendships that are still made, the everyday life that still goes on; B) the resistance and creativity that still happens within the backdrop of what is a very negative process of social injustice. So it is a very complex picture and I think you are trying to account for that great complexity but in a way that still tells a story that people at the museum can still understand.
Nadege And you talk about the utopian beginnings of the estate on the panels.
Richard I think estate life was very positive. Especially in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, and especially because of the upgrade in facilities and amenities like indoor bathrooms and hot running water, fitted kitchens and central heating systems. At the same time you can romanticise home to a too great extent. There is still domestic violence and there are still all these things that can happen within the space of home.
How did you work with local residents to create the exhibition and why was this so important?
Nadege My intention was to re-represent the Aylesbury Estate. I wanted to question the way that the estate has previously been represented and stigmatised in the media. Rather than seeing the estate from the outside, I wanted to instead portray it from the inside and on quite an intimate level. I wanted to show the tenderness and intimacy of the estate, which is made of very diverse homes so it is about showing what the estate means for each resident. I met a few time with one particular resident who represents all the Aylesbury Estate activists and actually consulted her throughout. She was very aware of the process. Another way to include residents of the estate was through a series of workshops.
Richard Nadege has been meeting residents and visiting the estate on and off since then. She has been involved in that sense but also just the nature of collaborating with me has facilitated a flow of information. My project was a three-year project that evolved from about a year and a half of fieldwork. I have continued that fieldwork and have stayed in touch with the residents.
Why do you think it is so important to explore these topics within a museum environment?
Nadege Through the arts you can engage people in a slightly different way than through text or through information. It is maybe less explicit but through an exhibition you can perhaps engage people on a less cerebral level and a more visceral and emotional level. It is more complete in a way. The backdrop of serious research and its socially engaged aspect adds another dimension to my art and my practice.
Richard It very much fits in the context of research impact, which is very important within higher education at the moment. We believe that we can no longer just produce research for academics that is just read by academics. We definitively want to let people know about the research that goes on within universities. It is very exciting and it is very exciting to be involved in that.
From the perspective of the estate Nadege talks about the politics involved and from my perspective it is great to start to challenge some of those more reductive or simplistic narratives or stories about estates. It is about taking this great audience that they have at the Geffrye Museum and beginning to communicate a different set of ideas about estates, which I think is important.
Nadege I also think that art can be a bit elitist. Through stepping out of our comfort zones, it is a move to make the art or the research less elitist and more accessible. I am not interested in just having exhibitions in art galleries that only artists and curators go to see. Hopefully a much wider audience will see this exhibition. I am also hoping that the viewer gets slightly disorientated and really questions the content of the exhibition, because the art isn’t that explicit. Because people will be disorientated hopefully they will be open to new perceptions or at least question existing perceptions of estates. The art has also been a means of interacting with the residents.
Richard I think that is one of the challenging aspects. Obviously the residents very much have a stake in how the exhibition portrays them to this wider audience. We do the best we can, but it is important that they are also involved in that. I think there is a responsibility involved.
Nadege That was possibly one of the greatest challenges. We were very concerned to make sure that the residents didn’t feel exploited or misrepresented in any way. We also wanted to make sure that they felt that they were consulted because they have felt that they haven’t been consulted when it comes to their own home, so it was important to us that they felt consulted about this.