There is a corridor sized gallery at the V&A that I am forever drawn to. Literally, in the sense that I love sketching here. It's the Sacred Silver & Stained Glass collection in room 83. During my tenure as the museum's community artist in residence, I used stained glass to meditate on contemporary housing issues. Nathaniel Westlake's magisterial panel at the V&A, Vision of Beatrice, inspired an installation and artist film.
The Westlake stained glass panel was made for a V&A exhibition in 1864 and was possibly conceived in the house that Westlake had built for him in the heart of North Kensington. The house is still standing at 1-2 Whitchurch Road opposite the Lancaster West estate and embodies the complex history of social change from the extremes of Victorian affluence and poverty to modern day regeneration and gentrification. This listed building would be a multi-millionaires paradise but has been converted into six bedrooms by St Mungo's and is a hostel for those needing support into housing and work. The house was situated just across the road from my artist studio which itself was a former council flat about to be redeveloped into More West.
During my residency, I recorded an interview with Terry Bloxham who is a ceramic and glass specialist at the V&A with responsibility for the stained glass collection. I wanted to understand more about the context in which Westlake had made his stained glass panel and Terry quite rightly took me back in time. I was surprised by how the past would resonate so strongly with the way we live today: the forging of nation states; how religion can violently divide and spiritually unite; and the evolving technological and economic context to the making of art.
Here is an edited transcript of our coversation:
Terry Bloxham: Why Westlake? Why that panel?
Constantine Gras: Why that panel? I didn’t know anything about it until I started my V&A Community Artist residency. I’m based in a studio in North Kensington that is part of an estate, the Silchester Estate. It’s part of a new housing development taking place on the estate. In the run up to my residency, I cycled around the borough, looked at listed buildings and I came across a house, just across the road from where my studio is. It’s the house that was built for Nathaniel Westlake.
TB: Oh. Who be he?
CG: It’s a bit of a juxtaposition from the estates. You suddenly see this listed building that was built in 1863. It was built by his friend and architect, John Francis Bentley, who later went on to design Westminster Cathedral. And they were both converts to Catholicism and collaborated on St Francis of Assisi church on Pottery Lane in North Kensington. But I was interested in this grand looking house near an estate and that's now run as a sort of hostel. It’s had a bit of a checkered history as this area of North Kensington has. Poverty and slums. Now property that is valued in the millions.
TB: Where is North Kensington?
CG: This part is opposite Latimer Road tube station.
TB: I think I know. Basically Notting Hill west.
CG: That’s right.
TB: I know that neighbourhood. There’s a great reggae shop. Hopefully it’s still there.
CG: So that’s how I came across Westlake. As an artist with a studio in the same area, albeit in a different century, I’m very interested in predecessors and making connections with them. And to discover that the V&A museum has a work of art that has a connection to the very streets in which I'm working. I’m also interested in a film that was also made in the local area and this is called Leo The Last. It was made in 1969 by John Boorman on the site of Lancaster West estate just prior to it being built. It’s about an aristocratic person who moves into the area and he gets radicalised by his interaction with the West Indian community. Some memorable imagery in the film involves looking through a telescope and also patterned glass in a pub that distorts the point of view. I suppose at one level, I wanted to explore or create a connection between film making and stained glass. In the sense of camera lenses and glass transmitting light and how they might be used for perception and analysing or documenting the world around you. Using fragments or a diverse range of media that can be pieced together to make a whole new work of art. And one not necessarily made just by the artist, but involving collaboration. Also I feel a little like that aristocratic character in the film. The artist as an outsider who comes into an area and interacts with the community and how this might radicalise either them or the community or not as the case may be. That is the type of thing I’m wanting to do in my community focused project work. I’m hoping to create a Westlake House at the V&A Museum, in addition to making an artist's film.
CG: Perhaps you can help me shed some light on Westlake and how and why he came to make this wonderful panel.
TB: Westlake in the nineteenth century, is, near enough, the culmination of a movement that we now call the Gothic revival. And the Gothic Revival was a reaction against eighteenth century stuff and we are going to be talking about that as we progress through time. This involved a revision in the theological understanding of Christianity and also the furnishings of Christian churches. And all throughout the gothic revival period, whether you are talking about stained glass or metalworking or textiles, all of the things that were used for church furnishings, they kept harping on, we must do it in the medieval manner. And that’s why you’ve got to understand the medieval manner in order to understand Westlake. That’s why we are starting here in the medieval period. We are looking at thirteenth century glass.
CG: Was this being commissioned by the church?
TB: Yes. it was church law that you had to have some sort of decorative, figurative work in the church, that illustrated the Saint to whom that church was dedicated. All images in churches were meant to be instructive. People always say it’s bibles for the poor. But that’s sort of an insult, because it’s calling them illiterate. And I prefer to look at it, not as an age of illiteracy, but as an age when you didn’t need to read and write. Only a few people did. In the middle ages,
TB: So here we are looking at a panel from the mid thirteenth century showing a scene of King Childebert being chastised by bishop Jermanus or Jermaine. It is telling you a story, an episode from the life of a real king. His name was Childebert. He’s in the middle of the sixth century and was one of the first kings in France. After the collapse of the Roman empire in the West you have all these so called barbarians moving in. You can tell my preferences lie with the so called barbarians. Various tribal groups as they were known: the Goths, the Gauls, the Francs, the Germanys, the Celts. The celts became the Brits. These groups are going to form our nation states. Clovis was one of these Frankish groups and from Frank we get France. This is where Childebert is descended from. In the panel, we have Childebert being chastised by bishop Jermanus, the first bishop of Paris. He is chastising the King because he had just been on a campaign to conquer the Spanish city of Saragossa. The bishop was upset about this because Saragossa was a christian city. Bishop Jermanus forced Childebert to build the first church in Paris as atonement for his sins and this church was dedicated to St Lawrence. This church was being rebuilt in the thirteenth century in the newish Gothic style and it was rededicated to Jermanus who by then had become a saint.
CG: Can you tell me about the designs used in stained glass and the process of making?
TB: Medieval decorated windows are composed of small, irregularly shaped pieces of coloured and clear glass. The idea was not to have big square panels of glass which they could make, about A4 sheet size. It was to make a sheet of glass, cut it into irregular shapes and move those shapes around to form a picture. And then those shapes are held together by lead. So it became known as a mosaic-type construction. When you think of a Roman mosaic floor, little pieces of tesserae arranged to make a picture shape. And then they are embedded into cement to form a solid picture. It’s the same thing with mosaic glass. The only painting that you have on it are the details that you can see in the hands and the face, the folds in the clothing. That’s just simple blacky-brown iron-based pigment which is fired onto the surface of the glass. Glass when made is clear. But in its molten state you can add colouring agents to it. Cobalt will make blue. Copper will make green and also red. Manganese will make a purply brown. Depending upon the intensity you can get this nice purply-brown robe or flesh colour. That is know as pot metal because you hold the liquid glass into a pot and add the metallic oxide. So you have clear glass and pot metal glass, cut into small irregularly shaped pieces, put together to make a nice, pretty little picture, all held together in this lead framework. And whatever paint you have was just an iron based pigment onto the surface of the glass to give you your details. That is mosaic glass made in the medieval manner. That is what Westlake is trying to achieve.
I have to introduce another element in the manufacturing of medieval glass. Something that was a big technological revolution. I mentioned earlier that properly speaking, it’s not stained glass, it’s decorated glass. And the reason why I say that is because stained means penetration of glass or staining glass. That doesn’t happen until the magic year of about 1300, probably in Normandy. Some bright spark discovered that putting silver into oxide of some form and then firing, what it did was to penetrate the upper levels of the glass and create this lovely lemony yellow to a burnt orange colour. And the reason why that was so revolutionary was it enabled you to have more than one colour on the sheet of glass. We looked at yellow glass and red glass and blue glass and green glass that is known as pot metal glass. That is clear glass that has been coloured. Coloured glass is more expensive than clear glass. Any time you have extra processes it’s going to increase the price. We do have those few surviving documents that give us prices for the middle ages. So we know that glass coloured all the way through was more expensive. Staining it is incredibly cheap to make relative to the older way and once it comes in, it doesn’t disappear.
When we get to the Reformation in the sixteenth century, Europe is torn apart by different believers or practitioners of the Christian faith. In the middle ages, remember there is only the church. There is no protestant, no catholic. It is just the church. So you have to put yourself in a time when your world, your faith is being torn apart, is being questioned by people who are very learned and very persuasive. And in some cases also inciters of violent activities and feelings. We tend to blame the whole reformation on him, Martin Luther. He was pretty moderate. You also had people like Calvin and Zinger who were the militant side of the reformation. And there was a lot of destruction and a lot of change. But in Europe today, you will still find this part of Germany is Catholic, but that part is Protestant. But fortunately not fighting each other. England’s story is different and was more violent. Not so much people killing each other, but people destroying anything suggestive of religious imagery.
CG: You get a snapshot of those times at the recent iconoclasm exhibition at the Tate.
TB: Yes that was a good snapshot. And we also have documents from stain glass makers, petitioning the local leaders of the city, the principalities. Saying you are putting us out of business. We used to make a living making religious windows for churches and it was just no longer allowed. On the continent they started to turn their hands to other iconographic subject matter in stain glass making.
TB: What we are looking at now are products of Netherlandish workshops who mastered from the fifteenth century onwards, the art of very fine, but mass and cheap production of glass windows. These are simple pieces of cylinder glass, cut into a circular shape and solely painted. So its clear glass, in silver stain and black pigment. They are cheap. They are incredibly finely painted because this is the age of the printing press. So engravings were made and then they would be printed and they would be used as models for these stained glass workshops. So infect they’re copying exiting art works, unlike in the medieval period where they don’t have the benefit of mass produced engravings and stuff to copy.
This panel is the story of Sorgheloos which is a secular version of the old testament story of the prodigal son. This guy, Sorgheloos, goes out, he inherits a whole bunch of money, spends it on wine, women and song. And in the end, all he has left is an old woman, two starving animals and a bunch of straw to eat. So unlike the prodigal son he’s not welcome back with the fatted calf.
What also happens in the middle of the sixteenth century, these chemists as we would call them today, alchemists as they were known, developed more pigments that could be fired successfully into glass. In the medieval period it was just that blacky-brown iron based pigment. Now we have enamel colours. So we have the greens and all the shades. Red and all the shades. Blue and all the shades. And the yellows.
CG: It must have been a wonder to behold, a sort of technicolour movie.
TB: Yes it was. That’s why they were popular. Also coloured glass was expensive and enamel paints are cheaper than coloured glass. So we are now in the age of just simply painting on glass. Think of it as a transparent canvas. Because that is where we are going, painting on glass.
Let us jump forward to the middle of the eighteenth century. We have aristocrats interested in the gothic. Walpole made Strawberry Hill which was his idea of Gothic. And then In the early part of the nineteenth century we start getting academics in Oxford known as the Oxford movement. They were also called the Tractarians because they produced a lot of tracts. They are looking at medieval theology and seeing it or pre-reformation theology as a more pure form of the Christian faith. They are not advocating a return to catholicism but they are advocating breaking away from the corruption that crept into the English church in the eighteenth century. Shortly after, a complimentary, although at times, rival group, grows up in Cambridge known as the Cambridge Camden society, but also known as the Ecclesiastics when they are sitting in London. They were interested in pre-reformation theology, but more importantly in pre-reformation architecture and church furnishings. So you have in Oxford, the academics looking at theology. In Cambridge, they are looking at the physical structures of the furnishings. So we are at the beginning of the nineteenth century at that time when people are looking back to the medieval world and things done in the medieval manner. So this is where the Gothic Revival begins. Also in 1824 the Government passes what became known as the 600 churches act. Christianity had fallen into corruption in the eighteenth century. The church fabric itself, the buildings were neglected. There were a lot of people assigned as clerics in churches who just stayed in their country estates and took the money and they didn’t even maintain the churches. So the government steps in and makes a proclamation, effectively going, thou must build churches. Into this comes the great architects like Butterfield, Street, Pugin. So the very first half of the nineteenth century is what we know as the Gothic Revival. Church building, church furnishing going on and stained glass starts apace.
Also in the 1850s and 60s craftsmen were thinking why can't we do it like the medieval stained glass makers. They couldn't simply because medieval glass is mouth blown. So there is no evenness in its thickness. Each bit of glass that the medieval craftsman made, this bit is thin at one end, but it might be thicker at the other. So that when you put it into a window and light comes through that little bit of glass, the light will come through differently. It will be less bright in the thicker bit and more bright in the thinner bit. The medieval craftsmen knew that. That's what the Victorian stained glass makers were really trying to discover.
TB: Nathaniel Westlake was a freelance designer. You could make a living by doing that. He went around to companies like Powell’s who were probably the biggest manufacturer of windows at this time. He would show his portfolio of how good an artist he was. Also a portfolio of stained glass design that he could offer to them. And that is how he was making his living. But in about 1858-59, clearly by 1860, he had become involved with the stained glass firm of Lavers and Barraud.
In 1864 the V&A had an exhibition of stained glass and mosaics and one of the firms that submits things that were selected to be displayed was a panel made by Lavers and Barraud to the design by Nathaniel Westlake. So this is just made for an exhibition piece as far as anyone has ever been able to find out. It wasn’t actually a potential commission which a lot of exhibition pieces were. This just seems to be solely their own making and as it’s a design by Westlake, one makes that big assumption that it’s Westlake’s idea. The iconography of this panel was all in his head. We know that Westlake was friends with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood like many groups in Europe were interested in things medieval. They’re looking at more literary subjects. Morris and co were doing lots of things like George and the Dragon windows. Dante Alligheri, the writer of the famous Divine Comedy, from the early part of fourteenth century was big. There was a lot of interest in him.
The iconography of the Westlake panel is quite complicated. It is derived from Dante’s Divine Comedy. In this poem Dante was granted a trip through hell into purgatory and finally into paradise. It’s a wonderful story. Dante is lead by the Roman poet Virgil who to him represents reason and as Dante is going through hell and purgatory he is reflecting on his own life. He is working out his own sin. At the very end of purgatory, this person called Beatrice starts to be mentioned. Beatrice was a real person, Beatrice Portinali. It seems that Dante knew her when they were children in Florence. He was a member of one family and she was another. For whatever reason and remember Italy wasn’t a unified country, it was a bunch of city states and these city states had noble families fighting each other. So marriages were not love matches, they were political matches and Dante had fallen in love with this young Beatrice. Madly, head over heels, quite perversely. Like, get over it Dante. But he never did. But he couldn’t marry her. She married someone else. We don’t even know if she realized his devotion. But anyway she had to marry someone else and she died quite young. So he was stuck on her all this time.
Now when you read the Divine Comedy it becomes apparent that Beatrice is divine love. And divine love is the only way you can go through heaven. Reason cannot take you into heaven. So at the very end of purgatory, before he makes that last crossing of the river and going up into heaven, Dante is given a vision by a woman called Mathilda and her companions, often known as the three graces, but really faith, hope and love. They give Dante a vision of what is to come. And this is the first time that he realised that this woman, who he has always loved and is now dead, has become divine love. This vision of Beatrice is going to lead him into paradise. This is what is depicted in the panel designed by Westlake. Beatrice up there in that top left corner. Faith, hope and love are those three figures who are often referred to as the three graces. First personified in that form by Sandro Botticelli in the middle of the fifteenth century in the Primaevera painting. This is Dante kneeling at the front, eyes closed, given that vision of Beatrice. That moment when he realises that his love has become divine love and so will take him into heaven.
It’s done in the medieval manner. So we’ve got little pieces of glass just like in the medieval way, irregular shaped pieces carefully chosen. It’s not just take that one, put it there to make the picture, but trying to get the right balance of light coming through. By this time in the nineteenth century they are using the equivalent of light cables. So they can start to see the effect and so they can choose the glass, arrange the shape in order to maximise the light coming through.
So Westlake is the culmination of this late eighteenth century, first half of the nineteenth century, Gothic revival way of doing it in the medieval manner. He is a medieval craftsman. He is a medieval artist. Let’s put it that way. Lavers and Barraud are a workshop that operated in the same way as a medieval workshop would have done. You have a centre in which you had your designer, your painter, your glass maker, your lead worker, all in one institution producing the window and each one being prized for their skills. As the nineteenth century moves on the designer becomes more of an artist. You start to get into, what is known in the ceramic world, as art pottery. You might as well call it art stained glass.
Four film stills from Vision of Paradise, 2015. 30 minute, high definition video.
It was a pleasure to meet up recently with Derek Latham at Lancaster West estate. He worked for the architectural firm of Clifford Wearden and Associates in the late 1960s making detailed drawings for Testerton, Hurstway and Barandon. These are the low rise housing units that radiate out from the central high rise tower and are known to locals as the "finger blocks".
You might recall a previous blog featured Peter Deakins who was responsible for designing the early master plan. The planning and building process for Lancaster West was very protracted (1963-1981) and both architects left the practice before the first brick or concrete deck was layed They had different experiences and memories: Peter expressed frustration that the original plans were never built including a radical plan for building around Latimer station and connecting this with housing and a shopping centre; Derek campaigned about the housing crisis in North Kensington which the social housing development at Lancaster West was supposed to remedy.
Ahead of out meeting, Derek kindly sent me his 1973 thesis: Community Survival in the Renewal Process - An integral part of the housing problem. This is very topical as RBKC council are currently consulting on a major regeneration at Silchester Estate and that will probably extend to Lancaster West in due course.
The following are excepts from a statement provided by Derek and also an audio interview recorded at the estate. There are some fascinating comments about his involvement in the area and how it shaped the development of his philosophy of Gradual Renewal.
"It’s wonderful to just come and experience the estate again. It was really interesting to see how the streets in the middle of the finger blocks have been altered and you feel they are ready for another transformation. So lovely to see that the green spaces between the blocks is just how we all envisaged it. The trees probably need thinning a little. Lovely in the winter, but in the summer I think there is probably just a bit too much shade. I have to say, the outside of the tower block with its new cladding looks really good and the academy is very impressive.
At Lancaster West we tried to create scale and massing similar to that of a London Georgian square, but keeping the cars under the buildings so that the spaces between the building could be car free and provide a recreation and play space for those living around it. It was difficult to achieve the required density without building a series of tower blocks as was being undertaken on most other redevelopment schemes at the time. Our philosophy was effectively to lay tower blocks along the ground (in creating the "finger blocks") and instead of the vertical circulation going up the middle of the block by means of lifts, the circulation went along the centre of the block horizontally by means of walkways.
During the development I became concerned when I discovered that a large proportion of the existing tenants who lived in the area were not to be rehoused. This was because they were effectively itinerant tenants living in the Rachman owned properties. Often two families to a floor sharing a kitchenette and sometimes six families sharing one bathroom and toilet. We think housing conditions today are poor, but I wish I had the photographs to show you the appalling conditions that these people were living in. They truly were slums. Not because of the way they were originally built as fine townhouses for single families with their servants but because of the way they were being exploited with little maintenance and severe overcrowding as the housing shortage at that time was so acute. You could look at a film like Cathy Come Home which was made back in the 1960s which fully explains the situation at that time. Because of my concern at the situation I joined Shelter. But I could do nothing to help the families that were in the Lancaster Road West area, most of whom had already been moved out to create a "ghost town". In fact the area was used as a film set just before it was demolished. All the buildings were painted black to create a macabre backcloth for some form of thriller or horror film. I am sorry, but I cannot remember the name of the film - I never did see it. (Derek is referring to the 1969 film, Leo The Last).
But the council's intention was to continue with the demolitions northward into the Golborne area. It was in this area that we worked with shelter to encourage the residents to fight for their rights and fight for the properties to be improved under the new housing improvement acts rather than demolished. This was action that was taken directly to both the GLC and the borough. I remember one occasion when the borough said it was too complicated to change from demolition to improvement and the protesters wrapped up the Mayor's car in red tape.
Shelter had also fought against the construction of Westway. There was a political party at that time called Homes Before Roads which actually managed to get some councillors elected onto the GLC. There was another occasion I recall when some activists in the upper stories of the houses in Golborne that were so close to the road demonstrated their proximity by firing with air rifles at the tyres of the cavalcade of cars that drove along Westway when it was opened causing several punctures. People were a lot more active with their politics in those days.
By this time I was passionate about the need for a better solution to housing regeneration than the large clearances that were occurring throughout all the major cities in Britain. My thesis had examined the large council estates in Glasgow (Balornack Road Estate) , Liverpool and Manchester. But it also examined innovative improvement schemes rescuing tenement blocks in Glasgow, back-to-back houses in Leeds, and community housing in Liverpool 6 under something called the Shelter Neighbourhood Action Programme (SNAP), as well as some housing improvement being undertaken in Wandsworth by Ted Hollamby in the Brixton area. These demonstrated that communities survived better through the redevelopment process if they could remain where they were.
Hence I developed the philosophy of Gradual Renewal - simply removing the very worst of the houses that were in poor condition and replacing them on the same street with new houses fitted in between those that remained. The philosophy was that in 15 or 20 years when some more of the original houses reached the end of their economic life then these too could be replaced. This would utilise the hammer and chisel and a small-scale builder rather than the bulldozer and the tower crane. It would avoid the decade of disruption that occurs with clearance and redevelopment.
When I was first involved at Lancaster West, there was no question that you just pulled slums down. They had been doing it since the 1930s and it was very important because in those days the houses were really badly built. There aren’t slums now. There are estates which have been vandalised, but more often neglected. Maybe because they are more expensive to look after than other estates, so they don’t get that extra money. But in the long term maintaining places is cheaper than pulling them down and rebuilding them. And that’s without taking into account social costs. In my experience the disruption to the community is usually not less than 10 years from the start of a development to its end. This is a good part of any child’s life. What are the consequences of that? They are enormous and they don’t get costed. That’s why to keep communities together, you need to make the change frequent but small scale. And to have a long term vision for slow redevelopment in stages. But the idea of wholesale redevelopment, running everything to the end of its life, is going to cause problems for people.
I don’t know about the condition of Silchester estate but Lancaster West is good solid brick work construction. It's not some panels that are held together with rusting joints. I know in some cases quite a lot of the GLC housing estates had that inherent problem and that was never going to get resolved. You just have to say we cannot repair it. It if hasn’t got those sort of problems, why not find a way of achieving your objectives without pulling everything down. The principal should be to save and find ways of improving. How can we build an extra floor if we want to increase the density? How can we improve the walkways or insulation? Sometimes you might need to demolish certain portions. I wouldn’t be alive now without some pretty good surgery from time to time. But the point about the good surgeons is that they only cut the bits that absolutely ned to be cut and the rest of the organ keeps going. And if you look at any community estate, it's like a living being and will need some surgery. But surgery isn’t death by bludgeoning and waiting for a re-birth. Nobody survives that well.
The current housing crisis is bonkers. It’s clearly about not building enough houses because they haven’t worked out a way to fund it. And I don’t fully understand it. There is a lot of capital tied up in this country and basically its not quite needing a PFI because that is for too heavy. All you need, in my view, is to give a reasonable tax break and guaranteed longevity to major institutions to be able to invest in housing. It is a lot of investment and it needs a long pay back period. It’s not a quick fix. But if you get it right, it should be a good fix. Social housing should have a stability to it that even private housing doesn't. People like the Peabody Trust can demonstrate how it's done. I can’t understand why the government has not taken that model and gone with it. Although it's a Fabian model, it still fits very strongly within the conservative ethic of using private finance to help people to do things and to see it as a long term investment. You could progressively allow a proportion of houses to be purchased each time as long as that money is recycled into the new houses. But that's got to be sustainable and they have never seemed to be able to get the model to work. "
Campaigning poster designed by Dale Teller and circulated by We love the Silchester Estate.
I've almost concluded my artist residency at Lancaster West estate. There has been a hiatus to the community project work that has consisted of making large scale drawings for a mural and a short film. The regeneration works on Grenfell tower has entered its final phase and we are also in the festive season when even self-employed artists might be afforded a break. However it was a pleasure to be invited back onto the estate by residents and I attended two contrasting events in December.
The first was the Christmas meal for seniors. This was held at Aldridge Academy that has recently been built on the former green of the estate. The meal, drinks and raffle went down exceedingly well. This was the first event organised by the new resident association under the guidance of Clare Dewing and Andrea Newton. I had a chance to film residents and chat to them about the estate and how this area of North Kensington has changed.
June Toma: "We've lived here for 34 years and slum clearance in the 6os and 70s has changed it a lot. It's a very multi-cultural area which is lovely. A community is what you make. If you have good neighbours and you're friendly with your neighbours and get on with them - that's important. I think as this generation grows up, it will become more of an up-market area. The housing they are building here is quite expensive. I think it pushes out a lot of young families because they cannot afford to live around here any more."
Norman Lewis: "I came here in 1985. The estate has had its ups and downs. But I have very nice neighbours and we are very close. We watch each other's backs. The food today is lovely and its nice to have all the community together."
Cllr Judith Blakeman: "Today we are reviving the Lancaster West pensioners christmas dinner. We couldn't have one last year because of the building works. It's always the most fantastic event. The estate is becoming a coherent community partly due to the building works and what residents have gone through. This has really brough residents together. It would be a huge shame if this community was destroyed. The big problem is central government policy towards social housing and that's what's worrying us."
The second event was a mediation meeting between residents of Grenfell Tower at Lancaster West estate and the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) that run the estate. Also in attendance were the local councillor and MP. I have been to several meetings and residents are now comfortable with me ether filming or sketching during the proceedings.
Let me give some background information. Grenfell Tower has had a £10 million regeneration with new double glazed windows and heating for each flat; the latter has involved a complicated overhaul of the 1970s boiler system. There has been an upgrade to the exterior cladding of the building. In addition to this, new flats are being created and hopefully providing much needed housing at affordable rents. The nursery and boxing club will both be returning to much improved facilities in the building.
Despite all this positive regeneration, there has been a bitter dispute between a large number of residents and the TMO; specifically regarding the location for the new boilers in each property. The newly formed Grenfell compact group that represents residents in the tower has also called for an independent investigation into how the TMO have managed the regeneration. One issue that Lady Victoria Borwick, MP, constantly reiterated during the meeting was the pressing need to set aside differences and for all residents to cooperate with the TMO in getting heating and hot water supplies completed in time for Christmas. Over the past year many residents have refused to let contractors commence work in their flats. This has resulted in some of them being threatened with legal action as the TMO has a responsibility to complete the works. In the run up to Christmas the last few properties were having work done to install new boilers and radiators.
As an artist working with the TMO on community engagement it has not been an easy residency. I have hopefully overcome initial skepticism about art being a waste of time and money. I have embedded myself very closely with the community in an attempt to reflect all shades of communal life from vibrant tinsel to more sombre monochrome. So let me raise a slightly chipped glass and propose a toast to Lancaster West; to all residents who live on the estate and all the personnel from the TMO who manage the 1200 properties. I look forward to finalising designs of the mural with residents and to work with the TMO in celebrating the 40th anniversary of Lancaster West next year.
Fade in. A city landscape. We hear questions being asked by a range of people. Tentative answers are given in response.
I'm moving onto Lancaster West estate, what is it really like?
It's the largest estate in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, nearly 40 years old with lots of friendly people and the flats are well-sized. It's in the ward of Notting Barns.
Is there a strong sense of community here?
It's hard to be objective. The estate is run by the TMO and pioneered the first resident-lead management board for an estate in England. It's a shame there is no current resident association, but groups are forming or reforming. There is also the critical voice of the Grenfell Action Group.
Want to smoke some weed?
No thank you, I'm a bit busy with my art at the moment.
What is a community artist?
Amongst other things, one who works on social issues and works collaboratively with the community.
This is a replay of the type of conversations I've had on the estate.
Incidentally, I'm the community artist.
After 4 months, I feel at home with what some residents call the forgotten estate.
What can I contribute to its tales of woe and wonder?
How do we hear voices that are never heard?
What stories are worth telling?
Are we myth making, rabble rousing or hopefully coalescing the community?
What is this? Where is this? It's worth while mapping this territory in more detail.
Lancaster West is 1200 homes scattered over a large site - they built with a flair for space in the 70s.
The various parts of the estate were never unified with concrete decking as the original architects had envisaged.
This design would have synchronised with the nearby Westway and underground.
Cars that fly in the sky and commuters that are tubed, on this section, in an elevated train.
So why not have people walking in the sky?
"The deck may be thought of as the deck of a ship, in so far as it is the roof on which one can walk,
And other superstructures or buildings either penetrate or sit on the top of it." (60s Masterplan)
Decking only now survives wrapped around the tower block.
It offers a pleasant promenade to look down on the green and the recently built academy and leisure centre.
Let us meet some of the residents.
The lady who does yoga in her flat and dreamily looks across to the horizon and the London Eye.
She tells me there is a solar eclipse this week and it's effecting the geo-politcal balance.
The community gardener who has just seen himself in Visions of Paradise at the Portobello Film Festival.
He is waiting for the bearded wonder upstairs to rain down on his garden.
He talks about the estate as a black and white film in which there is a sudden shaft of colour.
Does this colour represent his Wizard of Oz thunder storm?
I mention to him a B&W film that I had a starring role in and which deployed a lightning flash of colour. Great minds!
Another resident says I should be making a film about the refugee crisis.
He also adds that we should not let anyone else into the country.
Are there refugees making the perilous journey to our new world and who might end up on this estate?
If they arrive and get lost (see previous blog), they could ask the postman on his beat.
He clearly knows his way around but is busy complaining about boys interfering with his trolley.
Listen to those other voices.
Some are asking when will the Grenfell tower improvement works end?
Others - when will regeneration really begin?
What does the future hold with all the changes being planned in the area?
I attempt to crystal gaze into the future as I listen to voices from the past.
The wonderfully named Moo-Cow Bakery on Avondale Road was concerned about the impact of planning blight.
That was in 1966 and Lancaster West estate was in the pipe line.
The swinging milkman of this era was probably revelling in changes to society.
The inner walkways on the estate were actually designed to allow his float to deliver milk to the doorstep.
Jump cut to other voices.
I see a man served with a compulsory purchase order and his cri de coeur to the authorities:
"As a negro, I have no status. I have no one to whom I can go for sincere advice including the Colonial office."
There is correspondence from the Oriental Casting Agency who were located at 239 Lancaster Road.
The owner fears the impending redevelopment will displace his business and not compensate adequately.
This firm specialised in supplying Afro-Asian artists to the entertainment industry.
I wonder if they provided the cast for the magical film Leo The Last that was made in 1969?
Leo was set on Testerton Street as it was being slum cleared for the building of Lancaster West.
The themes of the film (race, housing and community relations) resonate with the contemporary world.
The past is still living memory.
There is a large online community of former residents who cling to prelapsarian Notting Barns.
Sharing intimate stories and photos on the Born in W10 and W11 Facebook groups.
They have bitter sweet stories to tell about their proud working class origins.
And how their home lives were shattered for the building of the estate.
It was Harold Macmillan who said "You never had it so good".
Migration, austerity. Forks in the path, left and right.
Is this old news or new?
Council minutes tell us there were at least 6 petitions mounted by Lancaster West residents.
I was struck by the 1981 petition when 238 residents wrote to the Health and Housing Committee of RBKC.
It contained the following prayer:
"We the undersigned residents of the Lancaster West estate demand that the council gives priority
to resolving the problems caused by the plague of cockroaches, bugs and other insects in our homes.
We understand these insects constitute a health hazard and we are taking legal advice.
We may consider withholding our rent and rates until those insects are eradicated from our estate."
Suffice it to say, praying was not enough.
Residents visited the town hall and dropped live cockroaches onto councillors in a meeting.
Fast forward to a drawing event held on the 4th July.
Young children on the estate completely reinvent their home environment.
Concrete and bricks morphed into an art world - theme park ride - battle zone for Spider Man.
Many thanks to the following children: Zaid, Cameron, Abdul, Ilyas, Jonayd and Sara.
Especially Mehdi who told several stories to illustrate his drawing.
"Once upon a time there was a boy on a boat and he went into space - a flying boat.
And he eat the King Alien and then the alien eat him.
He went back to earth running. He lived happily ever after."
I also like the way Mehdi described his story telling skills.
"I made two stories up. I use my imagination. I press the imagination button."
Let us end, by returning to that first question.
A lady who was driving along Grenfell Road, spotted me filming and stopped in her tracks.
She was moving here and what was the estate like?
I didn't mention any biblical scenes pertaining to cockroaches or an apocalyptic movie scenario.
Was she moving into one of the new flats being created as part of the £10 million regeneration for Grenfell tower?
Does she have children that will one day use the nursery or boxing club on the estate?
She is the future and may that future be born free of insects and disasters.
Lancaster West is approaching 40 years of age.
This is potentially a starting point for a midlife crisis.
If we need spiritual guidance, our mystical community gardener, Stewart Wallace, should have the last word:
"Sometimes the weather's miserable. You have to see the colour in it.
Be happy. It’s easier. Just look for a tiny bit of happiness."
When post and pizza deliveries, family friends or council reps, come and visit Lancaster West for the first time, they have to navigate the complex lay out of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea's largest estate.
Are you going to the tower block - Grenfell tower? Not to be confused with the four adjacent towers that are on Silchester estate. By a smidgen (ask a pigeon) this is the tallest structure in the area. So whether approaching by train or bus or foot, it should be the landmark to orientate yourself. The tower currently has scaffolding and building works. However since the regeneration, the entrance has been located to the upper walking deck and the floor levels have changed.
Okay. You didn't actually want to visit the high rise. So are you going to the finger blocks? This is the charming local expression for Hurstway, Barandon and Testerton, the low level housing blocks. Each one radiates out from the tower and has at its heart, a simply splendid swathe of grass. Perhaps you didn't notice that these units are actually built above street and ground level garages. You don't really want to end up down there if you can avoid it.
Are you lost?
As we are temporarily lost, perhaps I can take advantage and guide you on a historical diversion.
Both Grenfell tower and the finger blocks were the first stage of building for the estate and illustrate the design ideals of the 60s architects, before 70s politics (oil crisis, three day working week, labour shortages) and changes in thinking to estate building took hold; this is not to mention the complicating factor of the former Victorian baths on the site of the estate, which became listed for several years, before eventual demolition in the early 1980s.
As you travel around this estate, you do so partly by elevated walkways or walks built into the middle of housing units. Many of the decks have now been removed. However an understanding of their origins might make our journey around the estate more comfortable.
Do you remember Peter Deakins? He was one of the original architects of the estate who we met in a previous blog. He talks ruefully about the early masterplans where blocks were unified by walking decks above ground level and segregating people from traffic. At the centre of this modernist vision were a shopping arcade and business offices. These were never realised; however one section of underground garages was subsequently converted into Baseline business units.
The estate was planned in the 60s, build in the early 70s and only fully completed by the 80s. The latter stages of the project were taken over the borough architect and other firms who were building lower density housing and these can be glimpsed at Camelford, Clarendon and Talbot Walk and also at Verity Close. The estate has also incorporated housing stock that was build before the 1970s. Also of interest, the original architects convinced the council that the area being redeveloped should have an element of housing for young professionals; this comprises the co-ownership houses at Wesley and St Andrew's Square.
This is all good background material. But where would history be without art.
Looking at the RBKC archives on the estate, my attention was caught by a reference to the appointment of Messrs. Kinneir, Calvert and Tunhill as graphic designers in 1972. They were tasked to create signage to enable visitors and residents to navigate around Lancaster West and Worlds End estates; both estates were built at the same time. Kinneir and Calvert gained fame for designing the signs used on the British motorway system.
I recently contacted Margaret Calvert to enquire about her work on the estate and she mentioned how they produced on site trial signs. But she was never sure how these were applied, if at all. I think we can clearly see the graphic designer's blue thumb print in the old signage that is still in place. Modern signs co-exist with the old. So you can stroll around and follow the signs into the past.
There is one signpost that I haven't mentioned. One pointing to the future. Many of the residents are seeing changes taking place to the local area and have grave concerns about the future of their homes. RBKC council is wanting to build more housing and to upgrade its housing stock. Complex and socially challenging signs in the making.
Whenever I cycle down to Lancaster West, I pass under the Westway (A40) and I connect the signage on this former motorway to the directional signs scattered around the estate. As a frenetic artist (not enough hours to accomplish all those tasks), I'm often seen running around the estate at 70 mph; there are no speed restrictions in place here.
Lancaster West estate is home to 1200 properties. I must not forget this as I re-imagine this space. It has a diverse range of people from all walks of life. I have the privilege of interviewing 6 residents as part of my film project. There is blood and tears and happiness invested in this built environment. No signs can fully communicate this. I am adding my own artistic layering. These will probably not help the post or pizza person. Better off following the conventional signs. If your a resident, the post or pizza is en route.
At a recent Show Room event, there was a fascinating screening and discussion about community film making in 1970s London. This was chaired by LUX writer in residence Ed Webb-Ingall as part of his two year Communal Knowledge Project. One of the films screened was Starting To Happen made by Liberation Films in 1971. It showed how a film action group ran a series of workshops with local residents of Balham in South London. Teaching them how to use video and sound equipment in order to communicate their concerns about changes taking place in society: the decline of the urban environment; the lack of play spaces and community facilities for evolving multi-cultural communities. This all culminated in the residents campaign for a zebra crossing in a location where several children had been run over. At the end of this film within a film, the editorial view was controlled by the professional film makers. They were the ones documenting the residents sit-down-in-the-road campaign. While the overall project might have chaotic elements that illustrate the difficulty of allowing for collective expression in a highly specialised medium, there were compelling scenes showing how residents used the video process and were able to reflect on this. The potential for allowing voices that are not usually heard.
In the modern era, we have the world wide web and the apparent ease of digital film making. These provide a new found reservoir for community expression and solidarity. However the challenge still remains of how to weld together polemical intent and film in a powerful and original manner. To understand and artistically render. To communicate and be heard. To effect change.
My current art residency at Lancaster West estate fits within this critical discourse. I have been contracted by the TMO to make a film portrait about local residents: what it means to live on the Royal Borough's largest estate and views about changes taking place in the area. This has been complicated by a recent stand off between residents and TMO over the regeneration of the Grenfell tower block. Lately there have been productive meetings and dialogue. This is documented from the residents perspective on the Grenfell Action Blog. I have been filming resident meetings with their local councillor and MP. Edited films of these meetings have been shown to both the community and TMO. This has facilitated discussion and allowed self-reflection. They have also demonstrated genuine concerns from a wide range of resident and how certain individuals in the community have stepped forward as representatives. So far I have not involved residents in the actual film making process. These filmed sequences will form an element of the wider film being made. I am currently undertaking detailed audio interviews with a range of people connected to the past and present of the estate: architects, residents and TMO staff. I will then invite residents to pick up a camera and film sequences to illustrate their perspective. This is an exciting development of my collaborative approach to film making.
In marked contrast to these strategies for film making, I've just visited the Ben Rivers multi-film installation at the former BBC TV centre. This is sited just across the West Cross Route from where I'm based at Lancaster West. I often spy on the centre as it undergoes redevelopment from the 17th floor of Grenfell Tower.
While the film fragments on display here are impressive, perhaps the real star is the location. The labyrinthine former BBC drama department with machines that have Tardis-like knobs and dials, scenic painting rooms and a plethora of signs: this department has moved, or that one has closed down; please contact Facilities Management.
Artists need these spaces to project their boundless imagination. The film-art installations strike a chord with this lost and soon to be demolished space. One of the films screened has a Moroccan Griot regaling us with a comic tale about a beheaded Imam. As you ponder this and move over to another cinematic offering, you might detect a faint echo. It is Auntie Beeb. Yes. She is gently whispering something about Whitehall corridors of power and the need to forge a new identity.
One of the Balham residents in the 1971 film made the following statement with words and meaning to this effect: if we are able to film and interview people locally and we are able to do this ourself; we will get a different and possibly more meaningful response than if they were being interviewed by someone from the BBC. We could debate the veracity of this statement while registering the need for both professional and non-professional approaches in art. This is a world where community, media, art and institutions are not in sync. We are hearing sounds and sound bites, that do not necessarily resonate with with what we are seeing and vice versa.
An important aspect of engagement at Lancaster West estate is becoming part of the local community. I've attended residents meetings and social events. Set up spaces on the estate where residents can engage in art or reflect on archive displays. This is not an easy process and takes time. I've had to overcome resistance and apathy. Why do we need art when there are other pressing social issues and money could be spent elsewhere? Hopefully, I have countered these with the energising role that art can make for residents irregardless of age, background or ability.
At Grenfell Tower on the estate there is a major regeneration taking place. £10 million pounds has been invested in an upgrade to the buildings facade, windows, heating and in providing new flats and community spaces, including a creche and boxing club. A core of residents have challenged the consultation process and the proposed layout of heating in their flats, specifically the siting of a boiler in the hallway entrance. This has reached an impasse. I have been documenting the residents meetings with their local councillors and Tenant Management Organisation as they try to move forward.
My residency at Lancaster West has also involved a series of drawings made in collaboration with younger residents. Getting them to connect with where they live and thinking about how large scale drawings might be turned into a visionary mural. We have four fascinating images each building on the foundations of the other. They range from panoramic cityscapes to multicultural states of mind, from an African savannah to a science-fiction roller coaster ride. I'm not quite sure where we will end up but I am being guided by the imagination of youth.
This was the third drawing workshop held at the Lancaster West estate.
Children are using their imagination to help me work up designs for a mural. This will be installed in the Grenfell tower as a 3x2m mural made up of wall tiles. The tower is currently undergoing renovation and the art work will probably be located in a new community space.
Although not being run exclusively for children, adults seem very reluctant to shed their inhibitions and participate. So it's the children who are having all the fun and we have a clearly defined pattern of imagery taking shape: urban structures, especially the iconic appearance of a high rise tower; self-representation whether this is drawing oneself, or family, or referencing aspects of cultural identity. And given the age range of participants, it's not surprising that animals of an exotic persuasion, are materialising on the estate. Thankfully they are all friendly and well-behaved.
In the drawing completed at the last session we had the following:
I have a childhood memory from the 1970s of watching BBC's quaint animated series, Mary, Mungo and Midge. Vivid are the sequences in the lift where Midge (the mouse) would materialise on Mungo's (the dog) nose and press the button to return back to their 8th floor flat in a tower block.
Fast forward to 2015. Residents of Grenfell Tower at the heart of Lancaster West estate are travelling up and down the service lifts; dogs included, but not mice. As they pass reception they find an artist at work sign. This is art in the context of other temporary disruptive sounds and sights as the tower is undergoing a major renovation.
A wall display of archive information charts the history of the estate from cult film Leo the Last to ex-footballer Les Ferdinand. But it is the blank canvas and expectant oil pastels that attracts the attention of younger residents. An artist has set the scene and engineered an atmosphere for fun and creativity. Many thanks to Elias, Mimi, Samar, Youssef and Wisal for conjuring this city landscape of reality (the buildings they live in) and fantasy (cosmic imagery). Mums are on hand, Fatima and Nadia, to provide additional encouragement.
This is the first sketch for designs that will hopefully be worked up into a 3x2 metre mural. I suspect the finished work will not look anything like this, but will probably incorporate simple elements of floral and architectural design made by the children. We are working towards sharing ideas and creating images. What art work would residents like for their tower block? Do they want an art work? Hopefully I can inspire them on this front. This is the beginning of my 4 month journey for an artist to become part of the community and vice versa.
In addition to this 2d work, residents will also be invited to help me make a film about where and how they live. The archive display has already resurfaced memories from long-term residents of what life was like before the estate was built in 1975. Those Mary, Mungo and Midge memories will need to be brought bang up to date.
This area of North Kensington was once designated a "slum" and 28 acres were earmarked for demolition. This was very disruptive for the 3000 plus residents who lived in the catchment area and many of whom moved into Lancaster West estate when it was built with its modern amenities. A planned shopping centre and office complex at the heart of the estate was never built. For many years there were few community facilities and even today there is a shortage of shops in the immediate area. The estate has had a complex and often troubled history, especially just after 1975 when residents first moved in.
The area is once again undergoing significant change.
I was recently an embedded artist at More West. This is a Peabody mixed housing development across the road from Lancaster West that will be completed in late 2015. I worked with Silchester estate residents and the wider community in producing art in response to this new housing that was building on part of the 1970s estate.
The Grenfell Tower on the Lancaster West estate is currently being upgraded. The tower block is managed by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) on behalf of the Council and contains 120 homes. There is an upgrade to the exterior cladding, replacement of windows and new heating system. Several new affordable housing flats are also being created from unused spaces. In addition, there will be new facilities for the nursery and the famed Dale Boxing Club.
A new academy and leisure centre have just opened up and they are both building onto an area around the Lancaster West estate. Local residents are understandably concerned and effected by all these changes to their immediate environment. There is also the wider issue of a housing crisis and the impact of gentrification.
Above: Upper deck level plan for Lancaster Road West Area redevelopment. 1964 drawing by Peter Deakins (below).
©RBKC Local studies and archive.
I recently arranged to meet up with the architect Peter Deakins. He had worked on Golden Lane Estate and the Barbican before coming to the architectural practice of Clifford Wearden, Architect. Together they worked out the first designs for the Lancaster West estate. Peter left the practice before the modified designs and building programme commenced.
"I intended the Grenfell tower to be the other side of the station with bridges across and to provide new facilities for the station and make it much easier for people to get there. Clifford and I went down to St James, Transport for London, met them all once and they were asking how much they could charge for the flying rights for it all. Rather than thinking great we can build a new station. I think things would be different now actually. I don't know about Transport for London, but certainly Network Rail would be very ambitious. It would have been really bold. I still think it is a shame. But dealing with different departments and dealing with different groups, public bodies, is hard work really. "
"The whole idea of comprehensive redevelopment, was the phrase, wasn't it and that became a bit of a no-no anyway. So philosophy has changed. I think the scheme was quite ambitious anyway. Although it seemed very sensible at the time. The scheme was never implemented and was all broken up."
" I think life is like one of those pin table machines and the ball goes up bouncing and you never know where it's going. Ironically enough, to me coming up again and looking at it, the whole area has been built upon now hasn't it.”
On a walk around the estate, Peter was delighted to discover that one wing of underground housing had been converted into a business unit and felt the brick work details of the low rise (finger block) housing and the garden court spaces were successful examples of design.
I definitely have found the garden courtyards a great space to make art. Last summer I filmed sequences here for Vision of Paradise.
The late Geraldine Lord, once remarked: "There is a greater degree of detail here than in many other high rise estates built in the post-war era. And much less reliance on concrete. My flat is spacious and well proportioned. Its beauty is the way in which the outside is so much on the inside. The rolling grassland has a softening effect on the eye. The overall effect, is one of an English meadow, one you would expect to find in Suffolk. Indeed somewhere like a proper dale." (Quoted from 1976-2006 - A changing neighbourhood in Notting Hill).
The estate is situated in the heart of Notting Dale which is the the ward name. I look forward to making contact with old and new residents at the estate.