Zones of Sacrifice 1990-2014


Brutalist architecture has haunted my life. It has always been there as an obsession, an enduring, compelling aesthetic, and a site of possibilty and emergence. When I was a child we moved house quite a lot, the cast always reshuffled alongside a changing landscape.

I remember journeys along the A64 to visit my Dad. I must have been six or seven. We would drive through Leeds past the tower blocks of Seacroft, through the tunnels with their mosaics and orange lights, the International pool, Merrion Centre and Quarry Hill flats. The brutalist architecture of Leeds indelibly marked me; these journeys were emotionally heightened, suffused with a kind of sublime anxiety.

My early memories of family life are embedded in the black stone terraces, 70s new builds and post war council estates of West Yorkshire. Later we moved to a street of 1930s red bricks houses in Scarborough. Brutalist architecture seemed transcendent, totally beyond the microworlds I inhabited in my Grandma's semi detached house.

As I got older my relationship with brutalism intensified, the almost detached feeling of theatricality gave way to an experience of immersion and involvement. It was the beginning of the 90s and a roving crew of itinerants had started occupying the many abandoned housing estates around the UK.

I was squatting in Leeds at the time, in dilapidated red brick back to backs in the Woodhouse and Hyde Park areas. Some weekends we would go across to Hulme in Manchester for big gatherings of punks and travellers in the massive and horrifying Crescents. There would be soundsystems in abandoned pubs and the entire estate would be reconfiguredas decomissioned ambulances and lorries parked up in the communal grounds. We went across to Wakefield sometimes and Bradford where we knew people living on big estates, in high towers where whole corridors had been occupied by various subcultural tribes. It was a kind of Mad Max scenario, people had customised flats using steel that had boarded up windows and furniture made out of palettes and planks thrown in skips. There was almost a siege aesthetic, a kind of defensive architecture constructed to guard against bailiffs and territorial narco-gangs .

When I came to live in London in the early 90s there were huge estates that had been squatted by anarchists. These were militant sites where the potential for resistance and conflict went far beyond lifestyle politics. The past decade had been marked by the Battle of the Beanfield, Broadwater Farm, Poll Tax riots, Claremont Road and a second wave of pit closures. In Dalston, Hackney and Stamford Hill areas were demarcated by black flags, rusting military vehicles and Class War graffiti. I remember communal dining rooms and cafes, meetings and benefit gigs, and parties where speaker cabs formed pyramids of window rattling bass. Those estates were like honeycombs, you could drift in and out of endless rooms and corridors.

In these politically charged spaces people were taking the problem of housing and homelessness into their own hands en masse. Hackney council were badly managing estates in the borough, leaving them standing empty. Many of us decided to take possession of ruined buildings where we could burrow in and create zones that defied and rejected the heavy handed imposition of a neoliberal system of values.

I remember most vividly the tranquil dream moments before an intense sequence of events like the Criminal Justice bill protests, or the Reclaim the streets actions and big anti capitalist demonstrations like J18 .These moments, where normal flows of commerce and exchange are disrupted, where everything seems fierce and interconnected are always preceded by a dreaming lull and it is those days of plotting and yearning that have stayed with me. I love those times when the fabric of the architecture suddenly feels charged with desire,, when whole blocks of flats become prismatic, municipal landings and desolate courtyards become steeped in those emotional states, momentarily vivid with eruptions of fluorescent pink and acid yellows.

Rave, the free party scene, had recodified whole swathes of the UK. Abandoned factories and warehouses, squatted estates and crumbling rows of Victorian housing became sites of rupture, euphoria and anxiety. Our lives, as itinerants were played out in the limimal zones, places that don't really belong to anyone, the kind of threshold places that sit between abandonment and speculation, no longer stridently urban but never fiiting in with ideas of bucolic prettiness. We would travel in convoy to parties on the edges of towns and cities. Places that, in their crepuscular state of ebbing away had become punctured with possibility. I always liked how the pioneer species, the tenacious brambles, sycamore and bindweed formed a complex labyrinthine landscape beneath the elevated stretches of the motorway . I liked the covert spaces under the map; how when you looked at the A-Z you saw the thick blue line of the motorway but it was only by being present in that place that you could describe the territories beneath. I remember sound systems setting up and motorway stanchions suddenly illluminated with an intense, almost flourescent glow .

These peripheral lands offered a certain refuge from the increasinging homogenisation and 'Americanisation' of the British landscape. Here you could avoid the snares of consumerism and advertisitng unless you were peering up at something designed to be seen from the motorway. These were largely unsurveilled places, ignored by ramblers and heritage obsessives. They were inhabited by a different kind of character, those who moved along the edges of society, the transient populations , the modern ragpickers.

Sometimes adhoc mosques might appear in portakabins or African churches in some industrial estate alongside traveller sites and illegal parties and gatherings. Scratches and markings ermerged as communuqués. Graffiti found here operated as a series of fluctuating currents, residing beyond the bland acceptibility of 'street art'' and official historical text. These glyphs and sigils were the markers of territory, the expression of brash desires and militant demands.

In 2001/2002 I lived on the Aylesbury estate in the Elephant and Castle. Generally acknowleged as the largest council estate in Europe alongside the adjoining Heygate Estate it was built in the early 1970s as a solution to slum clearances and the devastation of the Blitz. The two estates were a vast interlocking web of 'plattenbau' blocks interconnected by aerial walkways and concrete yards. It was a place that seemed to repress and contain its energies. The blocks were a seething maze , cliff faces pocked with satellite dishes. The windows opened at angles, reflecting the sun in blinding oblongs of gold.

I remember hating having no balcony, feeling trapped in my 12th floor flat which was very different to the estates I had known before. There were elevated walkways and strange sunken gardens with ornamental trees and neoclassical statues but they were almost always deserted even when the estate was fully populated. The moment of cataclysm didn't come for these estates, they didn't erupt like Broadwater Farm, and were never squatted en masse like the North Peckham or Stamford Hill. It always felt to me that the emotional life of the 11,000 tenants was fated to crackle and sizzle in confinement, energies always caught in the corridors and flats inside, only seeping out in summer when walls echoed and resounded with the sounds of kwaito, r and b and grime.

After the Blitz there was a chance to carve a new idealised vision from the ruins. It's easy to cite the narrative that these huge social housing projects failed because there was something intrinsically wrong with the architecture but it seems more likely that they didn't work because they were starved of investment. The Heygate and Aylesbury never felt like good places to me, they were a cheap, diluted version of the brilliant complexes by the likes of Goldfinger, Lubetkin, Luder or the Smithsons. But the disappearance of so much social housing is surely cause for lament.

The current demolition of the Heygate estate marks the end of an era . The estate was completed in 1974, the dying days of the post war consensus and the moment when neoliberalism began. The Heygate emerged in the embers of a time when the idea of collectivity was valued but was doomed to live out its life in the rapacious individualism of the Thatcher years. Now , in 2014 it lies in ruins, a network of desolate chambers, eerie tinned up rooms reverberating with the spectral sounds of a lost era.

These forlorn landscapes appear to me now as reliquarys, place where voices can chanelled and in some way transmitted. They have become eligiac sites where walls are imbued with memories, touch and experience. Walkways, courtyards and stairwells have become the crystallised emblems of another time.

My psychogeographic drifts through different areas of London have become a melancholy project documenting the loss of certain aspects of the city . I return to places that have been important , sites of collective memory and desire that are being demolished. During the Blair years walking through the redeveloped and regenerated London streets was to experience alienation and familiarity simultaneously, fragments of memory would emerge as splinters in the smooth space of developers plans. Places that had been in the commons were being gated off, the consequence of a decade of corporate land grabs and sustained social cleansing. London was becoming an enclave for the wealthy, and the rest of us were being pushed out, scrubbed off the map and out of history.

My work is a conflation of my own memories, fragments of journals and half remembered episodes. I revisit convoy culture, rave scenes and 80s political movements as way of channeling those lost voices, attitiudes and scenes . I feel that there is a substrata of anger and resistance in England, that there is always a buried current of class anger and resentment just below the surface. For me,walking around the gentirifed sectors of the city today is about tuning into that, predicting those cataclysmic moments, listening for a haunting of the new shopping centres and corporate landscapes. .

Many of the ruins we see emerging at an accelerated rate around London and the South east are the ruins of the future, the new build luxury highrises and inevitable victims of the next collapse in the property market. There are ranks of empty blocks, like Capital Towers in Stratford, bought off plan in auctions in Hong Kong and Malaysia and left as menacing totems of a speculative free for all. What will become of these places? Maybe they will end up as negative equity ghettos like the Pinnacles in Woolwich, sublet to recent arrivals from the former colonies and left in a state of chronic disrepair, or perhaps they will be seized and occupied by bands of rent defaulters, young people unable to afford anywhere to live in the South East whose desperation has led them to take militant direct action.

Laura Oldfield Ford 

Related Books