A closed-down shoe shop at Chrisp Street Market in Poplar was just the right place for a recent pop-up photography exhibition on London council estates
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The market, originally designed by Frederick Gibberd for the 1951 Festival of Britain, lies in the shadow of Canary Wharf in zone two, and though it has changed radically since then, and now appears to be clinging on for dear life against the super-charged forces of central London real estate, it still has the feel of a working-class neighbourhood.
The exhibition, Estates of Mind, showcased the work of six photographers known as the Transition Group and covered a number of estates including the nearby Robin Hood Gardens, which I myself have history with. Back in 2008 as news editor of Building Design, I ran its campaign to have the Alison and Peter Smithson-designed estate listed. This effort appeared to have failed when, the following year, the then culture secretary Andy Burnham rejected the arguments of architects and the Twentieth Century Society and issued a five-year long certificate of immunity from listing. For some unaccountable reason,the wreckers never came to Robin Hood Gardens in the intervening years and the listing effort now has a last-gasp chance of success thanks to the expiration of the certificate and the renewed efforts of the heritage lobby group.
Three of the photographers behind Estates of Mind were there in person when I visited. Mike Seaborne had shot ‘then and now’ images of the Tarling Estate in Shadwell and Robin Hood Gardens, the latter photographed in 1986 and again in the present day. That pair was particularly evocative, summing up the sweeping changes that have taken place in Poplar’s built form and demographic makeup. ‘Whatever you think of the architecture of the 1960s, they were trying to build communities, not just housing,’ Seaborne said.
Michael Mulcahy’s photographs focus on the Lansbury estate in Poplar, the Brandon Estate in Kennington and the Carpenters Estate in Stratford, which recently made national headlines after a group of homeless young mothers occupied a flat there following eviction from their hostel. Mulcahy’s shots, often taken from high vantage points in nearby buildings, illustrate the creeping densification of these places, with modern new development pepper-potted between the architecture of previous decades. Mulcahy was passionate about the Brandon Estate in particular. ‘This is my love letter to the Brandon Estate,’ he said. ‘I know people don’t like grey concrete but I love Brutalism.’
Meanwhile, Peter Luck’s contribution, shot this year in black and white, focused entirely on Robin Hood Gardens, showing it both from within looking out and from afar. While not altogether positive, Luck is clearly fascinated by the Smithsons’ creation. It was the first thing he ever shot when he got a digital camera and he singled out the ‘fantastic rhythms of the facade’ for praise – a facade dappled with sunlight in one of his best photographs. In another, the estate appears in the background while a road sign in the foreground poetically warns of ‘changed priorities ahead’.
Despite Mulcahy’s declaration of affection for brutalism, Estates of Mind as a whole though felt not so much a love letter as a lament to an era of architectural determinism that is being erased from our cities.
Whatever its failures as a social model, the visual appeal of post-war housing estates is not difficult to decipher in these images. These developments of the 60s and 70s were bold and challenging forms, wrought on a massive scale, and testament to the radical belief that, hand in glove, the architect and the state could change the world for the better. These amazing photographs linger in my mind – where did that ambition and that idealism go?