Stairwell, Villa Savoye
An old friend from Canada showed up last week. He is making a film about modernist architecture. He has already filmed in Montreal, Hong Kong, Brasilia, at that palace to Modernism, Le Couboisier’s Villa Savoye in Pouissy, France, so of course I had to take him to the Heygate.
We hit Claydon House, my old building, in the full glow of the early evening light – one of those radiant summer evenings that remind me of the summer light where I grew up in Northern Canada. As we wandered up and down the terraces, I was amazed at how many flats had been blocked off – half the terrace on some levels – and how empty the estate felt. When a gang of kids appeared at the top of the 11th floor, running from the stairwells to the lifts, they seemed like a mirage.
On the edge of the 11th floor, we leaned against the fencing and talked about gentrification. Out behind us were the lead towers of the Aylesbury Estate, their upper terraces suspended above the greened-up trees and lines of rowhouses so they did indeed look like ‘cities in the sky’. Brahm said that in Paris, where he lives now, the central part of the city is almost like a gated community. “The cops make sure no one from the bainliue can come in and raise shit, and whole sections have become playgrounds for the offspring of the rich.”
This is true of all great cities now – Paris, London, New York – and once places like the Heygate disappear, the non-rich will disappear with them. since it was the non-rich who gave these cities their character, where will the great cities be in ten, twenty years time?
We wandered through the gangways, marveling at the sheer scale of the building, the colossal delusion of the architects who built them. Brahm talked about how the modernist project became so central to post-war planning that no one dared oppose it, that then, as now, developers made big money colluding with governments to bring us places like the Heygate. That even when people pointed out the inhuman scale of these places, their objections were shrugged off – concrete blocks were the future and ‘that’s just the way it has to be’. I noticed how many windows were smashed or hung open, exposing the empty flats inside, how deserted the walkways were at an hour when, even in winter, they would have been almost full. But for some kids on the playground, the whole estate seemed to contain barely anyone at all . . .