In 1985, the geographer Alice Coleman published an influential book called Utopia on Trial: Vision and Reality in Planned Housing. Therein, she presented the findings of the Design Disadvantage Unit she had headed at King’s College, London, on the causes of petty crime on housing estates in Britain. Through meticulously counting broken windows and turds, the unit came to the conclusion that certain design features practically guaranteed crime. This included findings that had been anticipated by Jane Jacobs and Oscar Newman in their work on New York, such as the importance of surveillance (or ‘eyes on the street’), and the problem of desolate public areas, but Coleman went further than either into blaming design for all possible problems, right down to numbers of children in care. The worst things in housing were, respectively, excessive length, excessive height, overhead walkways and access decks, underpasses, an unclear divide between public and private, and a lack of private gardens. All of these rules were broken by the Heygate estate, in London SE1. They were also all broken by the Barbican estate, London EC1, but curiously that particular assemblage of concrete towers and walkways didn’t appear in the Design Disadvantage Unit’s research.
The Heygate’s mistakes were many. It contained ‘a concentration of objectionable features’. ‘The ground floor garage design means that residents cannot observe or control access to ground-floor entrances, and numerous overhead walkways form a network of escape routes for criminals.’ It is a ‘much-vaunted experiment in comprehensive redevelopment on a grandiose scale, which has become the most notorious ultra-Utopia in London, and according to some, in the whole of Europe. It was built in the early 1970s when the vogue for “streets in the sky” was at its peak, and the original plan was for a comprehensive network of raised pedestrian walkways, stretching for three kilometres, from the Heygate estate to the Camden estate, interrupted only by descent to ground level across a new central space, Burgess Park’. The result was a disaster, according to Coleman, with very high rates of vandalism and petty crime. The solution was to completely redesign the estate and those like it, giving it pitched roofs, removing walkways and communal areas, and if possible introducing more surveillance and security, if not through ‘eyes on the street’, then through introducing walls and fences into the open, ungated public spaces that flowed through the area. Mark Lewis’s two short films on the Heygate estate concentrate on exactly these spaces.
Many estates throughout the UK underwent makeovers as a result of Coleman’s studies, in London, Northampton, Glasgow, Sheffield, and the generally inconclusive results of these laborious redesigns in eliminating crime (poverty was not to be mentioned) helped discredit her ideas, as, more decisively, did the new popularity of high-density inner city environments with the middle classes – though her work does live on in in the form of the ‘Secured by Design’ assessments, where new developments are essentially vetted by the police to make sure they don’t ‘encourage’ crime. However, Coleman was nothing if not consistent, and her critique encompassed Georgian and early Victorian housing, which for her unit was still far too ‘planned’. A Georgian terrace’s middle class inhabitants ‘did not need to maximise surveillance in order to defend their space’, so their ‘flush windows and projecting porches were not disadvantaging in the same way as for today’s households’. The real model was the interwar semi, ‘the most advanced design achieved by British mass housing before natural evolution was broken off by planning control’, with bay windows, big gardens and hedges ‘maximising control’ and letting residents ‘make their mark on the streetscape by a variety of garden designs, fencing materials and decoration of the façade’.
Coleman’s was a Hobbesian, paranoid vision, replacing ‘utopia’ with a mean, pinched model where Bromley or Bromsgrove were the highest we could ever hope for, and beyond that lay dystopia. People could not be trusted to move around in open, unfenced, flowing spaces without robbing or harming each other. Housing was best if introverted, heavily gated and defended. Estate dweller was wolf to estate dweller. By the end of the decade, Barratt estates all over the country made clear what her future city would look like, and it was rejected by the young middle class intelligentsia, who flocked instead to the very worst areas in the country, according to the Design Disadvantage Unit – the London Boroughs of Southwark, Hackney and Tower Hamlets – sometimes, to these specific estates. However, ‘utopian’ estates were still considered a ‘problem’, this time because of ‘social exclusion’ rather than, strictly speaking, design (because how could flats and public squares be inherently bad, when the new planning policies courtesy of Lord Rogers and John Prescott insisted on them?) The Heygate, and nearby estates like Aylesbury and North Peckham certainly were still considered ‘problems’ when Lewis made his films.
Children’s Games tracks its way around perhaps the most demonised feature of all, the walkway – a typology which, unlike flats, towers and squares, was not rehabilitated by the ‘Regeneration’ schemes of the ‘Urban Renaissance’. These walkways were usually a means of segregating pedestrians from something new and dangerous – traffic in tightly clogged Victorian streets, which by the 1950s was a major problem, not because it encouraged dogshit and graffiti, but in that it killed a lot of people. Architects brought up various nice-sounding precedents for them – Venice, the Rows at Chester, Parisian arcades, whatever you fancy. The results vary wildly, from spindly, shaky legs dangled over motorways to wide thoroughfares like Park Hill in Sheffield or, of course, the Barbican. Parking, and driving, was to happen beneath. Because of this, children could play without fear of being run over, and traffic could flow beneath without having to worry about running over said kids. As a ‘document’ – which it isn’t – Children’s Games provides some evidence of success, some of failure. The camera tracks continuously through the entire network of walkways that ran through the Heygate, something that takes Lewis seven minutes at a smooth glide.
Children are playing on the walkways, and their concrete lines snake through green spaces and squares as much as being a mere conduit for getting from a to b. However, you see more evidence of youth playing below them, in front of the garages, which is precisely where they’re not supposed to be. More impressive is the range of views the walkways reveal, a sort of Piranesi on the cheap, where views of cityscape and dense trees, of long, high blocks of flats and cosy maisonettes, are gradually uncovered, until eventually the camera comes to rest at ‘street level’ on the New Kent Road. This experience was supposed to be enjoyed, and though the materials may be worn and shabby, you can see why the architect (one Tim Tinker, for Southwark Council Architects Department) might have thought it a good idea. This is not ‘Utopia’, either in the positive sense that it’s used by contemporary modernist nostalgics or in Coleman’s derisive usage. It’s not dystopia, either. Nobody even looks at the camera, let alone glares with covetous hostility at this expensive bit of kit. You could imagine similar views if you panned along a street – the main difference is visual, a panoramic, free-floating experience of urban space.
That’s even more noticeable in Tenement Yard, which is as static as Children’s Games is dynamic. Here, a green field looked over by one of the Heygate’s long slab blocks is watched over by a camera in one corner, and some kids play a rather chaotic game of football against the wall, without goalposts. Aside from the sight of people walking up and down the access decks in the block above, that’s all that happens. Again, it stresses their sheer normality of the life led in this ‘abnormal’ housing. Again, the main difference with this and ‘normal’ suburban housing is that you can do this outside a block of flats with your friends rather than in your back garden on your own. To use the phrase of Robert Venturi, one of postmodernism’s early advocates, it’s ‘almost alright’.
In that, these two films, although they explicitly avoid any kind of ‘commentary’ whatsoever, are not too far from the recent rash of revisionist films on post-war modernist estates, such as Tom Cordell’s Utopia London, the collectively made Rowley Way Speaks for Itself, Heidrun Holzfiend’s Behind the Iron Gate and Colonnade Park or – on the Heygate itself, and the residents who tried to save it from the bulldozers and ‘regenerators’ – Enrica Colusso’s Home Sweet Home. These all go out to make a case for these places as viable, humane housing, and in the case of Utopia London, attempt to specifically refute the likes of Alice Coleman on empirical grounds. Tenement Yard and Children’s Games don’t do this as such – they’re contemplative rather than polemical, perhaps aptly given they were made before these specific places started to be demolished and privatised. On watching them, it’s equally hard to make a ‘Fuck Yeah Concrete Walkways’ case from them as it is a ‘Hideous Concrete Dystopia’ argument. It exists, it’s worn and needs a clean, it works and it doesn’t work. Given that both architecture and town planning remain obsessed with demonology and determinism, this did the Heygate estate, and its residents, a service.