Painting Moths on the Heygate

Big Brush of the ‘Paint the Heygate’ project gives a moving description of walking around the nearly empty estate. On the massive Kingshill Building (she calls it the Aylesbury here, but I think she means Kingshill), they find a council worker who shows them round. They find exactly one person left on the whole building, out having a cigarette on the empty terrace. “No comment” he says, as soon as he sees them, obviously marking them for press.

Will Montgomery’s ‘sounds of the elephant

Photograph: Dollan Cannell.

Will Montgomery is a sound artist who has posted some sound recordings made inside and outside the Elephant and Castle Shopping Mall. In an article for the August, 2007 issue of Painted, Spoken, he writes:

“I’ve never lived on the Heygate and I’m glad of that. However . . . one night I was knocked over on the Elephant’s north roundabout. The impact destroyed the joint at the base of my left thumb, and the Elephant, like the fused thumb, has nagged at me ever since. . . .”

Then, explaining his interest in the shopping centre (from the same interview):

“What interests me now is it’s sound. In the late 199o’s, I began to admire it’s peculiarly roomy, dreamy acoustic . . .in the shopping centre you get, of course, voices speaking many languages . . . But more important to me is the combination of overlapping human voices with piped pop songs. Often you catch some ancient love tune . . . floating by. Perhaps some of the more worn-down uses of the shopping center went for those songs once. For me, the romantic love hymned decades ago by these tarnished old hits tallies with the pathos that now marks the hopes of betterment expressed in the architecture of the area.”

Further, he quotes Charles Dickens, and Walter Benjamin, writing about the Elephant, and mixes sound recordings of the shopping centre with pop-up photographs of the centre and the Heygate Estate. A nice testimonial. His site can be found at ‘’


I heard about this exhibit a couple of months ago and knew it was in the Elephant – but didn’t know where. 

Artist Roger Hiorns took a disused council flat, constructed a watertight metal tank moulded around the contours of the property then filled the structure with 16,500 gallons of copper sulphate solution. Two weeks later, he pumped out the excess, leaving behind a layer of blue crystals coating the flat interior. 

The exhibit is not on the Heygate but another derelict, soon to be demolished housing estate up Harper Road in the shadow of Heygate Estate. I used to look out on this estate when I first came to London, living in a squat across the street. The estate is nowhere on the same scale as the Heygate – a bulky hi-rise with a low-rise in front, two duplexes connected by a single gangway which looked more like a bare-bones roadside motel than a housing estate. 

Hiorns had this to say about the estate:  

“These buildings were about containing large groups of people who were all living in the same kinds of places and being encouraged to think the same kinds of thoughts, These kinds of buildings don’t work; as a model they have not passed the test of time. They are symbols of a collective will, which treads on an individualistic attitude in the form of small, pokey flats. They give you very little architecture, the nominal amount of expression you’re allowed to have and were ungenerous in that respect,” 

As I wrote on my City of Strangers about an art exhibit on a street in Brooklyn awaiting demolition to clear the way for another condo (construction has been delayed after the developer ran out of money) this sort of exhibit seems to be inhabiting more and more transitional spaces, an I’m assuming subconcious comment on the role of art and artists in the process of gentrification. 

It’s all very well for Hiorns to talk about the buildings ‘treading on an individualistic attitude in the form of small, pokey flats” but these buildings, as uninspiring as they were, allowed poor people to live in the centre. Take them away, and you take away the poor people as well. 

The housing estate may not have passed the test of time – although the Trellick Tower and many other so-called sink estates which have been given proper maintenance have stood the tes test of time just fine – but buildings with ‘very little architecture’ and a ‘nominal amount of expression’ are still being built at an ever-increasing rate. In North America – and the UK – and even, it seems, Europe, they are called suburbs. Has Hiorns never seen a North American suburb? A big box mall? 

Perhaps it’s important to note that as the working class and the poor are being pushed out of the city centres, and the affluent from the suburbs are colonizing the condos and refurbished neighborhoods of the centre, these bland, cookie cutter, conformist suburbs will become the new housing estates. Where will ‘regeneration’ be then? 

New Design Revealed for Heygate

From BD the Architect’s Website: 

(image credit: Nick Wharton). 
A firm named Panter Hudspith (Panter? Hudspith?) has revealed plans for 145 homes at Stead steet and another 100 at Royal Road. The proposals are to go in early next year and construction begin in April (2010). 500 public housing schemes are to be built in total. 
In theory this looks benign enough – public housing on a human scale, etc. But I just wonder how long public housing like this, with parks, trollies, nice train station etc will remain public. I suppose the construction noise from ancillary developments will keep land value down for awhile. But not forever. 
But this is assuming Lend Lease and the council sign a deal. And the remaining residents are moved out (South London Press reported as mid-July 200 remain), and the estate comes down. 

Model of final design to replace section of the Heygate. 
The Londonist also mentions this story  – and  also mentions this blog, which is kind of them. Apparently, demolition was due to start in September, has been delayed though the council insists demolition will begin next year. 

Deal Still Not Signed . . .

From the Southwark News: 

The council is continuing it’s exclusivity agreement with Land Lease, the Aussie developers, but no deal has been signed. The Labour opposition accuses the Lib-Dem/ Conservative council of ceding control of the regeneration process and says: 

Regeneration in Southwark is now in total chaos, with an Executive totally out of their depth, the director of major projects resigning [see page 3], and still no deal on the table. There has been a massive lack of political leadership, and this failure rests firmly with the leader of the council, who has so far dodged any accountability, instead blamed everyone else, but still delivered nothing, and just the promise of more dither and more delays.

The council, however, says that everything is still on track despite the ‘worst recession any of us have ever seen’ and affirms that everyone will be moved off the Heygate Estate by the September deadline. 

Paint the Heygate

The person behind this has made his/ her site invite only (why?) since I last checked it a couple of days ago, but supposedly there is a campaign on to paint the heygate estate.

It was unclear from the site whether this would be the painting of the whole estate, one building – or perhaps just one flat – but it seems the organizer wants to bring in several renowned artists to ‘paint the heygate’. 
From a letter, he/ she sent to Southwark Council:

I have six world renowned well known urban artists (local and overseas) who have told me personally that they want to come down to paint the Heygate and work with this local community. Imagine the possibilities.

They list this video by Sony Bravia as an inspiration . . . 

One Mile Away . . .

Meanwhile, a new play is being written, featuring the Heygate Esate: 

From the Website: 

One Mile Away is a new play about a one-mile-radius area of London, being created by playwright Kat Joyce and theatre director Nathan Curry. It was commissioned by literature development agency Spread the Word

From Parliament to Elephant, Vauxhall Farm to Lower Marsh, Kat and Nathan are collaborating with many local people to build a literary picture of the many narratives in this complex area.  Kat will be weaving all the ideas into a new play, which will be performed by a professional cast in the summer.

In Spring 2009, Kat and Nathan will be running free writing workshops for local people who want to share their stories, contribute to making a new piece of theatre and learn about creating drama from our own narratives.

Anyone who has a connection to this area or a story to tell can contribute to One Mile Away. Share your story with us.


More Photos from the Heygate . . .

A photographer named Anthony Wallace posted this short Photo essay called Sealed Up in a magazine called ‘actuphoto’. He writes that he discovered some workers sealing off another empty flat while he was exploring the estate. 

“Inside, an old armchair had been left behind during the evacuation. The sunken seat cushion conjured up images of who had sat there and what kind of people had occupied the flat up until the previous day. 
The head of the welding team granted me permission to photograph other flats whilst they were being sealed. I found myself emphasizing with the abandoned objects and decided that I would collect one as a representative of each property. 
These photographs are a way of preserving the living spaces and some of the memories entombed in them.