Perhaps the actors, Michelle Strutt and Tiberius Chis, thought the same thing when invited to attend the second workshop for a film project that is being created from scratch. But I had the left of centre idea of getting them to interact with the cultural happenings that took place on 24 March 2018 during the West London Gallery Bus Tour and improvise characters, moods and potential plot developments. I also wanted to test the actors in a live situation and observe their on-screen chemistry; they both responded fabulously in the chaotic circumstances.
I had worked with both actors before in The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle which was a play, film and exhibition project. Michelle had played one of the four narrators in the play and Tiberius had several roles including a memorable portrayal of Charles Chaplin.
A similar exercise had already been undertaken at Canada Water with the other actress in the project, Jackie Kearns. Her creative writing had inspired one of the themes of the film:
“Aged tree, you cool your feet in the calming stream.
No human eye sees how your roots reach through the hard earth
To tend and nurture your fellow trees.
Aged tree, cool, calming stream.
These episodic and fragmentary elements of a dramatic triangular relationship should be viewed as marginalia for a forthcoming film. I Thought You Were Going To Talk is an unorthodox trailer for what might turn out to be a completely different but related film.
Many thanks to Rob Birch, Piers Thompson, Fifi la Mer, Olly Wilby and Gosia Lapsa-Malawska for their support during the Gallery Bus Tour. The tour was organised by The Galleries Association established by Damian Rayne of the Muse Gallery.
In 2010, when undertaking research for the film and art project, Flood Light, about the inter-related history of the Grand Union Canal and Westway (A40), I first came across the photography of Adam Ritchie. When I opened up that archive box and out popped these evocative black and white prints of children in a raw concrete space, I vividly recalled the 1970s and my own childhood. I was the first person in decades to contact Adam about these photographs and in the process discovered he was one of the founding figures of the Westway Development Trust; the unique 23 acres of land under the Westway flyover that was fought over and gifted for the benefit of local people.
In 2015, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam. He reflected on his father's legacy, the lows of education, the highs of the swinging 60's, community activism and on his fragile, but important photographic collection. It is timely to revisit the social conflict of the 1960s in North Kensington after the tragic Grenfell Tower fire. From a ruined landscape of houses demolished for the making of the Westway, residents were able to organise themselves and guide the woefully out-of-touch local authority into the making of community spaces and facilities.
I’m sort of a middle class person, though my great-great-grandfather was born a bastard. My father was a journalist and broadcaster with the BBC. During the war, he invented the V for Victory Campaign. It was a big letter V that was chalked up all over the walls throughout occupied Europe by the people telling the Nazis that they would not win. This was a formidable psychological warfare campaign. He was very interested in the importance of the BBC being about truth. It couldn’t be like Nazi propaganda where they told lies and people were shot for listening to the BBC European broadcasts. I think I inherited the idea of the importance of truth and honesty from my father.
I went to a public school which I hated as I was beaten every day for being the only socialist. The first day they asked you which way do your parents vote. I said they voted labour. I got hit. It was like that for the next few years.
My father had a stroke and then we had no money at all for a long time. I got a scholarship to the French Lycée in South Kensington in the 1950s. Then I got another one to study at an American university in Massachusetts. I studied economics to start with because I wanted to work for the European Union. I thought that was the future for the UK. But the economics professor was so right wing, he took me aside one day and said, I don’t care what you do, I’m not going to let you pass anything in my department and I want you out of the college. This was because at his lectures, he said, if the workers could just observe the law of supply and demand and accept lower wages, then everything would be wonderful. But what about the workers, I asked? In the end, he got more upset because all the other students started to think ‘why should you just assume it’s okay for people to be poverty stricken’. I eventually changed to study English or American literature and I got on beautifully with that.
The only non-fraternity place to live on campus was called Independence Hall. We each had separate rooms and there were a lot of women visitors. But one day the Dean said that for reasons of fire safety regulation we all had to leave our single bedsits so two people would share one bedroom and one study room. We all thought this was crazy, so I went to see the Fire Chief in the town. He said there was no regulation like that and didn’t know what I was talking about. But by the afternoon he had heard. He changed his tune because it was a one horse town; the college owned the town. About 2/3 of the students in Independence Hall upped and left the college. It was pretty shocking because a lot of them were in their last year. I left and went to Boston and tried to enroll in Harvard but that was impossible. In the end, I came back to England. I was very depressed. The whole experience was quite nasty.
I worked at Better Books, in Charing Cross Road. I met up again with a friend called Nicole Lepsky who I last saw doing A and S Levels at the Lycée Francais in London. She asked me to come to a party near Oxford. I said, yeah. She was going out with a guy called John 'Hoppy' Hopkins. I met him and we got on very well. He was getting a flat at 105 Westbourne Terrace and it had lots of rooms. There were about 5 or 6 of us there including me. We smoked dope every night, listened to very modern jazz and someone used to read aloud, things like Samuel Beckett’s Murphy and At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien.
We were always laughing our heads off.
I always wanted to go back to America to see it properly. To get a Green Card in 1962 you had to have £400. I had £200 in the bank. I got a letter from my bank manager saying I had £200 in the bank. And then twenty minutes later I took all the money out. I went straight to the American Embassy, saying I’ve got £200 in cash here plus proof of another £200 from the bank letter. £200 plus £200 makes £400, doesn't it! And they gave me a Green Card.
In America, I got a job as an economist at a place called Business International Corporation. I was hired to help give economic advice to the 100 top American companies wanting to operate in Europe.
I got a loft and redid it completely. It had been a leather factory run by an alcoholic and his policeman brother. They made suitcase luggage straps, that’s all they did, nothing else. This loft was huge. I got on very well with the landlord who looked like a bowery bum. For some reason he got many of his clothes from his tenants; they threw them away and he would wear them. I don’t know why! His name was Seymour Finkelstein and he was a very pleasant man. He lent me all the tools and materials to do up this loft. I took off all the plaster from one wall, so it was a plain brick wall. I put in a bathroom and kitchen and built a huge platform to sleep on.
I met Carola two weeks before I left for America. She was a typographic designer. I said, why don’t you come over with me! Two months later she left England and moved in with me into the loft. She got a job at Columbia University Press and did the typographic layout of their Encyclopaedia.
In the end we were all evicted from the building. I think Seymour didn’t pay bribes to the fire department as it was illegal to have too many ‘artists in residence.’ You could have a license saying AIR2 meaning there were artists on 2 floors of the loft building. Seymour had 4 floors of artists and he wouldn’t pay the bribes, so they closed him down. Put padlocks on our front door and told us you’ve got to be out in 2 days. I found another place to live.
One day while I was walking along a street, I saw a huge rat walking on the other side. It was walking quite nonchalantly, not paying much attention to anything. I thought, I’d really like a picture of this. I had a friend called Larry Fink who was a photographer. He had a darkroom just around the corner and I’d been talking to him about the images in New York I wanted to photograph. He said, why don’t you get a camera? I had recently just come back to England where Carola and I got married and I had about £150 from wedding money. I went out with Larry on a Friday evening to a big discount store and bought a good 35mm single lens reflex camera. On the Saturday I took lots of pictures and spent the whole of Sunday printing them in Larry’s darkroom. On Monday morning I was back in my office, with 15 good looking photos on my wall and the whole place, about 40 people working there, came by and said, 'Wow! These are really nice pictures.' The guy who ran the place asked me to photograph a Business International conference in Washington DC. I went down and took the photos and they got more orders for copies of the photographs than they’ve ever had using professional photographers. The head of the company at Business International, Bill Person, said, you ought to be doing photography and not economics. I said, photography is fine for a bit of pleasure on the side, but what’s serious is economics. He thought about it for a bit. He then sent me on a four day course to a company who test people to see what they were good at. It turned out I could be good as a lawyer, a journalist, a teacher. Nothing to do with photography. Bill said, “You should be a photographer. I’m going to fire you. You’ve got 3 months on full pay and you’re not allowed to come into the office except to show us photographs.” So I got sacked in this beautiful way. Only in America! He said something like it had happened to him and the change had been an important moment in his life.
I went to the magazines and they all said, we don’t give commissions to people who have been a photographer for 2 months. I’d already saved up for a holiday trip to England with Carola and so I thought about what would interest Americans about England. This was 1963-64 and I noticed there were all these people in London who had important jobs and were around 22 years old. They were graphic designers, musicians, journalists. The fashion editor of the Observer was Georgina Howell, who was 23 years old. The fashion editor of The Herald Tribune in New York was 67. She was writing about young people and it felt weird. There were lots of people past pension age in New York running things. It was a cultural thing. In London it was all youth, youth, youth.
I went to Glamour, a Conde Nast magazine, and said, I’m going to London in 2-3 weeks and I want to photograph these people, They are all under 25 and they’ve done really amazing things. Again, they said we don’t give commissions, but we will look at the photos when you come back. We might be able to publish a page. I came back and they published 6 pages and they gave me work every month after that. That was an amazing start.
At the time, I made a film with a friend, Yvette Nachmias, called "Room 1301.” It was about the office environment in New York when she was trying to go down one floor from the 27th to the 26th floor. The door locked behind her and she couldn’t get out on any floor at all. She walked down 27 flights to the basement and out onto the street. There were alarm bells going and 6 fire engines around the front thinking there was a fire. She went back to her desk and didn’t say a word. It was quite a nice little film shot on 16mm.
Before I came back to England in 1966 for the birth of our son, several interesting and important things happened to me in New York. I lived just around the corner from Tompkins Square on Lower East Side. This was a completely flat square with lots of pathways with concrete fencing on each side and some tiny patches of grass also surrounded by concrete fencing so you couldn’t get onto the grass. Mayor Wagner had a brother who was a concrete manufacturer. The city covered everything in concrete. People used to come to Tompkins square and had to lift their dogs over this 5 foot high concrete fence around every patch of grass. One day, the mayor started to build a concrete stage with a roof on it. There were diggers and this huge mound of earth next to where they were going to build this thing. They laid the foundations. The kids took over this hill of earth and they ran up and down it until it was smooth and wonderfully evenly shaped and not muddy anymore. It was the first thing that was alive in this whole square.
There also was a change of government with Mayor Lindsay. His new parks commissioner, was Thomas Hoving, the son of people that started Tiffany's. The contractors said that they were going to come and remove the earth. The mothers realised that the earth was very important for the kids. Someone phoned up Thomas Hoving and said you’ve got to come here because there is going to be trouble with the contractors ruining the last bit of our square. The mothers formed a circle and hundreds of kids were all on the mound and the contractors were ready with their machines. Thomas Hoving arrived in a big limousine with police motorcycle escorts. He talked to the contractors and he came and talked to the mums. Then he walked up the hill and down again. Talked to everybody once more and then said: I think it should stay. They called it Hoving’s Hill after this. I thought this was very exciting. It was political, very direct and everything was right in front of you. Also the fact of the mothers taking ownership of the space was very interesting.
There was one other thing in New York that was also an inspiration to me. Hoving fenced off a small bit of Central Park and set up poles every 3 feet and hung canvas from one end of the poles to the other. There was a 3 foot by 2 foot high rectangle of canvas attached to them. Brushes and paints were supplied. And it was called Painting Day. People came and painted all day on both sides of the canvas. I think they burnt the whole thing when it was over. Then the picket fence was taken down. I thought that was fantastic and it was all done in one day.
I came back to London with these two things buzzing in my brain. I went to see Hoppy and he’d set up the London Free School in North Kensington. They met and discussed things, had classes in whatever you wanted to know about. There were philosophers and writers and artists. They probably used the All Saints Church Hall for quite a lot of stuff. I think one of the things they organised was the first Carnival in London. It was not anything remotely like what we have now in Notting Hill. Rhaune Laslett and Hoppy started it. They just thought, let’s have a festival, This was about 1966. It wasn’t really organised and I think it was gently raining. I saw about 20 or 30 people walking past where I lived. They were singing and dancing and having a nice time.
But they also got permission for an adventure playground where the houses had been demolished for the building of the Westway motorway. They put up a rather beautiful painted sign saying London Free School Adventure Playground - Come and Play. I went there and saw it. It was all demolition rubble about 5 or 6 feet below the pavement and there was a brick wall all the way around to stop people falling into the rubble. And there was a plank against the wall. If you were athletic enough you could maybe slither down this plank. The kids did it without any problem. I never saw an adult there except a bit later. The kids built things out of the rubble from some of the 600 or so demolished houses. This was Acklam Road between St Ervans and Wornington Road. So quite a large site. And there were all these wonderful things being built there by the kids out of the rubble. I thought they need a bit of material help. I bought two hammers, a saw and huge bag of nails and hid them under the rubble. I came back a few days later to see there was a new building. It was really bigger than what was there before because of the nails and tools. I was very excited about that and told friends. We all went to see this building a few days later. But the thing I had described in such detail wasn’t there. Instead there were 3 other buildings even bigger and better. I just thought that was fantastic how kids and people could just do things. All you needed to do was just twist it a little bit. God knows, we need a little help at times! There is also the innate impulse to do things and to have the opportunity. There was all this rubble, What do you do with it? You build buildings, that’s what you do with it!
I went to a meeting of the London Free School at the All Saints Church Hall in Powis Square when they said that this is the last meeting. I said I’m really interested in doing something with the adventure playgrounds idea because they are going to build the motorway and this has got to be thought about. What are we going to do underneath the motorway? There were 5 or 6 people who joined me including John O’Malley. We formed the North Kensington Play Space Committee and met at my place for 3 or 4 years after that planning, talking to people and writing letters; I must have written 1000 letters. I was working nearly full time on it for 2-3 years as well as teaching photography at Central School of Art.
Adam Ritchie's photographic prints of organised play schemes under the Westway, 1968-69
Kindly reproduced by Adam Ritchie and RBKC Local Studies and Archives
As the motorway was being built, we asked for a meeting with the Greater London Council. They agreed to this and phoned to ask were we bringing anyone else. You could hear their jaw dropping as we said, yes, we’re bringing Sir Hugh Casson who was an architect and planning consultant to the Queen and Ottawa and 17 other cities. He was a big deal. And we're bringing the secretary of one of the largest charities in London. We are bringing Peggy Jay who was the parks committee head of the previous local government. She knew everything about how things were done. And we had Ilys Booker, a sociologist, with an international reputation, who was working in Notting Dale and she supported us. It was an extraordinary list of people. When we came to the meeting there were maybe 60 people in the room. They had all their officers and secretaries and committee people. We came with our lot who all gave fabulous speeches. We also had a half page article in the Times and a leader in the Guardian all in favour of our plan. They agreed to further meetings.
Later they said we couldn’t have community facilities under the Westway, because they had planning permission to build a car park under the whole of the motorway. They were going to build a 22 foot high concrete wall shutting off the underneath of the motorway for the car park. It would just become this awful space. One of the imagined reasons for the motorway was to reduce local traffic and if you got a huge 8 acre car park underneath the bloody thing, where are the cars going to come from? They are going to come off the motorway and park there. Everything was so badly thought out.
We hired a barrister to contest this. He wrote a letter to the Transport Minster asking whether they had planning permission. Just by chance we knew Donald Chesworth, who had been on the Planning Committee 15 years before at the London County Council. He said, I don’t remember agreeing to a car park. I phoned up the Town Clerk of the GLC and said could we possibly have a copy of the minutes of that meeting at which the planning permission was granted. There was a gulp at his end. The next day the 22ft concrete screen slabs that they bought or had commissioned, thousands of them, made to wall off the whole of the underneath of the motorway, was stopped. I don’t know at what cost. They had to abandon the whole thing. But we were a bit nervous about chasing them legally because we were trying to get their support for our scheme. It was swept under the carpet. But they had told the Transport Minister that they had planning permission and this was a lie. If anyone thinks that officials are telling the truth, they may not be and you need to double and triple check.
I forgot to mention that we had someone from Kingston University Architectural Department who designed a pamphlet for us. This had an air map of North Kensington with the motorway on it and our plans for the spaces underneath. We also got sponsored by the British Road Federation because we were the only people suggesting a possible social use of a motorway; but I was really against roads impinging on everything without any obvious advantages. BRF gave us a stand at the motor show which would have cost us thousands of pounds and they paid for all our materials. We produced this 15 or 18 foot long map of the motorway cutting across North Kensington showing its beginning and end. At public meetings we stuck this map on a huge series of boards and talked about the whole thing and said - imagine you’re a bird looking down on this, this is what it looks like. So people who didn’t read maps could get this scene of what they were proposing to do. And we gave out bits of paper and loads of magic markers and they could write down what facilities they wanted and where it should go under the motorway. It was real site-specific thinking. We were clear that we couldn’t put our own ideas forward. So all of the ideas were from peoples’ suggestions at public meetings and by talking to people. Almost everything suggested was practical and sensible. I was knocked out by this.
We also went to see a big London charity and discussed it several times with them, A wonderful man ran it called Tony Woods. He was excited about what we were talking about. We said could you put aside money for when it is needed. And he said, I can’t exactly remember the amount, but something like, I can put aside £20,000. It was serious money, He said he’ll put it forward for the next 3 years so that it will be available when needed. We worked with an insane confidence of thinking of things like that. If you are a little tiny group flaffing around on the outside of this circle, there was no reason why you’d think of things like that. But we did. I think our political thinking was pretty good.
There was no possibility that I could have done any of this without John O’Malley. He was absolutely a rock. He and his wife lived and worked at the Community Workshop in St Ervans Road. They were community organisers. Jan worked on an area that I thought was more serious, housing. She did a huge amount of research and had a real strong framework of understanding what the problems were and how to solve them by helping people. Many commentators said that North Kensington had the worse housing in Britain. It really was overcrowded, with decrepit, often disgusting, bad housing There were 15-16 people living in a house with one toilet that was overflowing and with no heating. Rachman-type landlords who didn't give a shit about these people. Horrible!
John and I organised play projects that were temporary schemes and hopefully would become permanent. So for example, we ran the Summer Play Project in 1967 that had 200 students from all over the country coming to help us. We got a disused school to house them.
We got a grant to pay for a secretary and changed our name to the Motorway Development Trust because we spent all our time on the motorway scheme.
We didn’t have false ideas of anything. This was quite important. We always knew that we couldn’t get what we wanted, which was for the community to have control over their own area. But we could do a hell of a lot better than just having a car park under the motorway. One of the principles behind the whole campaign was that we had to have fun while we were doing this. You can’t do any good if you are not enjoying yourself!
The council agreed to setting up the North Kensington Amenity Trust that would run the spaces under the Westway. The council wanted to set it up with the Town Clerk as Secretary. This would have been a really poor organisation. We were quite good friends with the Charity Commission and suggested this wasn’t the proper way to set up a charity. It was a way of subsidising rates and so the council was put right on that and had to change the complexion of the organisation. We also had to have an independent chairman. The council chose an ex-ambassador and we then had middle of the road people. In my view, people who basically didn't want to rock the boat with the council. Establishment people. John and I weren’t allowed to be on the committee until we got the Charity Commission to insist on more openness and then got elected onto it. It was stultified for many years because of the lack of imagination of the council in dealing with it. They probably let us on in the end because they didn’t have any ideas and we had quite a lot. At all our meetings with Kensington Council we did the soft cop, hard cop thing. John would go in with his Arran sweater and he looked unshaven and radical. I would go in like a posh kid from Chelsea. They couldn’t believe the radical things I was saying and were then surprised that John didn’t bite their throats and had these practical things to say. But the Trust didn’t like it. In the end, I got a job building houses in Wales in 1973. I stayed on as an elected member on the Amenity Trust for a year or so and came to London for the meetings.
We had started with the idea for an adventure playground at one end of Acklam Road. Then it became a mile-long strip up to White City. A lot has happened that seems a lot better than a giant car park and some has developed based on community amenities rather than just commercial. We always included in our plans some commercial space because it provides jobs and some income. We have seen gentrification increased beyond belief but there is not much you can do about that with so little community controlling their own space.
Original vision for community spaces under the Westway, 1968
Westway Development Trust consultation on how to regenerate the spaces, 2017
Adam Ritchie with the Latymer Mapping Project, 2013
I used a photo lab over the years because I was never terribly interested in printing. They also had all my negatives, 10-12 years worth going back to my time in America. It was stored at a place called Sky Labs which was in Maddox Street to start with and then moved to various places. I hadn't spoken to them or been in touch for about 3 or 4 years because I was building houses in Wales. I popped in and asked for a picture from my negs. They said we don’t have your pictures. I walked out and thought that proves that I’m not a photographer anymore. It wasn’t a tragedy. I didn’t go back in and scream or shout. I wish the hell I had now! They closed up their old shop and as I had moved a few times, there was no way to get in touch with me. They probably put it all in the skip. It’s very sad because I had some nice pictures. I think the ones of the kids playing were the best ones I ever took. I’ve probably got 10 prints left altogether from thousands of pictures.
My colour slides and contact sheets of Pink Floyd and Velvet Underground happened to be in a bag in a parking bay under Trellick Tower which I hired for storage. The bay was broken into and wrecked with paint poured over everything. But they didn’t take or destroy this one bag which had all my Pink Floyd and Velvet Underground photos. They have since been published in thousands of books, magazines and newspapers and exhibited at the Tate, Liverpool, the V&A and the Whitney Museum in New York.
I only take a few snaps now. There was something so free about taking photos then, less self-consciousness.
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.
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
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.
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.