Sipping an expensive coffee in Broadway Market, it’s impossible to believe that a neo-Georgian block of flats a short walk away, with high ceilings and sash windows facing out onto the canal, was once on Hackney Council’s ‘hard to let’ list.
But back in the late 1990s the Haggerston Estate had a really nasty reputation. It was ‘the heroin capital of Europe’ in contemporary press reports. Delivery men refused to enter and social tenants were desperate to live almost anywhere else. The buildings had fallen into disrepair and the plan was to demolish the estate before the turn of the millennium.
None of which deterred German film-maker and university tutor Andrea Luka Zimmerman from making Samuel House on the estate her home for the next 17 years.
“That’s my flat, there at the top,” she says, pointing out a row of three windows in the photo of Samuel House which adorns the flyer for her new film Estate: a Reverie, a ‘creative documentary’ about the last seven years of the building’s life. “It sounds crazy today but I applied to live there and got it within a month.”
Samuel House was the gigantic brown-brick building that used to stand on the bank of the Regents Canal a couple of bridges down from Broadway, its windows filled with person-sized portraits of the remaining residents.
It is now, finally, rubble, shut away behind a high fence. The date for demolition was announced seven years ago.
Zimmerman’s film is about the changes in perception its subjects experienced once they knew their estate was going to be knocked down. It registers what Zimmerman calls “the thickening of the moment when you know you are going to lose something.
“Suddenly you see what’s there and you know it’s not going to be there anymore. It’s that kind of time-warp – like if you know you’re going to lose something, then suddenly your eyes open. It’s about exploring that.”
However, the film also seeks to challenge the negative public image of housing estates and the people who live on them. Zimmerman cites friends of hers who grew up on the estate and went to fashion college or became photographers. “You have people from this place who do things that you wouldn’t really associate with this estate. And I wonder why that is. The people who live there are actually normal people, they have normal jobs.”
Zimmerman describes smashed windows, pealing wallpaper and leaky ceilings, but says the building was otherwise a pleasant place to live. “It wasn’t different from anywhere I’d lived before really. The neighbours were always very nice.” The main cause of problems, she says, was a lack of maintenance.
“We were quite a strong residents’ association and we really tried to get the council to do repairs. But it didn’t happen, it never happened. In the early days they wanted to do either private partnerships or sell it to outside or have a housing association take care of it.”
She’s sympathetic towards these failings, pointing out there were restrictions on how much councils could borrow to fund social housing – restrictions which are in large part still in place. “It wasn’t like Hackney Council didn’t want to do repairs, they just couldn’t afford it,” she says.
However, she still feels it’s wasteful that a good building was allowed to go fall into disrepair. The Haggerston Estate was built in the ‘neo-Georgian flatted dwellings’ style, designed to resemble Georgian terraces. (That’s one reason why all the buildings and streets on the estate are named after characters from Samuel Richardson’s 18th century novel Clarissa).
In the 1930s, hundreds of these structures were built around the country from a mass-produced blueprint, with individual variations in different areas. “Each individual council sort of made up their own version. It made it very democratic; it could be done by anyone,” says Zimmerman.
The buildings were ‘thought through’, with, for instance, rounded walls where it was likely people would bump into a corner. Zimmerman believes this had more than practical value. “It’s symbolic, that it was thought through. Architecture is a symbol of values in our society.”
They were also built to last, and for all that physical decay was a blight on the estate, Zimmerman believes there were deeper forces at work which ultimately led to the buildings’ demolition, making a comparison with “real Georgian buildings” which are over twice the estate’s age but have been lovingly maintained throughout subsequent generations.
Social structures are as much a concern in Estate: a Reverie as architectural structures.
“I’m really interested why it is that in buildings that are made to last – what is it structurally that destroys the community – in Hackney, in Islington, in Camden, Harringey?
“What is it that makes some things possible and others impossible? How can you participate, how much say do you actually have?”
Zimmerman first conceived of the project when in the early 2000s a private security firm was installed on the estate without the residents being consulted, with two rottweilers kept in one of the flats. It was a move which, in Zimmerman’s view, made everybody feel less safe.
“Literally overnight they put up all these high security signs. It looked like a mess, it looked like a war zone.” This was compounded by large, orange Hackney Homes boards placed over the ground-floor windows. “It looked abject, run-down,” she says. “Nobody asked us about what we wanted.”
An opportunity for the residents to take control of their own image arose in 2007 when the estate was taken over by the London and Quadrant Housing Association (L&Q ).
L&Q wanted to take down the orange boards over the windows and that made way for the project I Am Here, the gigantic portraits of residents which used to look out over the canal. These portraits are now kept in a container, ready to be returned to their subjects as and when they ask for them.
“Everything changed,” when L&Q took over, says Zimmerman. Under the stock-transfer agreement signed by tenants, it was agreed that the buildings would be demolished and residents re-housed. But for the remainder of its existence, residents were to be given free reign over the estate. “The new landlords allowed us basically to do what we wanted, because they knew it was going to be demolished and they wanted to keep us happy.”
What ensued was a sprouting of folk art. Allotments were dug and table tennis tables were set up. Tenants painted the outside of their flats in different colours, including the discarded tyres that had lain in the lots for years. There were film screenings and bonfire nights. “It was amazing,” says Zimmerman. “I hadn’t seen people like that for years and years, because it had been rubbish.”
Estate: a Reverie documents this period, with interviews with residents and footage of the way the community developed as it gained control over its environment, including historical re-enactments of living conditions experienced by the estate’s first residents before they were moved there 80 years ago. Just across the canal from the ruins of Samuel House is Bridge Academy, a very successful instance of providing a state-funded institution with autonomy and decision-making power.
Zimmerman never suggests that Haggerston be used as a model for other estates, but she is concerned about the direction housing policy is going – especially the social implications of ‘Secure by Design’, a construction protocol for new social housing which eliminates open-access spaces and gives everyone a key-fob. “The younger generation grows up with fear and suspicion – and that’s a form of inequality. The home is safe, which means outside is unsafe.”
She likes the new accommodation she has been given in compensation for the loss of her flat in Samuel House, but was no fan of the security system originally proposed, in which residents would need to use their door fob to operate the lift doors, which would only open when the lift was at their own floor: the building was designed with the assumption that residents wouldn’t know other people in the block and would never visit them. The residents managed to resist the imposition of this feature.
There’s a bigger story to social housing in Britain, but Estate: a Reverie is a powerful voice for the residents at the centre of that story. It documents what can happen when people decide to trust each other, and goes a good way to disarming mutual suspicion, one of the biggest threats to anything prefixed with ‘social’.
Estate: a Reverie is premiered at Rio Cinema, 107 Kingsland High St, E8 2PB on 22 November at 2.30pm www.estatefilm.co.uk