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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. It explores the history and future of two east London housing estates undergoing regeneration; the Haggerston Estate, a 1930s London County Council neo-Georgian perimeter block demolished in 2014; and Balfron Tower, a 1960s Brutalist high-rise designed by Ernö Goldfinger facing refurbishment and privatisation in 2016.

To ‘make public’ expresses a demand and an aspiration; materially – to protect and extend public housing provision at a time when austerity measures are dismantling it in ideal and form [Phillips and Erdemci, 2012]; procedurally – to make visible problematic processes of urban change that are increasingly hidden from public view under the pervasive metaphor of regeneration [Campkin, 2013], and; methodologically – to make public the act of research through long-term collaborations with residents and other practitioners, using archival research and socially-engaged performance practice that reveals spatial changes and their affects on social relations [Harvie, 2013].

The thesis draws on the idea of ‘multiple publics’ to re-conceptualise a constructive approach to public housing and to evaluate the ethic of ‘making public’ [Fraser, 1990]. It works between architecture and performance to forge new connections with the research of Forty, Rendell, Schneider and Roms, and choreograph relationships between buildings, texts and residents through critical acts of writing, dramaturgy and re-enactment.

The practice is conducted through performative workshops that open a social, discursive and imaginative space for residents to re-enact the histories of each estate and build collective knowledge and experience. This collaborative work is shared with wider publics through a feature-length artist’s film Estate, site-specific performance Empty Words Build Empty Homes, and six-week exhibition Real Estates, and is documented in the thesis as two acts, comprising scenes interspersed with reflective essays. The evidence gathered is fed into formal and legislative frameworks with the aim of influencing housing policy: in Haggerston, a redesigned housing survey Housing Alternatives and at Balfron Tower, a successful Grade II* listing bid and online archive Balfron Tower: a building archive.

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.