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David Roberts

Research Subject

Make Public: performing the pursuit of public housing

First and second supervisors
Professor Jane Rendell & Dr Ben Campkin


The history of housing the working population in Britain has a predictable circularity in architectural form; one generation’s panacea becomes the next generation’s problem, only to be reappraised with remorse after it has passed. My thesis is a practical and theoretical research project into this cycle following two East London housing estates undergoing urban regeneration – the Haggerston Estate in Hackney and the Brownfield Estate in Poplar.

I use archival research and critical discourse analysis to explore historical and contemporary policy, planning and financial information, alongside oral history and performative group workshops used in collaboration with residents of housing estates to explore historical and contemporary processes of change.

This term regeneration itself has recently been subjected to much criticism as a pervasive metaphor applied to problematic processes of urban change, often enacted behind closed doors and excluding existing populations. I aim to make public the act of research and processes of urban change to those experiencing it through long-term critical practices of engagement and collaboration on site. It is my intention that this work will:

Use performance as a medium for residents to gather, embody and enact the history of their estates, invoking original ideals and offering them for collective analysis against lived experience and critical texts;

Develop methods to bring in other communities of interest and facilitate a dialogue to share the outcomes of these performances in an aesthetic that expresses the agency and complexity of participants and;

Establish strategies to feed this evidence into formal and legislative frameworks, retaining a sense of historical contextualization and lived experience within contemporary policy debates.

Outputs include a site-specific play Empty Words Build Empty Homes, a documentary/fiction feature film Estate, a public photo-installation From Heroin to Heroines, an online survey Housing Alternatives, two site-specific performances Champagne Party and Tenants Association, a listed building nomination Balfron Tower and Ernö Goldfinger's ancillary buildings and spaces on the Brownfield Estate, an online archive Balfron Tower: a building archive, and an exhibition Real Estates.

Image: Still from Estate. Credit: Briony Campbell.


David Roberts is a doctoral student in Architectural Design at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL and a course tutor in MSc Urban Studies, UCL. He is one half of collaborative art practice Fugitive Images and one fifth of architecture collective Involve.

David uses poetry and photography to explore the relation between people and place. He has exhibited, lectured and published work related to public housing, architecture, critical methodologies and site-specific practice.

Slab, a collection of concrete poems about life and loss in language and stone, will be published by Copy Press. Real Estates, a six week project opening PEER up as a social, discursive and imaginative space around issues of housing and spatial justice in East London through a constantly changing series of exhibitions, screenings, discussions, readings and workshops, ran from February to March 2015. Estate, a feature-length documentary/fiction film on the Haggerston Estate, was released in 2015.

David is driven by an aspiration to defend welfare state architecture and salvage the principles at its foundation.

Sources of Funding

David was awarded a UCL Graduate Research Scholarship and an AHRC Studentship in Architectural Design.