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?