A Walking Tour of the Heygate Estate


Walked through the ramps of the Heygate yesterday. You can see the designer’s intentions when you stroll between the towers. You can see how, with better materials, it might not be such a bad place. Perhaps if the main buildings had been smaller, or broken up – their very bulk makes them imposing and inhuman. With the steel gates, the iron bars over the windows, you never quite lose the sense of living in a fortress.
The ramps circle around all the buildings, running across Heygate and even New Kent Road – once they ran right into the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, though I don’t remember where. Despite the peeling green paint (whose idea exactly was it to paint the estate military green?) the bare and cracked concrete, the winding rampways have a certain whimsy in the way they curve this way and that between the buildings, as if the designers were trying to make the world’s longest skateboard ramp.

Maybe if the estate was given a facelift, it could become fashionable like the Alexander Fleming Building which, back in the 80’s, also looked decrepit and depressing with the paint peeling from the windowframes and the barren concrete interiors (not for nothing was it voted the ugliest building in Britain). Maybe there is some justification for renovating the Heygate rather than simply demolishing it – take down a couple of the largest buildings perhaps, but leave the curving walkways, the smaller buildings in-between and maybe one or tow of the towers.
After all, we know what will happen when the condos come in, and who they will be for.
In the daytime, Claydon House looks shabby and depressing, the paint peeling from the outside of the gangways and showing bare concrete underneath, the metal sheeting covering the doors and windows of every fifth flat. Even at a distance, you can tell the materials were cheap – like all these places, the Heygate was meant to last a decade or two, no more.
But it no longer seems as intimidating as it once did. I’m not sure I could have lived here twenty or even ten years ago and I’m sure many of the people who DID live there would have felt alienated no matter how strong the community because the building itself was alien. Yet over time, we’ve become accustomed to buildings on this scale. Over time, they’ve come to seem almost normal.