Empty Words Build Empty Homes: language, politics and participation in 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 follows the life of an inner-city housing estate in London to allow its inhabitants to reflect on the utopian promises of public housing in order to reclaim the principles of equality, dignity and security at its foundation.
I focus on the Haggerston West Estate built in the late 1930s by the London County Council Housing Department which is to be demolished in 2013 and replaced by a mixed tenure and mixed funded development typical of contemporary regeneration programmes. The retreat of social welfare under austerity measures has paved the way for a dismantling of public housing in ideal and form. This has catalysed a groundswell of renewed interest in housing estates from academics and practitioners seeking to mend their conceptual, built and social fabric. I draw from the work of Alison Ravetz, Andrea Phillips and Paul Watt and the practice of Jane Rendell, Peter Watkins and Mike Pearson to create a dialogue between debates in architectural history, critical theory and housing policy and self-reflexive, socially critical practices in writing, filmmaking and site-specific performance.
My thesis examines how changes in the theory, design and representation of public housing are expressed in language. I aim to lay bare the sinews that connect the passing of the Haggerston Estate with parliamentary and academic processes, as parallel articulations of a critical historical moment. The first year is located in the material of the estate, the second in the material of legislation and the third in the material of the academy. I ask what subjects and relationships did the designers of Haggerston’s neo-Georgian perimeter blocks hope to construct and how do they relate to lived experience? How is public housing’s contested political history articulated though a shift in legislative terms used to define it? Can critically considered participatory methodologies be developed in the academy to envisage a new model to approach the design, policy, financing and management of public housing?
Through long term engagement on the Haggerston Estate I aspire to open these questions to wider discussion. I use methods of archival research, discourse analysis and oral history alongside participatory practices to take the ideals of public housing back to the sites - plans, manifestos and spaces - and subjects - architects, politicians and residents - from and for which they were conceived. The outputs to date include a documentary/fiction film, public photo-installation and site-specific performances each devised and written collaboratively to enable residents and the public to develop their own lines of enquiry into these critical debates. My work will turn to interventions in the political manifesto, developer’s spreadsheet and academic syllabus to reappraise and reignite the role of language in the design of public housing.
Image: Still from Estate. Credit: Briony Campbell.
David Roberts is a doctoral student in Architectural Design, a course tutor in MSc Urban Studies, part of collaborative art practice Fugitive Images, part of architecture collective Involve and a parliamentary researcher.
David uses poetry and photography to explore the relation between place and language. He has exhibited, lectured and published work related to architecture, housing, collaboration, critical methodologies and site-specific practice.
He 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.