As the poignant anniversary of the Grenfell fire approaches, we reflect back with raw emotions and also brace ourselves as the public inquiry unfolds as a prelude to the legislative reform and criminal prosecutions that must follow. With all of this being shared on our local and national stage, I want to mark the occasion with some musical reflections that make me think about the residents from this community; those who sadly died and the survivors who have formed the inspiring Grenfell United.
During 2015-16, when working as artist in residence at Lancaster West estate and Grenfell Tower, I was also remastering the soundtrack for a student film called This-That made with Jacob Barua in 1989 at the University of Warwick. The film ends on a freeze frame with the protagonist (me) leaping into a future sky of uncertainty. Set across this image is a wonderful duet of angelic voices from Monteverdi's Vespers. I decided to re-record this song for the new version of the film and invited Cathie Hammond and Théo Hénusse from Queen's Park Singers to St Francis of Assisi church in Notting Hill.
At the same time, I was re-dubbing one of the dialogue scenes for the film. This took place in a residents flat in Grenfell tower. Strange how our 1989 film was having the acoustic space of North kensington, church and tower block, encoded into its DNA.
In the past 6 months, a scratch choir has been set up in the shadow of Grenfell Tower and under our excellent choirmaster, Sam Chaplin, we have been belting out tunes from Bob Marley to Emeli Sandé. This is a recording of You Are the Sunshine of My Life composed by Stevie Wonder. At our peak we have about 25 singers, but on this occasion we were down to half-size and rather thin on the bass end. However, I will always remember this recording. I was singing next to Tania. We have walked side by side on the monthly silent march in memory of those lost in the fire. She was a resident of Grenfell Tower and walks and sings with quiet, positive dignity.
Duo Seraphim, You Are the Sunshine of My life.
I have struggled to talk about Grenfell because I am an artistic "witness." I made a deep connection with the estate and its gardens several years before I started working here on an art residency. When I was officially contracted to produce a film and mural in 2015, several residents kindly opened their front door and hearts to a stranger. I navigated a delicate path between authorities and residents at a time when the latter were in dispute over the tower’s regeneration. After the tragic event in June 2017, I handed over all my photos and films to the police as part of their criminal investigation. I gave a witness statement. As we try to understand what happened at Grenfell, artists and film makers will all have a challenging but important role to play alongside the media.
I’m trying to objectively recall how I approached making art on the estate when I was commissioned by the TMO (Tenant Management Organisation) to create a tiled art work and short film. The TMO were impressed with my V&A Museum and RIBA funded residency on Silchester Estate. I convinced them that an open-ended, durational process would work far better in delivering the outcomes rather than the original two weeks envisaged. As it transpired I was on the estate for approximately 1 year 2 months. When the time is right I will talk about the film, The Forgotten Estate, in more detail.
The original plan was to design a large tile art work to cover an area approximately 3.6m wide by 2.2 m high in the newly formed ground floor entrance at Grenfell. This was to be created with the residents and children of the tower block. I was given a completely free brief as regards design. I decided to use large scale drawings as the blueprint. But as the drawings were so impressive in their own right, I decided to just stick with that as the completed art work. In total, 4 large scale drawings were made in the temporary lobby, on the elevated concrete deck just outside the tower and during the Grenfell fun day.
The design for the art work was inspired by the classic blue and white willow pattern used in pottery. I was constantly sketching in the ceramic gallery at the V&A where this pattern had caught my eye. I always envisaged using an image of Grenfell tower in the completed design and perhaps to have this framed by an equally large tree. I saw a flock of birds in flight as representing the residents energised by their newly renovated building. The sessions with the kids would allow space for their own images and experiences to be added. That was the plan. As it transpired, the most successful drawing was realised at the Fun Day.
The Grenfell Fun Day on 30 May 2015 was held mainly as a form of respite from the conflict taking place during the renovation. I was invited to attend and hold a workshop. A teenager looked at a blank sheet of paper. "What do we draw?" "Absolutely anything you like." Most children had the desire to draw or write what came naturally to them. The tower block they lived in. A girl picked up a leaf and sketched this. Animals started to appear. One wrote the memorable words: live, laugh, love. The cultural identity of the children also became a point of self-reflection with a Moroccan and British flag. The outline drawing in oil pastels was made by approximately 20 children and I then coloured it in.
The art work then fell into a state of limbo. I had shown it to the TMO who were happy and also took it to a residents meeting. This would prove to be my last engagement and memory of the estate in May 2016. In the middle of that meeting, shortly after I had talked about the art work, one of the residents had challenged me over my film and this annoyed another resident, whose tense relationship with each other I had observed before. They then had a fight, then and there, in the meeting at which children were present. It lasted for about 5 minutes. Blood had to be cleaned off the walls. I believe they shook hands shortly after.
I could understand how the residents were wanting to get on with lives after the huge impact of the building works. But the TMO? Why didn't they contact me again to hang the art work in Grenfell? I can only assume they were not pleased with the way my residency had developed, especially in terms of the film project. I held onto that art work for a year. After the fire it assumed importance as a visual and textual testimony to a destroyed community: Live, laugh, love. I'm pleased that this has been handed over to Grenfell United and is in the new community space for survivors and the bereaved.
I have now started work back on Silchester estate across the road from Grenfell. After the anniversary of the fire, we will hold an Open Estate Garden weekend on the 30 June and 1 July. This will display the art created by residents. I have plans for a dance or performance piece facilitated by Dance West, although this might have to be staged later on in the summer.
Over the years I have self-published photo books as well as making hand crafted books. I have increasingly turned to the latter as a means of reflecting on my engagement at Lancaster West and on the people I met and befriended. I am constructing my own self-questioning narrative. Did I make the right decisions in terms of my engagement? How will my imagery and art work be reproduced and the film footage help with any inquiry or criminal proceedings? Above all, how can I help the victims and community? I know that this was a "voiceless" community that nobody really listened to. I have also thought about my interaction with the press as they strive for the dramatic and poignant human story as well as the political message behind Grenfell. During the previous 9 months, I have developed an inner artistic voice that has kept the media, by and large, at arms length. These books, as I turn the pages, are part of my opening up.
Imageless and Voiceless
Booklets, 32 pages each, 2018
Oil pastel drawings, 5.5 x 4 inches
Just heard about Grenfell Tower. Ghastly. What on earth went wrong?
I was wondering if we could get this picture to do a story on.
I would be very grateful if you could give me a ring as soon as possible to discuss an article I am working on for this weekend.
I am the Dangerous Structures surveyor on the tower following the incident. If you were involved in the original construction it would be good to talk or meet you to discuss how certain elements work together.
Constantine, various journalists have tried to contact me but I am not responding, so I would appreciate your confidence and not pass on any of my contact details.
I don’t want him to think I’m stalking him! I don’t actually need him to discuss the fire. It is the building we are interested in and the original vision.
One thing I'd say is that if we want to tell this hugely important story then now is the time, before the world moves on to the next headline. We have three million readers worldwide, a lot of them policy makers. Do please let me know if you change your mind.
I am contacting you in relation to a live broadcast we are holding tomorrow evening. The event will consist of an audience of local Councillors, residents, firefighters, volunteers etc. If this is something you may consider being a voice for, please let me know.
I do totally understand your reticence to give opinions on the matter, but could I trouble you with a quick question – do you know of any nearby towers that have a similar interior, i.e. common parts and layout?
We are not tabloid journalists in for a quick story. We do very considered films on very difficult and distressing subjects.
Thanks for the clear details in each of your blog posts. In an attempt to lend a little assistance from afar, a group of us have been building up three Wikipedia articles [[Lancaster West Estate]] [[Grenfell Tower]] and [[Grenfell Tower fire]]. Please go to these pages and tell us of any inaccuracies.
I would rather use an image that speaks to the life in the community rather than awful images of destruction and tragedy to publicise the auction. The last thing I would want to do is appear to sensationalise the suffering of so many people.
If you do have a change of heart, let me know. We would happily make a £200 donation to a Grenfell charity for use of your images.
Dear Mr Gras, the V&A have been contacted by the Detective Constable from the Art and Antiques section of the Metropolitan Police in connection with the Grenfell Tower enquiry. She is working on the construction side of the investigation and has been tasked with identifying and contacting every company who may have information about the construction or refurbishment of Grenfell.
I'd like to ask some questions on a positive note. I'm not press or politics. I knew that building was fundamentally safe. I'd really appreciate some answers regarding.... Sorry I can't say here.
An exceptional ceramic object was made recently at one of the workshops I'm running at Silchester Estate. Cerys Rose made a tower block to begin with and then added this onto a base structure. But it was what she did next that was truly remarkable and inspiring; she took a conceptual leap of faith that is advanced in one so young. Cerys playfully added on what appeared to be flying buttress supports. I then asked her to reflect on what she did: "My art piece is based on protecting. It is a peel, for example a banana peel. When it is peeled, it is not protected. When it is not peeled, it is protected." So much for flying buttresses! Cerys was on a more imaginative wavelength. At the time, I didn't want to ask her whether the banana protection of her building was in reference to Grenfell tower which looms large over all of us in the area. Cerys's friend, Sina Michael, another very talented artist, had made a more direct reference to this in her scale model ceramic work of the five high rise tower blocks that dominate the local skyline.
As residents at Silchester Estate shape clay into objects real and imagined, sublime and surreal, my mind wanders back to two previous ceramics projects. One that I have blogged on and another that I have repressed from living memory, until now.
Leo The Last is a 1969 film that I used as a meditative tool and to create art with residents of the estate in 2015. This wild and experimental film, tapping into the counter-culture of its era, has mythic qualities for our patch of North Kensington in London. It is a true Notting Barns film made on the plot of ground and in the soon to be demolished “slum” houses on Testerton Road before they were developed into Lancaster West estate and Grenfell tower. Leo is an aristocrat who has moved into his million pound white house that is cheek by jowl with the black painted properties of his down at heel Afro-Caribbean neighbours. Leo becomes radicalised, albeit in an idealistic fashion, after he discovers he is the slum landlord for the area. The film ends with a community riot that burns down his house. Leo is philosophical about not being able to change the world, but we can change our street.
After screening the film on a 35mm print for the general public, a group of residents went to the V&A and created houses and other structures under the supervision of ceramic artist, Matthew Raw. I was then able to use these to re-create the road that you see in the film. This was displayed at the museum as part of my end of residency display of art.
In a prophetic parallel, Cllr Rock Feilding-Mellen, had the opportunity to become Leo. Rock is not a film character, but a Tory Councillor of aristocratic origins, who moved into a posh property that was located across the road from Lancaster West estate. But there was no sense of him becoming radicalised by his neighbours or attempting a more modest community engagement here. His job as deputy leader of the council and head of regeneration was to mastermind the plans for the systematic regeneration (i.e. demolition and disruption) of Silchester Estate. This was at the same time he was directly responsible for the modernisation of Grenfell tower. You cannot watch Leo The Last now, without making these poignant connections.
When I was inviting residents to make ceramic houses and reflect on social history and its relevance to the contemporary world, I had little idea what was about to happen in North Kensington; or even how that might radically change me. I feel my art engagement here was sympathetic to the local residents and their sense of place. However, if we go back a few years to 2012, another ceramic art project was artistically and socially less successful.
I was running several art projects at the time around the theme of water and one of these had Cultural Olympiad funding. It was for an 11th century motte and bailey listed heritage site at Manor Farm. I enlisted two other artists, Emily Orley and Elinor Brass, and they worked with the education programme manager for Hillingdon, Fabiola Knowles, in devising a wonderfully organic project called In Mercy For A Trespass.
The plan was to build a durational outdoor installation with a selection of ceramic objects made by community groups and children and for these to be partly submerged around the moat and for it to collect rainwater over time. The installation would create the impression of an archaeological dig, now abandoned, overgrown and collecting water in a way that the moat no longer did. We worked with about 100 residents and school children and used their ceramic pots, cups and sculptures to create the installation. This should have been a fusion of contemporary and community art.
However, what we did not foresee, was the relative conservatism of the area. Shortly after the installation was complete and before we had an opportunity to put down any signage or run a community event, we were informed that the installation had to be either substantially redesigned or removed. We were never able to have a direct conversation with the Councillor who thought the art work looked “messy” and "not very aesthetic.” The concept of it being allowed to grow into the landscape was lost on them. It was one of the most difficult projects to manage as Emily and Elinor quite rightly refused to rework the design without a more frank and informed discussion. Communication had broken down.
Were we at fault as artists who had imposed ourselves onto the cultural landscape? Ironically enough, Emily and Elinor had prefigured this issue by calling the installation In Mercy For A Trespass. The heritage site at Manor Farm also used to be a manorial court and in the medieval era residents would have to pay fines for any crimes or misdemeanours and these would be couched in the terms of a trespass: "Richard Bacon puts himself in mercy for trespass in the grain with a heifer" or "Elena Thomson is in mercy because she gathered herbage from the standing grain of the lord contrary to the prohibition."
After a cooling off period, another willow artist was brought in to tidy up the installation and make it look pretty. There is no denying this reworking of the design did look "aesthetically" better and more of a visual presence on the landscape. However the whole process, ethos and subtlety of the original vision was lost. The installation was renamed Ea Eard, which literally translates as ‘water earth’ in Anglo-Saxon language.
This is the sweet-bitter project film made after the final installation was completed. Apart from one festival screening, this is the first time it has been given a public airing.
There are some banana peels that are not protective.
I recently treated myself to a double bill of The Angelic Conversation (1985) and Mirror (1975). I don't think any programmers have paired these two films before, but they resonate with each other, lyrically and visually, as well as offering divergent approaches to art based film making. Both were viewed on a computer screen, with the Jarman film rented online. However this screening of one film after the other was an act of homage to my golden age of cinema going as a teenager in the 1980s. After wee nippering at the ABC Edgware Road, I gravitated to the flea pit circuit that took in the posh Everyman at Hampstead and the grungy Scala at Kings Cross. During this period you could watch double or triple bill features in memorable combinations designed to shock and awe: The Exorcist riding on the back of Enter The Dragon; Terror followed by Savage Weekend (the rediscovered memory of Terror would inspire an arts project called The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle); Fassbinder double bills; and, not for the faint-hearted, a starter, main course and dessert of Pasolini films. Also, certain films that should not have been coupled, such as the groundbreaking In The Realm of the Senses (Ai no corrida).
I’ve just looked over some calendars from the mid 1980s and was surprised to see how much film I was ingesting. There may have been a limited amount of TV channels in those pre-satellite days, but there was no shortage of films. Auntie Beeb and new kid on the block, Channel 4, had a public monopoly access to the film market. VHS was established and DVD was on the horizon. But to be able to see what your heart and soul desired, necessitated a trip to the picture house.
It’s good to see there are plans afoot to design a Scala book, as the cinema produced lovely posters listing their monthly features. I usually hoard memorabilia, so I can’t account for the fact that I don’t have a single calendar month from my membership of the Scala.
Perhaps it might surprise you to hear that I really can’t watch films anymore. I rarely go to the cinema. When you are in the business of producing art, there seems to be little time and perhaps inclination for seeking out art in your down time. Maybe it was also studying Film and Literature at the University of Warwick for 3 years and the celluloid feast we had as students, watching each film twice for close textual and semiotic analysis and which also included us projecting the 16mm prints sent up from the BFI. After ingestion, overdose?
While I had an eclectic taste, enjoying the classic narrative joys and happy endings of Hollywood cinema, it was the European art house movies that really tickled my fancy; although they did on occasion stretch your patience; the 317 minute cut of Bertolucci's 1900 seen at the Curzon Bloomsbury springs to mind. In the 1980’s, the work of two artists shaped my aesthetic outlook and personality: Derek Jarman’s gay-punk sensibility that pricked the constricting norms of Thatcherite society; and Andrei Tarkovsky’s metaphysical exploration of memory and haunting use of landscapes.
I had to write an essay to get into Warwick University (in addition to A level grades AAB and a medical examination!) That essay was on Derek Jarman’s The Angelic Conversation which I saw on both the cinema and TV in 1985. The film was a jittery and sensual evocation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets as read by Judi Dench. It was set in a timeless landscape of grainy, every changing palettes of muted colours that condemned men to drift and brood and lock horns in the slow-motion ritual of love and sex. The Sonnets themselves have an enigmatic quality that has divided scholars; the first 126 addressed to a man and the last 28 to the dark woman.
Abbey Fields, Kenilworth 1989
As a young man, dressed in my 1940’s suits, I seemed to wander in and out of both Jarman’s and Tarkovsky’s filmic landscape. I even had a dramatic film, This-That, inspired by my personae and made by fellow student and dear friend, Jacob Barua. That film was recently digitally remastered and there are plans for a sequel that updates the character into the 21st century. I better watch these spaces.
After Warwick, I attempted to forge a part-time career as a stills photographer and eventually made it behind the film camera. Apart from several minor juvenilia works, my first real directorial effort was Flood light (2010). This was made for InTRANSIT festival of arts and I made a connection with the V&A Museum, later becoming one of their artists in residence. Although it wasn’t consciously conceived of as such, this film employed the strategies of what we might term the art film. The film used dialectical montage rhythms around the Grand Union Canal and the elevated road in the sky, Westway (A40). It fused together autobiographical elements (school books, carpentry tools), archive photos and film from the 60s and used period locations at the V&A to meditate backwards and forwards in time. There was no narrative drive or dialogue to guide the viewer in interpreting this stream of visual consciousness. A dripping soundtrack connected up images from beginning to end. It was a film about my urban identity in North Kensington. How I was able to intellectually and emotionally connect with water and concrete built environment. It is a film that has been aptly screened under elevated motorway roads in East and West London and in the Whitechapel Gallery. It has all the sins of a first film, but is probably my best work thus far.
Poster for Flood Light, 2010
In addition to making films, i have also curated film programmes and these have been useful platforms to support other emerging filmmakers. These are not exactly double or triple bills, but short films screened one after another and all inter-related on a specific theme. Flood Light was screened as part of a programme in which I invited other film makers to journey with me across the landscape of North Kensington. Local residents were also supplied with film cameras and edited their films at the V&A's Sackler Centre for Education. A panel from the V&A, Westway Development Trust, British Waterways and RBKC Arts selected the Best Film submitted for Flood Light and this was Intersections by Rickster. Henrietta Ross from British Waterways commented on this film: "I was very impressed by this. I thought the format worked really well conveying a great sense of movement. The sense of a journey was represented well, as was the great variety of activity going on around the location and the varied perspectives the location offers on West London life. I thought the different views were matched really effectively with a great eye for detail. The combination of colour, movement, stillness, nature and community activity was really engaging." It was also a pleasure to see an early film from film maker Azeem Mustafa who has since gone on to specialise in martial arts film. Simona Piantieri has also subsequently produced exceptional work. I particularly like the documentary film she made with Michele D'Acosta called A House Beautiful (2017).
I followed up Flood Light with another curated programme called West Ten Fade Out (2013). This was able to showcase the film making talents of Dee Harding and Sandra Crisp.
When I was the V&A Community Artist in residence based at Silchester Estate, I put together another selection of short films called Home Sweet Home (2014) around the issue of housing and domesticity. I particularly like sourcing archive films and using extracts that provide ironic or amusing contrast in the programme. I used two such extracts in Home Sweet Home and they are animated films from the Wellcome Collection. The Five (1970) is by Halas & Batchelor and opens with a young girl coming home from a party and going to bed; but her pooped toes take on a life of their own. The opening 7 minutes of Full Circle (1974) has exquisite art and animation by Charles Goetz that shows the development of city living and the possibility of over-population in the future leading to the collapse of civilised life.
I have also tried to use film to connect residents with the history and social issues in the area in which they live. One example was a free screening I arranged of Leo The Last at the Gate Cinema in 2015. This was and is a profound film that connects with Lancaster West estate and Grenfell tower. I even wanted to screen this on Lancaster West estate for residents and the housing authority but circumstances conspired against that. The residents were locked in dispute with the Tenant Management Organisation over the Grenfell building works. I was commissioned by the TMO to make a short positive film of this regeneration taking into account the residents perspective. The film I delivered was a one hour long film completed in 2016 and called Lancaster West - The Forgotten Estate. It was based on the life stories of seven residents. This was not a straight forward documentary with people speaking to camera. It is voice over set against the architecture of the estate. Although that film was deemed not fit for purpose by the TMO and fell into a state of limbo, I know that it really bonded me with residents in the community who have since become good friends. Hopefully it will have a proper screening in the near future. I have other footage that is strictly reserved for the police investigation. It isn't a good feeling to have art work that is delicately tied to the tragic events of Grenfell. There is no awe, just the shock.
2015 Poster for programme of short films, including rough cut of Lancaster West - The Forgotten Estate
As I think of film, I draw and vice versa. I visualise films in my mind and these invariably start off as storyboard type drawings. The reality its that most films never get off the drawing board. But with the combination of drawing and writing, perhaps I can release some of that pressure cooker tension of being a multi media artist whose main aspiration is to make films. Let me conclude this blog by visualising a meeting of sorts between Derek Jarman and Andrei Tarkovsky on Hampstead Heath. Nothing is impossible in art and film. I need you to imagine that both are simultaneously drawn to the area for the making of a film.
A young man materialises out of the bushes, doing up his trouser belt, exhilarated, out of breath. A trickle of blood flows from his lips. Tarkovsky screams in Russian: cut, cut! The actor has wandered into the wrong film. A grounded helicopter rotor blade whips up a force of air onto the billowing grass and almost topples over the camera. Cut, cut. The production assistant rushes over to the helicopter. The timing is all wrong and aviation fuel is expensive. Tarkovsky curses under his breathe. Then looking at the bemused actor and the apologetic pilot, he starts to giggle and can’t stop giggling. The crew look at each other unsure whether to laugh. Tarkovsky motions for the actor to stand still and for the cinematographer to train the camera on him. Smiles all around and the actor looks up at the sky. It is a bright cloudless summer evening sky. A few rain drops start falling.
Cut to Jarman lining up his shot on the other edge of the heath, near a pond. He has torn up the script (that didn’t seem to be working) and is waiting for something to happen. His actors have got lost and a search party has been sent out. The rest of the crew have gone off for a tea break. A woman in her fifties dressed in a flowered dress walks into shot and sits on a log in the distance. She catches Jarman’s eye. He goes over and speaks to her. Hello, are you waiting for someone? She shakes her head in a combination of yes, no and don’t understand. He tries again. Would you like a cigarette? She nods and takes one. While lifting up the fag to his match, Jarman notices a raw burn mark on her wrist. Jarman wanders back to his camera. He zooms onto her. They hear the sound of a helicopter in the distance. She looks up in expectation. She appears to be acting. Jarman thinks she looks Eastern European, maybe Polish or Russian. He starts filming her as she turns her gaze to the pond and the gentle ripples on its surface formed by the wind.
Reflection from artist studio as More West is being built
The chronicle of a child's growth recorded on a door frame
Photos taken at 7 Shalfleet Drive, 2014
Can a building have a soul? If so, how might one measure this on a scale of soul from 1-10?
One? Nah! This is just a plain pile of functional brickwork or unloved concrete. To give it a Presidential seal of approval, "a shit hole!"
Five? Maybe given its provenance and state of use, there is a connection being forged between property and person(s). Perhaps a bog standard church and appreciative congregation might fit this bill.
Ten? Now this might be hard to put into words. Some otherworldly sensory experience of an English castle made in heaven. A building that has survived carbuncular judgment and phases of regeneration. A cave you have carved with your own hands or flat packed assembled.
Excuse these digressions, as this is completely uncharted territory for this author and a subject matter reserved for the confines of a philosophical department in a city of dreaming spires.
Let us return to North Kensington terra firma. This blog is about 7 buildings, most within several hundred yards of each other: one was built as a film set and several have long since been demolished. They are St. Francis of Assisi church (c1860), 1-2 Whitchurch Road (1863), 2 Silchester Terrace (?-1960s), 7 Shalfleet Drive (late 1960s-2015), Latymer Nursery (late 1960s-2013), Grenfell Tower (1974) and More West (2016). The question I ask is do these buildings, historic or contemporary, have a recognisable soul beyond their outer facade? I have worked as an artist in three of them, one as a rented studio flat. While looking at spiritual qualities, I want to relate this to how I have used them in my art, the intersection of aesthetics and politics. To complicate matters, I have to declare from the outset that I'm not mystically inclined or believe in angels. However there is definitely more in heaven and hell than can be dreamt of in my atheistic philosophy.
1-2 Whitchurch Road
House built for stain glass artist Nathaniel Westlake in 1863
Currently a St Mungo's house for homeless people
St Francis of Assisi church
Side chapel roof designed by John Francis Bentley, C1860's
House for Nathaniel Westlake displayed at the V&A Museum, 2015
Acetate sheets, 3x3 metres
Let us return back to that proposition. It is a line from a film, completely unscripted and conjured forth from the consciousness of the gardener at Lancaster West estate, Stewart Wallace. When I asked him how he knew this building had a soul, there was an even better quip: "I wouldn't be an angel otherwise.” The soulful building in question was 1-2 Whitchurch Road. Stewart had been living next to it for decades and said if he won the lottery, he would buy it and lord the manor.
The building was the home of Nathaniel Westlake and designed by his close friend, the architect, John Francis Bentley of Westminster Cathedral fame. So we have soul pedigree here. During the 1860s they were both converts to Catholicism and working on St Francis of Assissi church which was a stones throw away from this house. This was a part of London noted for its piggeries (pig farmers) and potteries (brick works) and undergoing urbanisation with the coming of the railway and the growth of an Irish community. Westlake did not stay long in his dream house and we can perhaps speculate this is because the area developed into one of the worst slums in London. Amazingly this grand looking house, that is now listed, was once a squat and is still used to house homeless people.
The building was a key location in my film, Vision of Paradise (2015). This was a meditation on housing and community using Dante's concept of heaven, hell and purgatory. In 1863 Westlake was working on his stain glass design, The Vision of Beatrice, to illustrate a scene from this story while living in the house on Whitchurch Road. This panel was collected by the V&A Museum. As an additional homage, I made an installation called House of Nathaniel Westlake, comprised of 30xA2 acetate sheets incorporating images of North Kensington buildings.
Soul value: 8/10 for its origins and continued charitable use when this type of property would be snapped up by oligarchs and venture capitalists; although shame on them as they would not want to live cheek by jowl next to an estate!
As mentioned, Bentley and Westlake put their heart and soul into St Francis of Assisi church. This is a small church with connected buildings on a tight plot of land, but the overall design and interiors sing of the unique talent of its guiding architect and artist. This is self-evidently a soulful building with a wonderful acoustic quality. For the remastered film soundtrack to This-That, I recorded two singers here performing a duet called Duo Seraphim. 9/10.
Staff from the V&A Museum help me prepare for a community artist event 21/08/14
7 Shalfleet Drive, W10 6UF
Mayor of RBKC meets local residents and architect of More West, Joanna Sutherland
Demolition of Shalfleet Drive, 12/02/15
During 2015, I was the V&A Museum community artist in residence based at Silchester Estate. The first phase of regeneration was occurring in the area with the building of More West. I was embedded here with a studio flat at 7 Shalfleet Drive. This was part of a lower and upper deck housing block with 3 room flats that must have been designed for a pensioner or a couple, certainly not a family. So did this flat at the end of its social life have a soul? I would rate it 7 for its cosy uniformity of space, perfect for an artist who tried his best to give it back to the community with a series of bespoke art events that included film screenings and drawing/music happenings.
Centre stage in the living room of that flat was a simple map which had photos of all the listed buildings and structures in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The addition of Silchester Estate on this map was the radical touch that only the locals noted. This map was a popular attraction to the visitors, including the then Mayor who came to an event called I Want To Live, Draw Me A House. Before she arrived, the police dropped by to inspect my premises. It seemed they had valued the spirit of the location in terms of a negative. It was an unknown precedent for Mayors to visit council flats on estates in North Kensington, even ones about to be regenerated. I was told this was a first.
Film projection of Home about the last house demolished for the building of the Westway and Silchester Estate.
It was screened at Latymer Project Space, formerly a nursery on Silchester Estate and soon to become More West.
Photo by Emily Ballard, 2012.
We move onto a house that now only survives as an archive photo. It was taken by the actress Mary Miller in December 1967. She wrote an accompanying letter that read: “I remember taking this picture of a house and a tree amongst the rubble and desolation of the early stages of the motorway from Bramley Road, looking west. It looked so forlorn and I admired the tenacity of the householder. i seem to recall it was an elderly man. There was something about him in the local paper of the time (I can’t recall which paper exactly). But a few weeks later he had succumbed to the pressure and the house was destroyed - also the tree. I think it all happened round about the time they blew up Maxilla Gardens for filming with Marcello Mastroianni.” This had all the ingredients to inspire the cinematic imagination. A small house that was left standing while those adjoining had been demolished. That solitary man with raincoat and hat standing outside. The corrugated sheeting. Even Mary’s reference to Leo The Last that was being filmed near by. I simply had to tell the story of this photograph.
I presented this as a short film pitch to Latymer Projects. They accepted and I made Home for their inaugural exhibition. I acted the role of that homeowner from the photo. You don’t see me/him clearly as we move nervously around a house and twitch at net curtains waiting for the developers to serve us an eviction notice. At the end of the film, there is a panoramic shot of a net curtain house constructed on the Westway tennis courts, on a spot that marked the real life location of this lost house. Given all these resonances, I would have to evaluate this lost house in the photograph, as an 8 for its elegiac soul.
Set design from film, Home (2012)
Cinematography by Natalie Marr
Film still from Leo The Last (1970) with Glenna Forster-Jones (left)
Filmed in North Kensington and on Testerton Road before its redevelopment into Lancaster West
Image kindly reproduced by Park Circus Limited
Leo The Last is a quirky, enigmatic and powerful film that dramatically deals with race and social conflict. It was made by John Boorman in the late 1960s. It is a film of its time with hippie experimentation. Yet also profoundly prescient in that it tapped into the zeitgeist of the area. It remains a touchstone for thinking through art and redevelopment; it inspired me, as I feel certain it will continue to do so for other artists.
The film makers were given unique access to the streets of North Kensington just prior to its slum clearance and they created a false house on Testerton Road. This had a white classic stucco facade and contrasted with the rest of the derelict houses which were painted black. This is a colour film with an impressive monochrome palette. Leo is the last in the aristocratic line and for the opening sections of the film peers out of his house with a telescope onto the world of his opressed black neighbours. He becomes radicalised by observing their plight, especially when he discovers he is their exploitative landlord. In true 60s fashion he decides to stage a revolution with destructive consequences. I felt a great affinity with Leo. As an artist, I was using my camera and drawings to reflect on changes to my social environment and in the process was being radicalised. I was getting a deep understanding on the cultural richness of life on these estates. Yes. There are social challenges, but these were not the sink estates as portrayed by politicians and councillors intent on running them down and forcing through regeneration schemes.
As part of my community engagement, I got hold of a rare 35mm print as the film was not available in this country on DVD . I screened this for residents at the Gate Cinema (which is in the Notting Hill and not the Dale part of the borough). After watching the film residents from the estate joined me down at the V&A to create clay houses in response to the film. I was able to use this as part of an installation display at the museum.
I have to give this film-set-building a 10 on the soulful scale. It has mythic and poetic qualities. It was built in order to be destroyed. Many local residents and the architects of Lancaster West Estate came to watch the impressive finale as the house explodes in flames. What did they think and feel watching film makers turn their former homes into a film set prior to its demolition for the building of Lancaster West and Grenfell tower? The soul of their buildings disappearing at a rate of 24 frames a second and then projected at cinemas in the following year to a largely unappreciative audience and box office.
Latymer Nursery converted into Latymer Projects
154 Freston Road, 2012
(Bottom photo by Sandra Crisp)
I also developed a strong connection with a former nursery on Freston Road that was built as part of Silchester Estate. This was handed over to Acava Studios and Latymer Projects as a temporary space for local artists prior to its redevelopment into More West. I made a film about the space and the 5 artists based here in its last days. I arranged for a local milk man to deliver one final crate. At 6am, in eerie darkness, I filmed him delivering his jinggling bottles. Then later on I improvised a sequence with other artists in which we walked around the nursery using these bottles as musical instruments and creating a trail of fragmentary glass. The nursery for children and artists had a special atmosphere. We were at home in its play spaces and rooms flooded by natural light. 8/10.
More West was built on the site of my artists studio and the Nursery. It was an indicator of how the council wanted to replace social housing in the area by building around the high rise blocks. This must have also been part of the thinking behind the £10 million investment in Grenfell tower that was to follow. More West was Peabody housing for the 21st century: 112 flats with mixed social and market rent; £500,000 for a three bed flat and million pound penthouse pad on top, perhaps with a telescope trained down on its poor relations. Leo The Last meets J. G. Ballard’s High Rise.
I tried to avoid my flat being used as a showroom by the developers and council. The architects model of the new housing block was on display next to a poster of the film Leo The Last. I would film spiders constructing their silky webs as builders climbed up and operated cranes. I got to know my immediate neighbours on the road who were waiting to move into More West. Some took this in a positive fashion, others clung to the memories of their former lives. The building was designed by Haworth Tomkins, complete with roof top sculpture that evokes Frestonia and has won many architectural awards. I have a soft spot for this building, but acknowledge it has yet to plant roots and be integrated with the high rise. 7/10. It is a building in need of love.
Shalfleet Drive residents hand over keys to the developers, 18/01/15
More West (with crane in the centre) being built around Frinstead House on Silchester Estate
View from the 17th floor of Grenfell Tower, 12/09/15
Building work collage: Frinstead, Markland, Dixon, Whitstable and Grenfell tower, 28/06/15
I wanted to conclude this blog by writing in detail about Grenfell Tower where I worked for one year four months. I was commissioned to made a film about the regenerated tower block and produce art for its new community room. I developed close friendships with residents. I don’t know how to evaluate the spirit of this building. It still pains me to talk about it in the past tense.
As a postscript, let me branch out and offer a few comparative thoughts about the 1958 Notting Hill race riots and those tragic events at Grenfell Tower in 2017. Both shone a media spotlight on this area around Latimer Road station and exposed the deficiencies of society and council services. The chronic state of housing must have been a factor causing friction between white residents and the recently settled Afro-Caribbean community. Sociological studies took place into the root causes and how society could improve itself. In the immediate aftermath of both events, all manner of groups and social activists consolidated networks in the area to counter the lack of strategic guidance from the authorities. The Notting Hill carnival was one of the unexpected outcomes of the riot. What will follow the Grenfell Fire? I fear no positive outcomes in the short term. As of writing, the civil and criminal prosecutions are yet to unfold. There is great concern that the former will not address deeper underlying social issues and the latter will not result in anything other than corporate fines. It is a testing time to find spiritual qualities in housing and art.
Burnt cladding in the garden of Lancaster West estate, 06/01/18
North Kensington estates, with blackened shell of Grenfell, as seen from Kensal Green Cemetery
Stepping forward and backwards in time
It is customary to do something slightly eccentric following the domestic excesses of Christmas Day. I didn't fancy taking a skin dip in the nearby Grand Union Canal, but this is my account of a walk on Boxing Day, that I measured at 3,900 steps from my home to Lancaster West Estate. I am a hopeless mathematician, but this measuring of time and space gave purpose to a psycho geographical plan for the New Year; one where a hesitant step might become a graceful and proud dance. But at this juncture in time, it seems fitting for an artist formerly in residence at Lancaster West and about to start in earnest (for a second time) on Silchester Estate, to take a spiritual constitution. So I ventured on foot to the garden in the shadow of Grenfell Tower to reflect on events that have changed my life. But first, let us set the chain in motion.
After 300 steps, I entered Kensal Green Cemetery that offers a convenient short-cut to Scrubs Lane in an area landlocked by the close proximity of railway, canal, elevated motorway and this necropolis. I also wanted to pay my respect and walk pass the site of Denis Murphy's grave, one of the 71 confirmed victims of the fire. The cemetery alas was just closing when I arrived.
We can ignore the following 1000 plus walking steps (a building next to Travis Perkins on Harrow Road that was being pulled down for flats, the two women smoking fags outside the Mayhem Animal Home, the electric car being charged, the soul less streets, the bustle of traffic) until we pass an advertising hoarding on Scrubs Lane. The seven tired towers of pudding grabbed my attention. I paused on my walk. I was reminded of a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where Richard Dreyfuss is possessed after his encounter with extra terrestrial life and carves out the sculptural shape of a mountain range that holds some unknown significance and to which he must journey.
A dessert served under a car scrapheap at the industrial end of Scrubs Lane
Westway Grafitti Wall
Grenfell Tower memorial art work at Westway
At 3000 steps I am at the graffiti wall, a public space under the Westway that is one of the few locations in London officially available for artists to tag with spray paint. A lovely memorial has been made here and has not been touched by other artists. It has become one of my defining urban images. A building that has now been ripped from the fabric of the area. It is drifting off in a blue sky with wings and a halo. i don't actually believe in angels and perhaps the Christian iconography is not fully inclusive, but the vision is compelling.
And then a few steps more and I am on Silchester Estate, the four high rises and low rise blocks that represents the gentle sister estate to Lancaster West. I bump into my old friend, Peter Radisic with his dog, Zena. They are on their daily walk. He had recently told me about the impact of losing a dear friend in the fire and didn't regret having had to punch someone who made racist comments about this. Peter had been to counselling sessions, but as I learnt in an earlier interview with him, his buddhist approach to life makes him value self-help when healthcare professionals are struggling to assist.
Peter and Zena at Silchester Estate with Grenfell Tower in background
Brickwork and housing between Testerton and Barandon Walkways leading to the garden
And then at 3600 steps I arrive at the distinctive red brick facade of the finger blocks, the three low rise housing units radiating out from Grenfell tower which forms about half of Lancaster West estate. I spy an abandoned television. I can't believe it's the exact same Panasonic model I have at home. I see Richard Dreyfuss recognising his sculpture in the Devil's Tower monument as it flashes up on a news programme. I could substitute Devil's Tower for Grenfell and the moment six months ago when I turned on the box to watch the morning news and my gut wrenched at the sight of a burning building that I knew so well. The fire, fire, fire that came to haunt my life and art. Indeed, as it touched so many, not just within the UK.
When I was a V&A Museum artist based on Silchester Estate in 2014-15, I was first drawn to the garden in the shadow of Grenfell Tower and over the years this has assumed importance in my life. To the casual outsider it might appear scruffy in a thrown together way. But there is a singular beauty to this space and encapsulated in the rugged, bearded, mystical features of its community gardener, Stewart Wallace. In the film, Vision of Paradise, I first introduced Stewart and his charmingly eccentric array of found objects and cultivated plants. He has a poetic sensibility and in conversation made connections between memorials for the dead, angels, Harry Potter, Frestonia and regeneration in a stream of consciousness that the best modernist writers would die for. Stewart became Virgil to my Dante as he guided me through the hell and purgatory of housing issues that was the subject matter of that film.
I stayed in the garden for about an hour hoping that Stewart would materialise. He would often spot me from his balcony window and come down for a chat. I'm pleased that on recent encounters he had recovered from a stroke and was able to speak more fluently. But given the season and fondness he has for a a tipple, he was probably sleeping like a cherub or had perhaps visited family in Scotland. I smiled when I noted the large champagne bottle in his garden. I dare not look up as Grenfell towers over the garden. I look around to see if there are any new additions, but only spot familiar objects. The angel next to the vacancy sign. Stewart's award for being a Garden Hero hanging under a pair of bat's wings. I would like to know if he has planted any seeds for spring and summer. How contaminated is this soil from the burnt cladding?
Two security guards from the tower say hello as Stewart's garden is an access point to the upper decking. As I sit in the garden and meditate, trying to ignore the blackened shell, I hear two visitors approach behind. Their tentative footsteps signal them as sight seekers. They are out on a walk just like me. I wonder what they take away from their visit. Thankfully, they stay at a distance and are not interested in the garden.
And then as I leave the estate, I come across a photo of Denis Murphy. I reflect on those occasions I met this quiet and thoughtful man. When I get home, I dig out my sketches made of Denis and other residents. I read out a comment he made at a residents meeting about not being bullied by the TMO. And I recall the art work made by children at the Grenfell Fun Day on Saturday 30th May, 2015. Denis was one of the last people I chatted to from Grenfell back in 2016 as he inquired about the art work and when it was going to be framed for the community room. The drawing was never put on display for reasons that I cannot fathom. I can only assume that the TMO who commissioned this had a negative evaluation of my residency. They should have asked Denis and the other residents for feedback.
Looking back, I have a complex range of feelings associated with Grenfell. It's hard to unpick and articulate them as they fluctuate from melancholia to anger, self-questioning to a growing sense of the need for decisive social and artistic action.
I first started working in and around the estates in 2009 and it subsequently became a home away from home. I had an artists studio here. Made many good friends. I also learnt a lot from my neighbours and was radicalised in a positive way. One obvious example was Edward Daffarn, the co-author of the pioneering and campaigning Grenfell Action Group blog, that predicted many of the tragic outcomes of regeneration. An amazingly passionate and intelligent man with a care for his community that most people before the fire could not understand or sympathise with. He overcame his initial distrust of my art and became a supporter of my engagement at a time when residents were in bitter dispute with the TMO. I'm not sure how I managed to walk the tightrope between residents and the housing authority. But Edward opened my eyes to many things on the estate and what was going on in the wider area. He challenged me to campaign. I'm sorry now that I did not actively do this. Although I didn't make banners and paraded them around the town hall, I did take part in squatting activist events that Edward was involved in and supported him as he organised demonstrations outside the house of RBKC's chief regenerator, Cllr. Rock Feilding-Mellen, who lived directly opposite the estate.
The TMO had also paid me to make a 10 minute promotional film about the regeneration and the benefits to residents. This would be the first of my deviations from my brief. It was obvious that no film could be made without really involving the residents and their life experiences. So I produced a 1 hour portrait of life on the estate, as a work in progress, including contributions from two residents who lived in Grenfell, one of those being Edward. At this stage he was persona non grata to the TMO. So as I was carefully editing Edward's comments as part of the film, I hoped the outcomes would facilitate better dialogue and respect between residents and the TMO. I believe I looked at this estate with fresh eyes. An outsider, an artist can do that. I also quickly realised that to understand the complex issues of the estate, that had a reputation from the outside of being fractious, it would be sensible to look at its past and bring back and interview the original architects. I also hoped that all my original research into the origins of the estate, its flaws and warts, would lead to a new found belief in the estate. This was another unscripted moment. I did this at the same time modern architects were transforming the tower block with cladding, a new heating system, double glazing, additional flats, improved facilities for the nursery and boxing club. This should have been a positive regeneration. That is what residents wanted. But the manner in which it was handled alienated many. Edward and other residents made me understand in detail how the effects of RBKC's wider regeneration plans for the social housing estates in the area, effectively running them down to the ground through lack of care and then demolishing them, would have the effect of displacing local residents who cold not afford to buy back into any redevelopment. Making the cosmetic surface of the building fit into the clean look of the recently built academy that was built on the green spaces surrounding the tower. Turning the "troublesome" north into a mirror image of the affluent south of the borough.
I discovered that the architect of Grenfell tower was Nigel Whitbread. A phone call revealed that he lived locally. He told me no one knew he designed the tower. I invited him to meet Edward in his flat. Nigel was delighted to see how people valued living in the high rise. Edward was thrilled to hear about Nigel's own experience of trying to influence the local authority in planning matters. I believe Lancaster West Estate was built to the highest standards possible in the 1970s, post Ronan-Point. This will now be scrutinised in the forthcoming public inquiry. The police investigation will also look back at the whole history of changes made to the tower block in order to categorically identify what went so wrong and how criminal charges might be brought to bear. I feel really sorry for Nigel who has been profoundly affected by the fire. I hope he realises that the building was intrinsically safe, but that it was successive generations of managers who were responsible for potential failures in the fire detection and evacuation procedures and the latter day architects and building contractors. And those budgetary decisions and final sign offs made by RBKC council who were ultimately responsible for the building.
I posed a question. Was this estate an ideal for living? I answered a provisional, yes. I had a vision that Grenfell and the surrounding estates could transcend their undervalued time but needed imaginative resident-lead maintenance and gradual change. Now the tower will be razed to the ground and the surrounding housing probably given the accelerated upgrade of modernisation that should have been part of a long term plan for the estates. But it now feels like my social and political agenda is scorched earth. The film I made about residents, their intelligent critical perspectives on how the estates could be maintained, was rejected by the TMO as the same tired old voices. The film also contains images of adults and children who are no longer living. It is painful to watch. And the art work I made with children is now gathering dust. It was however featured in a sensitive and searing film made by Nendie Pinto-Duschinsky called On The Ground at Grenfell that has played to widespread acclaim and scooped the Best Film at the Portobello Film Festival in 2017. An abridged version can be seen on Channel 4. But I feel the work I did on the estate will have a sad and bitter legacy until it is fully reclaimed by the community and only then shared with a wider audience via the media.
The past 6 months has flashed by and I've often felt like a character in a ghostly film or dream. At specific points, I see myself being chased and hiding from the world and then at others I'm a spectator or a participant on a stage that is on fire. I have been asked lots of questions from the media. I have offered very little in return. Perhaps that was the wrong strategy. They say it is good to talk. I was waiting for art to ride to my rescue. But there is more to life than art. That is so obvious now. But patience has other virtues and its a great honour to be asked back by Silchester Residents Association. Art For Silchester will be unfolding over the next 7 months, possibly for the remainder of my lifetime; such has been the impact of this event. I don't want to be known as that Grenfell artist. No one should have claim to this. I welcome all artistic interventions and look forward to the gallery based work of Steve McQueen. I have always prided myself on art that is collaborative and social, making space for others, especially those who don't normally participate in art. But I need to ensure that my voice is heard loud and clear. So as I walked to the estate, travelling backward and forward in time, there was an urgent and renewed spring to my step.
Grenfell Fun Day on Saturday 30th May, 2015 with children of the estate making a large scale drawing
Live, Laugh, Love: completed drawing that was scheduled to be hung in the new community room at Grenfell tower
Picture in words
Live, laugh, love
I love you England and Morocco.
Poo and pee.
Three, four, five, six, seven.
Ground floor, 2nd floor.
The movements of a lift.
An elephant, rhinoceros and giraffe
Came to Grenfell tower
For the day.
Lionel Messi is the best.
Live, laugh, love
(Words written by children on the drawing and made into a poem by Constantine Gras)
Residents Meeting with the TMO at Lancaster West Estate with Denis Murphy stating "Your not going to bully me!"
8 September 2015
Edward Daffarn at RBKC Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee reading out a petition from residents of Grenfell asking for an independent inquiry into how the TMO managed the regeneration of the tower, 6 January 2016
Christine Richer and Edward Daffarn, residents of Lancaster West Estates, as extras in Leo The Last
Oil pastels, 15-16 September 2015
Demonstration outside Cllr. Rock Feilding-Mellen's house opposite Lancaster West Estate, March 2016
Radical Housing Network squatting in a Knightsbridge property to protest the Housing Bill, 9 March 2016
Michael Jardine, resident of Silchester Estate, leads guided walk to community garden at Lancaster West Estate
Open Garden Estates, organised by Architects for Social Housing and Constantine Gras, 18 June 2016
Constantine Gras sketching on the Silent March for Grenfell Tower, 14 November 2017
Banner at Silent March for Grenfell, 14 December 2017
This is a coda where I can change pitch and tone. I'm already sensing that if I up my tempo, increase my stride pattern, then that walk will break out into a dance. Hopefully not in the style of Basil Fawlty. I was thinking more of Zorba the Greek. I need to dance here at Silchcester and Lancaster West Estates. This is a future chapter and art project waiting to happen. Please don't think I've got my half Polish, half Greek knickers in a twist or that I've lost my marbles.
The Greeks have thousands of dances scattered across their numerous islands and the ones I have been taught from the North East Aegean, Oinousses to be exact, my mother land, has ritualistic dances that celebrate the philosophic pains and the sensual pleasures. It's not Strictly Come Dancing as you might know it but related to the Argentine tango and the American Blues. Even a cursory YouTube viewing of Antony Quinn's dance as Zorba will reveal these qualities of dance. And UNESCO have just listed Rebeitko, which is the root of modern Greek music and dance, on its Cultural Heritage List. This is the urban music and dance that my grandparent's generation brought over to mainland Greece in the 1920s after they were displaced from the crumbling Ottoman empire and before the emergence of the modern Turkish state (via a deadly exchange of populations). The happenings at late night cafes and clubs articulated the feelings of refugees and the marginalised grappling with drink and drugs, poverty, despair, while searching for love and happiness. My mother was born into this diaspora and became a singer on her island. She has thankfully handed down some of these traditions.
Music and dance are dynamic and emotional elements that underpin all my drawings which are in effect durational performances. It has also played small cameo roles in previous films. One of my favourite film makers is Max Ophuls and he is a master of capturing the musical rhythms of life. The recent Arts Council England funded project, The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle, had a wonderful dance sequence at its core that was devised by John Whelan and actors from the People's Company.
As I feel the need to grow new creative wings, let us try a left field dance in that residency at Silchester. In addition to the drawings, film, clay making, creative writing and book making that is already in the pipeline, I want to emulate something in the style of DV8 Physical Theatre. Connecting to Rumpus has already unleashed the dormant dancer in me. So when I'm not cycling down to the estates, when I'm not walking and thinking reflective thoughts, I might be inviting residents and other artists to share music and dance from their cultural backgrounds as well as embrace the best of British hip and toe bone shaking. I might even try some free improvisations in Waynflete Square although please note my days of spinning are over given my hearing condition.
Yes. Am I not a multi media and improvising artist? When we are lost for words, let us move towards the abstraction of sound and movement. Here we can create art that expresses joy and humour at the same time as challenging social iniquities.
A 12 minute film about a former nursery on Silchester Estate that was converted into a temporary artist studio. Five artists reflect on their practice and this is related to the wider history of the area.
Storyboard for Inger-Land, music and dance film that fuses British and Asian cultures, 2012
Greek dancing solo and ensemble, London, 2005
Body Drift, 1990, VHS Video
Deconstructing and fragmenting movement in an artists studio
Sound remixed in 2017: original soundtrack from John Surman replaced by Laurence-Eliot
I've wanted to write about the past 6 months in my life, but realise I'm still not able to formulate coherent and dispassionate words. Therefore I'm going to attempt a visual and poetic experiment with parallel time lines. I sense this is a turning point where life, performance and art all co-exist and move forward as one.
Time line 1 – Grenfell Tower
I cannot believe the news that Grenfell tower is on fire. I immediately cycle down assuming everyone was out. All bystanders shocked, crying. I had made friends and art here in this building burning before my very eyes.
A resident tells me how the wind blows and resonates through the exposed windows. How it is like hearing a voice.
I am haunted by my last conversations with victims. Medhi, 8 years old, telling me about the drawing he had just completed: “I push the imagination button”. Denis Murphy: “When are you going to put that art work up?”
Then the world comes calling. Could I appear on TV or supply this photo! We want to recreate scenes from Grenfell and do the adjacent towers have the same layout? Are you the architect of the Tower?
The police visit me 4 times. They make copies of all my photos and films during my residency on the estate. I was commissioned to make a short positive film about the regeneration of Grenfell tower. Instead I listened to residents life stories and made The Forgotten Estate. I have withdraw this film until the community conjure it forth.
The art work commissioned for Grenfell tower was never hung up by the TMO. It has survived the fire. What will become of it?
On the Silent March for Grenfell, I meet and hug survivors. We walk the streets of North Kensington. A wave of compassion. I sketch en route.
I return back to the estate to a location that I have invested with a mythic and poetic quality. If you excavated the ground here you might discover the remains of Leo The Last. It is the community garden between Testerton and Barandon Walkways. It loomed large in the film I made for the V&A Museum, Vision of Paradise. Here I met the gardener Stewart Wallace. He was a guide who navigated me through the housing states of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. Now his sculptural garden is contaminated by cladding. Steward had a stroke recently. But he is now back at work in his garden. This garden will be subject of my third film about Lancaster West Estate.
Time line 2 – Family, friends and personal well being
I had recently applied for my dad’s WW2 records. I discover he was entitled to a British war medal, but within the archive documents there was a shocking and sad story. It was something my patriotic Dad could never speak about. I was gobsmacked. Poland truly has a tragic history! I have started making drawings about this and filming at Wormwood Scrubs dressed in my old 1940s suit. I don't want to cause pain to the family, but this is very much about how the diaspora shaped my identity.
Mum has developed severe spinal problems. From complete independence to requiring intensive support in a matter of weeks. Hospital appointments. Disjointed hours. She becomes suicidal. The life of a carer beckons. Readjusting time and space.
I visit Jo Poole at Wellington Hospital and tell her about the Melodramatic Elephant. Our lovely Dress Doctor from Silchester Estate cannot speak or communicate but I wish she could advise me about my recent dress code and how we might use fabrics in the Melodramatic Elephant project. I cannot speak to her about Grenfell. I sing her a variation of the Beatles song – Hey Jo!
I meet up with an old friend who is now working for the NHS and providing mental health services for the victims Of Grenfell. He asks me how has the fire affected me? I think my confidence has been knocked as I bottle up feelings. The only way I have to communicate is through my art and this inward turn makes it more difficult. Most people don’t notice, thankfully.
Silchester Estate has asked me to become an artist in residence from Dec 2017- June 2018. I am honoured to be working with residents as part of their recovery after Grenfell. It will probably do me a power of good.
Time line 3 – The Melodramatic Elephant
I can barely focus on a new project called The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle. I had been developing this for the past 5 years and now it has Arts Council Funding.
There was an incredibly poignant story to tell here about a melodramatic actress once associated with the Coronet theatre. While developing the core ideas, little did I realise the significance that fire and destruction would have in my own life.
The original Elephant and Castle Theatre burnt down in 1878 and Marie Henderson, the actress and manageress of the theatre, was reported as having gone made after losing all her costumes in the fire.
I sit alone in the Coronet and sketch. The manager talks about a ghostly presence that makes her hair stand on end. I don’t feel this. I just absorb the lonely and soon to be demolished space.
A newly composed score by my Godson DJ Lysergide has an emotional impact on me. It is the Bedlam Dance scene aka Marie Henderson’s tune. The opening chords has the crackle of flames. This haunts me for months. I hum it in my sleep.
For the poster art work, I set fire to clothes. I nearly burn myself
I attend an emotional Lowkey Concert in tribute to Grenfell at the Coronet.
Each time I hear the lines from the play, Fire! Fire! Fire! or watch the actors rehearse a complicated fire scene, with ladders and water buckets, my mind drifts off.
Intense collaboration takes me out of myself.
I found a great friend in John Whelan, theatre director. We laugh uncontrollably about the fetishism in our life. And he leads a lovely group of actors, the People’s Company. They devote months to bringing our visionary ideas to life. Namely, a building psychically linked to an actress. Together we found new ways of combining art and performance. And it is a fitting end for the 147 year old Coronet.
THE MELODRAMATIC ELEPHANT IN THE HAUNTED CASTLE - ART EXHIBITION
9-20 December at The Art Academy Gallery
155 Walworth Road, London SE17 1RS.
Opening hours: Saturday and Sunday 12.00-17.0O Monday to Friday 15.00-19.00
Atmos (Marie Henderson theme)
From the Bedlam dance scene in The Melodramatic Elephant stage play
Composed by DJ Lysergide
Photo by Irena Hlinkova
It was a great pleasure to make contact with Andrew Haig who shared memories and experiences as a designer. Working with the influential firm Kinneir, Calvert and Tuhilll, he produced the signage for Lancaster West and World's End estates in the 1970s.
As artist in residence on Lancaster West in 2015, I had an opportunity to use art to connect residents with the history of their estates; this is a poignant issue as many estates are now under threat from redevelopment schemes as evidenced with Silchester Estate in the same neighbourhood. This blog completes my set of interviews with former architects and current residents of Lancaster West estate.
At grammar school in England, my academic career was uneventful. I did well at art and athletics (I still compete today). Politically I was a little right-wing shit and a sergeant major myself in the cadets. At the end of sixth form I applied to join Sandhurst for Officer Training but, influenced by my art master who had been to Reading University, I was persuaded to apply to the only two institutions where you could get a degree in art in those days – Reading and Newcastle. Fortunately I failed the eyesight test at Sandhurst and got accepted at Reading despite my indifferent A level grades (including art!). You needed three A levels for university.
The four year Honours course with it's academic underpinning suited me fine. The first year was study for the 'First University Exam' in my case in Art, Geography and Ancient History. We then spent time with the main Art sections: Painting, Sculpture and Typography with a view to specialising in the second term of the second year. I realised that much as I enjoyed painting I had no special talent for it and would need, eventually, to make a living. I chose Typography. Good decision.
I should say that as soon as I started at Reading I dropped all the right-wing militaristic crap and retreated into a somewhat nihilistic shell. (subsequently I became a community-minded leftie. More of that later).
The graphic design profession was only just getting going at that time and despite the dusty academic slant of the course, a bona fide graphic designer was a once-a-week visitor and very influential too. My painting heroes had been Michael Andrews, Richard Diebenkorn and RB Kitaj. Now I started to take an interest in the burgeoning Graphic Design scene in London, particularly the work of those that were serious and analytical.
At the very beginning of the fourth year we had to submit an undergraduate dissertation as part of our finals. Mine addressed the ongoing application of a corporate identity for British Rail with a particular look at the signing systems and the emergence generally of lower case sans serif lettering as the standard (yup – pretty nerdy I know but you can see where this is going!). For my research I interviewed several of the key people at British Rail, Design Research Unit and Kinneir Calvert. Jock Kinneir was informative and patient with me when I went to see him at the Royal College of Art where he was head of course.
On leaving Reading I interviewed with Kinneir Calvert (Tuhill came several years later) and from my dissertation they could see that I fitted well with their set up and I was offered the job of junior designer.
Their office was in Knightsbridge so I started in August 1967 in the heart of 'swinging London'. Bliss!
KINNEIR CALVERT (TUHILL)
Initially I assisted senior designer David Jones who was working on the signing for the miner's new town in the North East, Silksworth. I helped with the visuals for presentation. Soon I was assisting Margaret Calvert with her airport signing system as well as other more general graphic commissions. I must say that Margaret it is who taught me all there was to know about typography, layout and systematic thinking as well as the thrill of finding the right metonymic image; in graphics a well chosen image or symbol speaks volumes! She was very much a mentor for me.
Once a signing scheme was accepted, there was much detail work to be undertaken and I was involved with drawing symbols, doing technical drawing for sign manufacturers and writing and laying out pages of instruction manuals.
Meanwhile, I was accepted as a capable typographer and either worked as an assistant in that capacity or otherwise entrusted with the odd annual report or piece of publicity. In those days we still worked largely with hot metal so layouts were traced with precision on typography paper, the compositors instructed and the resultant proofs pasted up as 'artwork'. I loved every moment of it.
In those days it was considered a matter of status for a young designer to take a day part-time teaching somewhere. In 1970 I started at the London College of Printing on The Diploma in Typographic Design course where I remained for a decade. Jock and Margaret were happy to indulge me. After I went freelance I picked up a second day at Camberwell school of Art 1971-1973. From 1980 to 1986 I taught for two days a week at Middlesex Polytechnic. In each case my speciality was in the basic principles of typography and layout. An underpinning if you like of the work of many a creative student.
I turned freelance in July 1971. This was a moment when Jock demonstrated his inherent generosity. I had learned all the essential procedures for devising a signing system and he tasked me with the job of undertaking such a system for the new London Borough of Kensington & Chelsea estates at World's End Chelsea and Lancaster West in Kensington.
Initially this involved pouring over architect's maps and, indeed, talking to them when necessary. I also met them frequently on site and determined the routes through the development and each point of decision. The job involved not just the signing but given the complexity of horizontal and vertical streets intersecting, working out the most efficient addressing system for the benefit of the postmen as much as residents. An analysis of this hugely complex task was written by me. It was accompanied by display boards which Jock and I presented to a huge planning committee at Kensington and Chelsea.
Using Margaret's slab serif update of her Rail alphabet, the job involved tracing each and every sign onto sheets to be supplied to the sign manufacturers in dyeline form. Margaret's alphabet eventually became formalised as the typeface called Calvert and to this day is used for the signs of the Newcastle underground system. The dyelines would have been backed up with precise technical specifications. The lettering would always have been accurate courtesy of Margaret's tiling system where artwork was pasted up from lettering printed on paper with each letter on a 'tile' to distance it accurately from its neighbour.
I have located some reference photography (1976) of a few of the signs in situ. The blue signs at Lancaster West and the brown ones at World's End, including the large 3D floor numbers that Margaret designed; not sure why she thinks the scheme was not implemented, these shots seem to prove otherwise. (3d signs were only installed at World's End estate, but now not in evidence - Constantine's comment)
Note that our signs took due note of horizontal and vertical brick intervals and used those as sign size determinants. One decision we made and justified at the time was my idea to, instead of using arrows, use words (left, right, upstairs etc). Forty five years later it seems just plain wrong. Not everyone reads English or reads it well. What's wrong with good old arrows?
I continued with teaching and freelance work specialising in non-commercial clients such as charities and public bodies. For several years in the eighties I shared studio space in Islington just down the road from the GLC Learning Materials Service for whom I did a considerable amount of work.
In the mid seventies I had bought a house in Graham Road Hackney (I had to take a full time job for a year as studio manager with Tauber-Fandora Colour Printers – impossible to get a mortgage as a free lancer in those days!). It became obvious that the GLC were planning to formalise our street as an HGV route through from the Blackwall Tunnel to Archway. Along with some neighbours I formed the Graham Road Neighbourhood Group which became a really influential force in the area. I was its first chairman. We did a considerable amount of lobbying and even direct action. We used to do 'zebra walks' back and forth across the road – 70 or so residents, old and young, at 7 o'clock in the morning. This is where I start to connect with your residents!
In 1993 I moved to Brighton where I set up a freelance design "collective" working still for the non-commercial sector. In 2009 I retired and still now am involved with my community but otherwise enjoying getting back to my own creativity. I paint and write short stories and poetry which I self-publish. I am also a heavily involved with a local running club for whom I compete frequently – now in the 70 category!
Here's a recap of the Open Garden estate weekend that was organised by Silchester Residents Association and Constantine Gras. It had funding and support from Architects for Social Housing, RBKC council and InTRANSIT festival of arts.
The event took place on Saturday 18 and Sunday 19 JUNE 2016. The aim was to celebrate community and cultural life, architecture and garden spaces at both Silchester and Lancaster West estate. The former estate is being considered for regeneration by RBKC council.
Centre stage was a 1:100 scale model of Silchester estate made by Michael Jardine, Nahid Ashby and Constantine Gras. This was a wonderful way of visualising the estate and the potential impacts of regeneration.
In addition to art made by residents, we had a film programme and guided walks. The walks connected the older sister estate of Silchester with its younger brother, Lancaster West, which lies on the other side of the Bramley Road. Residents, Michael Jardine and Piers Thompson lead us from the elegance of Waynflete Square to the more private spaces of Lancaster West; the latter was designed by landscape architect, Michael Brown.
Photo collage by James Mercer, Resident of Waynflete Square
I have lived on Shalfleet Drive for 7 years. From our bedroom windows we have a nice view onto Wayneflete Square which is a nice well kept estate.
I love art, I always have. It seems to relax me and gives me a way to express myself. I mainly do illustrative art, like cartoons, animation. To quote my art teacher I am a "Perfectionist with a pencil”.
Lex Quiambao, resident of Whitstable House
I’m a freelance Artist and a waiter working at a pub. I also do volunteering at the youth club.
I like to paint at home. These two paintings are views from my balcony on the 11th floor. It’s a landscape of London from day to night showing how light and time both changes and grows.
Nahid Ashby, resident of Frinstead House
I was born in Iran and I came here just for the summer holidays in 1970. I loved the freedom and that’s why I stayed. When I first moved to Frinstead House in about 1980. I thought, Oh my God! I probably can’t stay here. But the flats are pretty comfortable.
Waynflete square, with its low rise buildings and small delightful gardens full of trees, shrubs and scented flowers, has a special place in my daily walk. I particularly like this area because it has a wide view of the sky and the beautiful sunset colours that melt my heart. I use these trees, sky and shapes in many of my paintings.
Derek White, Shalfleet Drive Leaseholder
I have lived on the estate for eight years with my wife and am proud to have been Chair of the Silchester Residents' Association since 2011. My hope and belief is that by doing what I am good at, I enable others to do what they are good at. Our community of Silchester Estate is diverse and friendly with a mix of long standing and more recent residents.
I am shocked by the possible plans that the Council has for our area as they do not seem to take account of what is here already, but I am encouraged by the way the community has come out and met together, shared views and supported each other and I firmly believe that it is that strength that will enable us to play a part in continuing to build community. I was privileged to speak at the Cabinet Meeting on 26th May where the Cabinet decided to proceed with further options in the Feasibility Study and committed to working with the RA as a significant partner.
Mary White, Shalfleet Drive Leaseholder
I grew up in suburban London and when I left at the age of 18 I said I never wanted to come back to live here, but I moved into North Kensington in 2004 and we both moved onto Silchester in 2008 and now I’m proud to call myself a Londoner. We live in a great city and a wonderful area. I love the diversity in our neighbourhood and I like it that every time I walk out of the door I meet someone I know – we’re a strong community. I work across the road at Latymer Community Church and our Christian faith is at the core of who we are. So it’s really important to us to be involved on the estate and to participate in the things that matter to us all. We want to stand with our friends and neighbours at a time of potential change and stress and at the same time to celebrate all the wonderful things about living on Silchester. Our community event every summer on Waynflete Square is the highlight of the Residents’ Association’s year and for the rest of the year we enjoy watching the seasons change on our very own garden square.
On the 18th and 19th June we were blessed with fine weather, a good turnout and some lovely feedback. Here's a choice selection:
Cllr Judith Blakeman:
"This amazing exhibition demonstrates what the united community of Silchester does and why it is quite wrong for RBKC to destroy all that has been built up over the years. This vibrant and wonderful community can never be rebuilt."
Peter Radisic, resident of Frinstead House:
"Great work, done so well.”
“An eye opener - I hope something develops for the local residents.”
Edward Daffarn, Grenfell Action Group:
“Great tour and lovely estate.”
"I was the the original homeless people. That means, home is where the heart is."
Save the community!
Nigel Whitbread, architect of Grenfell Tower:
"I particularly enjoyed the tour around both estates; the surprise of the hidden gardens and habitat."
Marco Picardi, Green Westway:
“Great art and videos. Loved the multi layered tour that really captured the local life.”
Simon Elmer and Geraldine Dening, Architects for Social Housing:
“Wonderful exhibition. Great work with children and to see the community alive on the walls.”
Helena Thompson, Spid Theatre Director and her son, Mat:
“We loved the exhibition! So much useful information and so well designed. We had fun in the brilliant gardens too.”
I've been working on Lancaster West estate for well over a year now. My commitment extended beyond the commission I had from the TMO (who manage the Royal Borough's housing stock) to make a mural for the new community room and a short film documenting the regeneration of Grenfell Tower. At the beginning, I was naturally regarded with a degree of skepticism. Why do we need an artist on the estate? But after attending numerous residents meetings and putting on art events in lift lobbies and during fun days, I earned my stripes in the community. During my tenure, I've had an opportunity to strike up many friendships across the estate. I offered them an accessible and sociable art. In return, several of them have entrusted me to render their remarkable life-affirming experiences and energising humour. More of these residents to follow. But first let's talk about regeneration and architecture and conclude by weaving both of these back into the beating heart and soul of Lancaster West.
As of writing, Grenfell Tower improvement works is well nigh complete. After a £10 million regeneration, nine new flats have been created and offer affordable rents in an area where property prices average over £1 million and one bedroom flats on nearby More West are over £500,000. Each flat in Grenfell has had double glazing installed and a boiler for direct control of heating and hot water. The building has been thermally insulated with a new layer of cladding, although I miss the former design. The nursery and Dale boxing club also come back into vastly improved spaces and facilities.
This upgrade to the fabric of a building is important in the context of how the council plan to regenerate this part of North Kensington. Silchester Estate, which is just across the road from Lancaster West, is currently being considered for regeneration. The initial options produced by the council were described as "nuclear" by estate residents. At a recent meeting in the town hall, several residents had the opportunity of making powerful statements to the council about the lack of consultation and the potential impacts of wholesale regeneration on the community and environment. The council listened and voted to explore the options in more detail. They also make a commitment to factor in the possibility of maintenance and infill. It is good to see how local residents are campaigning with a witty strap line (Gradual Change - In Due Course) that might have been culled from the insight of a former architect of Lancaster West, Derek Latham. He developed his ethos of urban renewal on a gradual basis after witnessing the impact of "slum clearance" in North Kensington during the 1960s and 70s.
Previous blogs have featured interviews with Derek Latham and Peter Deakins, both of whom worked on the early stage design of Lancaster West estate. I can now present a complete documentary record of all the architects involved and their experiences, hopes and frustrations. One major issue was why the estate was never designed to its initial masterplan. This sense of fragmentation is perhaps the root cause for many of the challenges still being faced on the estate and which are being addressed by the newly formed Lancaster West Resident Association and the Grenfell Compact.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting retired architect Nigel Whitbread and showed him around the estate. He lead the team who designed and built Grenfell Tower. It was the first time in over 40 years that he stepped foot inside the tower and enjoyed visiting a residents flat and those stunning views. What's interesting about Nigel's story is that he is a local boy through and through and not many local people seem to be aware of his role in the development of the area.
We are also going to hear from Ken Price about the design of the finger blocks, the three low rise housing units that radiate out from Grenfell tower.
Clifford Wearden is the design godfather of Lancaster West estate. I suspect his career path was adversely affected by the way the development panned out and not being the consultant responsible for all the later, much revised, stages. Chatting to his widow, Pauline Wearden, I was surprised to learn that, Clifford, like most other architects involved in the project disliked tower blocks. Grenfell tower was only included to maximise housing density levels; Nigel is an exception to this prickly high rise rule of thumb. This perhaps explains why Clifford in later life would drive over the elevated Westway and look across at the five tower blocks and declaim to his family that Grenfell tower exists no more and has been demolished for a new development. This is a poignant case of not wanting to see the concrete from the stone!
I was born in Kenton near Harrow. My parents had a grocer’s on St Helen’s Gardens in North Kensington. We moved as a family to this area in 1949 to be nearer the shop. I read quite recently Alan Johnson’s biography, This Boy. He is a Labour MP and former Home Secretary and interestingly was born in 1949. However his life and the poverty he lived through was in a different world, although just a mile away as the crow flies. He didn’t enjoy the family life that I enjoyed nor did he appear to enjoy his time at Sloane grammar school which I had done earlier.
When I was going to leave Sloane, I didn’t know what I was going to do. One day I had an interview at an architect’s office. My eyes were opened. I liked the idea of drawing boards and doing something that I never understood to exist. The first firm that I worked for was Clifford Tee and Gale and that’s where I did my apprenticeship. I went one day a week plus night school to the Hammersmith School of Art and Building. Subsequent to this I became a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
I knew through delivering groceries that there was an architect who lived near my father’s shop. I told my parents this and my mother said she would speak to the wife of the architect who was also a partner in the practice. I went for an interview and got the job. This was at Douglas Stephen and Partners and this was probably the most influential time in my career. It was only a small practice but doing important things and at the forefront of design influenced by Le Corbusier and other modernists. It was there that I worked with architects from the Architectural Association and the Regent Street Polytechnic: Kenneth Frampton who was the Technical Editor of the journal Architectural Design; and Elia Zenghelis and Bob Maxwell who both spent most of their careers in the teaching world. It was actually like going to a club and we were doing terrific work.
Later on, I went to work with Clifford Wearden on Lancaster West. At that time his office was a two storey building in his back garden. It was a huge job for a small group. It was unusual for councils to use private architects in those days. Clifford was a serious architect but had a flair about him. He’d been in the Fleet Air Arm and had a lovely Alvis car which was a convertible as I recall. He did have a very bad habit whilst he was driving of turning his head and facing me whenever he was speaking which I always felt a bit disarming. I found this quirkiness an attractive aspect in somebody who was very precise in most things he did.
The whole scheme had been well prepared and thought out by the time I joined to lead the team in designing the tower. The design is a very simple and straightforward concept. You have a central core containing the lift, staircase and the vertical risers for the services and then you have external perimeter columns. The services are connected to the central boiler and pump which powered the whole development and this is located in the basement of the tower block. This basement is about 4 meters deep and in addition has 2 meters of concrete at its base. This foundation holds up the tower block and in situ concrete columns and slabs and pre-cast beams all tie the building together. Ronan Point, the tower that partially collapsed in 1968, had been built like a pack of cards. Grenfell tower was a totally different form of construction and from what I can see could last another 100 years.
Grenfell tower is a flexible building although designed for flats. You could take away all those internal partitions and open it up if that’s what you wanted to do in the future, This was unusual in terms of residential tower blocks. I also don’t know of any other council built tower block in London or anywhere else in England that also has the central core and six flats per floor rather than four flats which is typically done on the London County Council or Greater London Council plans. We were wanting to put our own identity on this. The GLC built Silchester estate and I had nothing against that but this was so different in many ways. While a lot of brick had been used in LCC and GLC buildings, we thought that putting bricks one on top of the other for twenty storeys was a crazy thing to do. We used insulated pre-cast concrete beams as external walls, lifted up and put into place with cranes and they were so much more quicker.
In an architects mind, they want towers to be an elegant form rather than stumpy. This was a challenge and was why I introduced as many vertical elements within the fenestration as I could. The only thing I could play with was the windows and the infill between the windows. I treated it like a curtain wall, to get the rhythm of a curtain wall. We lost some of this verticality in the recent re-cladding but it’s not the end of the world. And the building is now better insulated as we had different standards then.
The floor plans were based on Parker Morris Standards which they used at that time and sadly have gone now. These were very good standards for storage and the way furniture had to be included in the plans. It was delightful to hear that residents thought flat arrangements worked well and I saw the views recently which I always thought were terrific. I wouldn’t have minded living in a tower block myself. Tower blocks were criticized for not being suited to people or a lot of families were being forced into it and they were feeling more and more remote from the street and meeting other people. But there is another side to this and it always seemed to me that if American’s can live in tower blocks, why can’t the English?
This is the first and only tower block I designed. This was also the first social housing I ever worked on. No social housing has been built since this and I’m very much against knocking things down unnecessarily. I had heard that there had been problems a few years ago with the heating and it was no good and talk of the whole block having to come down. And I thought, if my heating goes wrong, I don’t want to pull my house down.
It’s a great shame that the basic concept for the whole of Lancaster West to have a first floor deck for people, shops and offices and parking underneath wasn’t seen through for whatever reason. This means that there remains a basic flaw. Clifford Wearden and Associates only built Stage 1 and the remaining parts were built by other architects. I don’t think the designers are to blame because there was a requirement that it was designed to have cars for every flat. We’ve all seen things have changed dramatically since then and now cars can’t be accommodated everywhere.
After Clifford Wearden, I worked for Aukett Associates and I was there for 30 years until retirement. Recently I’ve become involved with my local residents association and committees in drawing up the St Quintin and Woodlands Neighbourhood Plan. We included the Imperial West site over in Hammersmith and Fulham because that was already impacting on our conservation area. Hammersmith wouldn’t agree to this but we continued developing the plans liasing with RBKC and residents. The Neighbourhood Plan includes objectives around shopping, housing, offices and conservation. We have also identified 3 existing unbuilt spaces which are now designated as local green space and cannot be built on. Latimer Road is included in the plan and we think that could be redeveloped to improve the area and have more housing put on top of the business units. We have to have housing somewhere. That’s where you could do it. But don’t build on our green spaces. The Localism Act which the Conservative government introduced is a very powerful tool actually. Residents are able to influence the way their area is developed.
Ken Price was lead architect responsible for the team who designed and built the finger block units (Testerton, Barandon and Hurstway) which formed stage 1 of the building project.
My origins are in Derby in the Midlands. I went to the School of Architecture in Nottingham which at that that time was part of the college of art and is now part of the university. I worked for a short time in Derby and then I was offered a job to work in North Africa in Tunisia. I went there for 3-4 years. I came back and worked in Nottingham for a while with some ex-students who had set up practice there and and then changed jobs in and around London. After Lancaster West, I worked with Casson Conder partnership and was job architect on the Ismaili Centre in South Kensington. Subsequently I set up my on my own and did small scale projects, mostly interior work and retired a few years ago.
Clifford Wearden won the Lancaster Road West development in Kensington. After a bit of a hiatus, the commission was confirmed for what was called stage one and he asked me to go and lead the team as project architect for the finger blocks. I worked for him and Kensington and Chelsea to develop the original masterplan which predecessors had worked on.
Clifford was extremely good at handing over and saying - look this is the problem, you solve it and refer to me if there is still a problem. He was very generous although he had the overall view and concept. I know that he was very sad that the development became a little bit like the Barbican. It was a grander scheme and there could well have been more productive elements which just didn’t arise. I wasn't involved in those preliminary stages of development, so I can’t speak too much about how that evolved. But I was aware that the Silchester Baths on the site became listed and affected the masterplan.
I briefly saw the housing in the area before or after it was all painted white because there was the famous or infamous film, Leo the Last. Was it black or white? Why did I think it was painted white. The director was John Boorman. I think I must have seen it just before they did that and probably immediately after. After it was cleared there was no real evidence of life or to how it was. I don’t even know what the state of the dwellings were like and whether they were totally without facilities.
At that time there were a number of schemes underway to deal with the housing issue, alongside the problem of car ownership .One could describe it as the deck system when cars were kept down below and freeing up the ground level or the raised ground level for pedestrian use and housing. It was part of the brief to provide that amount of parking and it did subsidise some of the other elements.
My predecessor had sketched in a basic outline of the finger blocks. I took that on and developed up the detail of the individual housing units and the spaces between. I suppose we were interested in the intricacies of locking together volumes of accommodation in order to maximise the space of each dwelling. Also providing, to a degree, some private outside balcony or roof terrace on the top areas so there was an opportunity for people to have their own little bit of outside space as well as the bigger outside. I still have a small model of the finger block that was made by a friend of mine, a model maker. It shows the different accommodation elements by colouring. It was really a demonstration to the council on the mix of the different elements.
Community garden between Barandon and Testerton Walk. A constant source of artistic inspiration for Constantine Gras and featuring as the backdrop for several of his films: Vision of Paradise.
The landscaping was dealt with by Michael Brown (landscape architect, 1923-1996). Clifford was very determined to ensure that the landscape was taken on and he persuaded RBKC to employ him. I think one of the essential elements in the concept was this endeavour to provide as much open green space as possible by concentrating the housing units. The density was probably what was expected or required by local authorities at that time. The estate was designed to try and retain that as much as possible and the tower blocks were an element in that because you’ve got a concentrated stacking of accommodation which again added to the freeing up of groundscape. Although there were a number of tower blocks around at Silchester I don’t think any of us would have chosen to have incorporated the tower block but it must have contributed to this density issue and freed up the amount of green space that was enabled.
I think the estate was built to a good standard. We persuaded a brick manufacturer called Ockley to make bricks especially for the estate which weren’t available. It was just at the start of the introduction of metrication and it seemed to me, in particular, that it would be rather nice to make life easier in measurement terms to have bricks that fitted the metric. So they are specially made, 30 centimetre long bricks. We wanted to use brick as the main element in order to connect perhaps with the past more than you would have done with clip on panels. It does survive time rather better than a lot of materials. I still imagine they look pretty good. They were very nice brick manufacturers.
I knew there was a hiccup in the construction process but I couldn’t quite remember what it was. (The contractor, A.E.Symns went into receivership in 1975 at the very end of the construction of phase one). I can’t think of a building site where that didn’t arise especially as the construction was over such a long period. There were industrial dispute problems (three day working week and building strike), but not hugely disruptive as far as I can remember. In those days it was very difficult to get contractors to keep the site clean. Now because of health and safety issues, I think building sites are much better managed.
It’s a shame they never built the planned shopping centre or offices. There was an expectation of community facilities including commerce and everything else in order to make the place work.
I don’t think there were any warnings flagged up that there might be vandalism. It certainly wasn’t in evidence as it was completed. I visited after it was fully occupied and there didn’t seem to be any evidence of vandalism then. We never got any feedback as a practice on you should’t have done this or that. Perhaps we could have foreseen some of the possible problems. At the time disability access wasn’t an issue. It should have been but it wasn’t. Now that wouldn’t be allowed. You have to provide much more facilities. Unless the facilities are provided people will abuse what’s there and definitely need alternatives.
Maintenance has been the problem in almost every area of social housing that was built at that time and subsequently. it’s one thing to realise and provide housing for umpteen people, but then to not maintain the estates or keep them going. It was very short sighted. That’s why social authority housing has all but disappeared because nobody is prepared to take on the long term issues.
It was a product of its time in the way it dealt with a big housing issue, sub-standard housing. And hoping to provide the mix of urban renewal, accommodation, green spaces for enjoyment, kids playing and all the rest. This was just one of a number of schemes which were resolved in different ways but the deck idea was a sort of constant thing throughout. Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Estate, which is due for demolition now, was one of the background influences on the concept of Lancaster West. There was also a reference perhaps to the Lillington Gardens estate just off Vauxhall Bridge Road. That’s a famous development by Darbourne and Darke which I think still survives very well.
Ideas of large scale redevelopment and housing tend to go through different phases of acceptability or relevance and it’s very difficult to look back and say that was the right decision to make. In some cases it was the only option either because of financing or government pressure or politics. But I would have thought that if the masterplan was completed it would have provided a better result than has eventually arisen. But it’s very difficult in hindsight ever to say.
Pauline Wearden whose husband was the lead architect for Lancaster West estate masterplan and building stage 1.
Clifford was born in Preston, Lancashire in 1920 to working class parents. His father was a plumber and his mother was in retail with a profitable cafe. Clifford was his mother’s golden boy and she paid for him to go to university. There were no architects in the family. It just came thorough Clifford. Clifford studied architecture at the University of Liverpool from 1938-40 and 1946-48. He was very fortunate because that was a prestigious university in those days turning out many famous architects and Rhode Scholars.
When war broke out, he immediately volunteered. He had a lovely war, mostly cocktail parties. No. No, He did have a lot of tragedy and he saw his best friend shot down. Clifford was a pilot in Air Command. He had travelled as a student on what they call the Tour and he’d been to all the classic places but during the war he also saw some exotic places.
From 1949-54, Clifford was chief-partner for Sir Basil Spence. This was when they got the commission for rebuilding Coventry Cathedral and Clifford was given the job of preserving the ruins. He was very proud of that.
I don’t know what brought him to London. But he had no home and went to International House Hostel. He lived in a hostel for years. He didn’t have anywhere stable until he bought his top-floor flat in Argyll Road, Kensington. Then he came across this derelict house on Homer Street, Marylebone. They were a row of 6 Georgian houses in that street and the property owner wanted him to do up the other houses as well. So he worked on those and then bought one of them. That was probably one of of his first jobs alone. By the time I came on the scene in 1965, Peter Deakin was there and Derek Latham was a student. Clifford built an office at the back of the house. A very nice studio designed by him which was contemporary which might have looked strange at the back of a Georgian house. This is where the master plan for Lancaster West was prepared. Eventually the practice had to relocate premises as there were twelve in number. It was like I married twelve men because they were always in our house.
Clifford came home one day and he said they are blowing up one of the houses in North Kensington. And we said - what! And he took us all in the car at night. The director was just about to film the house being set on fire and demolished. They had all the safety people and security and police vans. We had to creep through the security set up. Nobody had invited us but we said we wanted to see it. They had built a false house to make a cul de sac and when you looked it was completely false, but it didn’t look it. So we were exactly there for the big bang. The children were thrilled. I can remember seeing big cameras, arc lights, just like you dream for an outdoor film set in the dark. It was typical of Clifford to have the children up. He didn’t want them to miss anything. However, I don’t think Clifford ever saw the finished film, Leo the Last. He wasn’t particularly interested in films.
Lancaster West was his first very big job. But he got into the mould very easily. He more or less expected it working with Sir Basil Spence and being up there with all the old Liverpool people. He was very much an architect’s architect and he felt that his time was coming.
Some architects don’t like meeting their public, but he was very good at that. I think he listened to them. One of his ethos things at university was social housing. So he felt very strongly about it. Of course, affordable housing it’s called now. I think he’d be absolutely disgraced by some of the policies such as right to buy. However, I don’t think he was a socialist. I don’t even know his politics but he was fairly traditional in many ways.
We married in 1969 and you took over your husband’s life or it took over you. He was doing very well in 1969 but of course it’s a hand to mouth existence. Your only as good as your next job and the 70s were quite stressful and then in the 80’s the work fell away. We had to economise and got rid of a car. We were trying to think of other ways to save money. It’s very difficult when you’ve been having a certain lifestyle and it worried him terribly. He used to worry about what might happen and I always felt that was a terrific waste of time. He lost quite a lot of sleep over some jobs.
Clifford believed that the tower block at Lancaster West was demolished. We drove past it on the Westway. He said it’s no more. And I remember saying to him, that we should have gone to see it come down. In the family we all thought it had gone but one day my son said it was still there. I think he would have been relieved, quite honestly, if it came down. He didn’t want it built. He didn’t want to be in this era of tower blocks. He felt very strongly about vertical living. It wasn’t right. So I don’t think he took any pride in it, except that it was not a bad building and it did work.
I’ve never really appreciated that Lancaster West was landscaped or intended to be. In the model of the estate that my son has hanging from the wall in his house, there are little trees made by Ken Price. And they always put trees in as their panacea for making it look homely. But it did look good in the end and not as desolate as it might have been. I’m afraid to say that driving past on the Westway is the nearest I’ve ever got to seeing the estate. I’ll have to go. The best way is to walk around, I imagine.
I'm going to end this essay with a few extracts from residents who live on Lancaster West estate. We are not now talking about perspectives and plans or so many housing units that can be redeveloped. We are talking about homes. People who have planted roots, raised their family and want to retire with peace and dignity. These flats and houses that were designed and built in the 1960s and 70s are now home to a diverse range of people who want to live in one of the richest boroughs in the universe. They deserve to have the final word. One hopes that in 10 or 20 or 40 years time, that they are still living in the area, as the new kids on the block are contemplating how to buy into the next cycle of housing redevelopment.
Christine Richer, resident of Hurstway Walk:
My mother was an African-Welsh woman and my father was black African American. They met after the war in the West End. Two weeks after my 18th birthday, I came to London and I landed in St Stephen’s Gardens in North Kensington. Massive, one room bedsit with the kitchen in the corner and the mice. The mice were hell. That was my first living in a big city.
I came to the estate in the 70’s. Funny story. The first day I came here to meet the electrician and the gas people. No one turned up. I end up sleeping on the floor. And I had the most vivid dream of my life. I wake up in this dream watching my coffin being carried down the stairs. I saw these two shapes and they were my daughters. But it was very pleasant. I thought this is my place. My place on earth. I’ll live here till I die. As a child, I moved a lot.
In Grenfell Tower there was a really nice club, like a residents social club and my partner at the time was on the Committee. That was my first introduction to the estate. It was full of different people who knew each other from the neighbourhood: Moroccans, Africans, blacks, whites, Portuguese, Spanish. I think with my involvement in the resident association and Estate Management Board, when the children were young, they have learnt a sense of community. They would always come and help me if I say I’m doing something with the R.A. Volunteer themselves, wash dishes.
The garden down there was very important to me and the kids. They spent their formative years down there with or without me. We had family parties, barbecues. That living space outside there meant a lot to me.
I do believe that we are going to get knocked down as all this gentrification is happening all around us. And we are not a Victorian block which is a beautiful thing. We are a 1970s fling them up, fling them down block. I don’t know where I’ll end up. That’s the biggest concern for me. That makes me stay awake at night. That makes me cry. If they could build another block, 4 or 5 streets away, where I knew I was going to be rehoused. It could be Manchester.
All my close friends who live on the estate, only about 3 are here. Everyone’s gone. It’s a changed community. I haven’t always loved all the neighbours. But the neighbours that I have liked and I’ve made friends with, we’ve loved living here. The old families who brought up their kids and their kids have grown up and moved away. It’s been a home to a lot of people.
Edward Daffarn, resident of Grenfell Tower:
I’ve lived in Grenfell Tower for over 15 years now but I’ve lived in North Kensington, Ladbroke Grove, Notting Hill Gate, my whole life. I found education was quite a therapy. I became a social worker for about 7 years. And then sadly my mum, got motor neuron. so I gave up work to look after her. I haven’t got back into social work. But what I have got involved with is housing issues on Lancaster West and in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
The stuff that we’ve been doing on Lancaster West started as a result of the Academy being imposed which was 5-6 years ago. When we first started there was virtually no community groups around. Five years later there's a lot of community activism because of what’s been happening in housing. Westway 23, Focus E15 Mothers, The Guinness Trust down in Brixton, Our West Hendon, Sweets Way and all the radical housing network. There’s all these different struggles.
On the 24th June, this year, 2015, the council passed a motion in the full council meeting saying that they were going to go ahead with the destruction of all low density social housing in North Kensington. Low density means this, They’ve been built nicely, giving people some space inside and with some green residential amenity outside. Trees and green space for their children to play in. Low density housing. It’s not anything else. It’s just nice estates.
It will be interesting to see what will happen to Silchester. Because sooner or later, one community is going to say, and it only needs one or two inside that community to lead the rest - just to say - your going to knock our houses down - oh yeah! Oh yeah! Let’s see about that. North Kensington has a good history of not just taking these things lying down and when people finally wake up and realise what is going on, maybe the council will get a bit of a shock.
They call Lancaster West the forgotten estate. And it hasn’t been called the forgotten estate for the last couple of years. It’s been called the forgotten estate ever since I’ve been on here. If it had been maintained properly, Grenfell Tower and the finger blocks are quite beautiful. Particularly if you live here. I don’t know the architect that designed them but they have architectural merit. I don’t know how you say you love your home. You love your home.
If we remember what happened in 1974-75 by the signs, Get us Out Of this Hell, then maybe the Grenfell Action Group blog, the protest that we did going up to Holland Park Opera, the procession of Westway 23 along the Westway, will be things that in 25 or 30 years, people would look back and say, when they took away the stables, the Westway Stables, when they took away the children’s centre, didn’t people say anything. And they get on the computer. Look I found this Grenfell Action Group. Yeah they did something, And they did this demo. That will inspire the next generation of people who would care about their community.
Clare Dewing, resident of Talbot Grove House:
My parents were squatting in and around the area. Mum became pregnant with me and said right Paul, get us a flat now. My first steps were actually in the flat that I live in right now which I share with my mum. When my mum walked into an empty house, she put me down. I stood up and apparently I ran just clean straight across the room and those were my first ever steps.
Growing up on the estate, we were told never to leave the estate because I’ve always viewed the estate as two halves. My half which is Talbot Grove house, Verity Close and the other half, the finger blocks and Grenfell. So when we were a bit naughty, we used to go on the other half and do knock down ginger and stuff like that. I did probably knock on Christine’s door.
About 1993-4, I was quite naughty and I’d be going to clubs, sneaking out. Mum and Dad wouldn’t know and my friend would say she’s staying at my house and I’d say she was staying at her house. Teenagers you know. I do remember it being quite scary trying to sneak back into Ladbroke Grove and we got mugged a couple of times, got followed a couple of times. But in recent years, I do feel the safety has improved. There used to be crackheads on every corner, all along Portobello. But that kind of edginess gave it a vibrancy which unfortunately, I think, it’s almost gone.
About 5 years ago unfortunately my dad became ill and I moved back to my parents house to look after my dad. We’d always known that my mum’s memory wasn’t too good. But it was only after my dad died that we managed to get her to have a full proper diagnosis that it was early on-set dementia. Mum’s going well. I think the progression of her dementia has slowed and I think that’s down to a combination of exercise, good food, good stimulation.
I wanted to join the R.A. because it got me to kind of flex my muscles again in using organisational skills in a different way and and just giving back to the community that’s helped me out so much over these last few years.
Kensington and Chelsea are an amazing borough to live in especially the way that they look after the older population. I also had a bout of depression as well and the services that were available to me are not available to some of the people that I’ve spoken to. So I feel that the support is there and that’s why I’m really surprised about the state of the housing here. It doesn’t marry with my experience of all these other services.
I think Kensington and Chelsea need to be aware that if they just sell all the properties off and make it into a million plus houses, that what draws people here, what draws people to Notting Hill, what draws people to Portobello, would just be gone. It is that mix of culture that drew people here in the first place. That made it trendy. That made it hip and cool to hang out on an evening. It’s just going to turn into Kensington High Street and be replaced by Cafe Nero’s and shoe shops and places you can’t actually afford to shop in or buy food in.
What we are trying to do as a RA here is to lay the foundations now. We're trying to get ourselves prepared and ready so that when the regeneration does come that we are ready and we've got some ideas together. Hopefully we can influence them which would be great.