A guest blog post by Jane Brake, with photographs by John van Aitken. This post was inspired by the first seminar in the Welfare Imaginaries series.
The skin of our tower block is opalescent. It’s hue is unstable, like mother of pearl its identity depends on the structure of refracted light and the observers angle of view.
“It’s a chameleon our building”, says Kieran.
The shifting colour challenges and defeats our descriptive powers. So we all say “pinky-purple”, “greeny-grey” or “not quite turquoise” and in this way the building is always a faltering landmark. In 1971 when the tower block was completed it had a red brick façade with grey and later pillar box red panels. On the horizon the only buildings that competed with us in height were other council blocks and the ventilation tower of the prison. When I first came to live here in 2004 I watched the cars race past on the dual carriage way below us. I imagined the faceless drivers haste to be elsewhere, the impatient hands on steering wheels, was an expression of the common aversion to the sight of a council tower block.
“This monstrosity, this tower of rabbit hutches, warren of alienated lives, harbouring the workshy, feral, mentally degenerate, racially other, morally abject…”
“This failure of modernism must be obliterated…”
“Demolish them all and start again!”
Not long before I moved in to the tower block, a major refurbishment was just being completed, which was intended to bring the building up to 21st century standards of safety and sustainability. Works included the installation of a stainless steel support to each floor; renewal of wall-ties; repair of the brickwork; replacement of over 600 windows and asbestos removal. Residents endured life on a building site and the unexpected presence outside their windows of construction workers as they travelled up and down the building on mast climbing platforms.
In 2013 a housing development project worth over half a billion pounds was launched in the area. So, along with other buildings on the estate, our tower block received a radical façade lift. The brick building was clad with a light reactive ACM or Aluminium Composite Material called Sakura. The manufacturers, Alucobond, describe the nacreous surface as: “an amazing shift of fresh leaves and blossoms on the Japanese cherry tree, a symbol of feminine beauty and elegant luxury”. Beneath the ACM was a layer of Safe R Superiour Performance Phenolic Insulation and beneath that the original brick construction. Further alterations to the façade of the building involved the vertical reorientation of the original horizontal windows. Apparently verticality is more desirable, more consumable, more liveable, more NOW. When we look out of the window the cranes on the horizon testify to this skyward thrust: their resting arms sometimes even spell out the letter V.
So, instead of recoiling from their council aesthetic, drivers on the dual carriage way, customers sitting in the fast food outlets across the road, students and other passers-by may dream of purchasing one of these apparently new flats. In addition to the new look the names of areas and blocks were updated, abbreviated or changed completely. Sometimes these ‘dis-placemaking’ activities involve the appropriation of suffragettes and socialist heroes or the evocation of fashionable locations in other parts of the world. By means of these alterations we had become a gateway, a signature block that defines the boundary of an area and makes it stand out from all the other places you might decide to buy to let.
The development project was celebrated with much bouncing on bouncy castles, petting baby animals on straw beds, with lots of crisps and colouring in. Local people and dignitaries consumed cupcakes decorated with the housing developers edible logo. Some tenants had already been served with eviction notices, but those who remained, were able to exercise choice. This kitchen worktop or the other one? This bathroom colourway or that one? They had a choice of three colours for the blinds to ensure the new vertical windows looked contemporary and uniform from the outside? Crass attempts to buy the support of council tenants, to coerce them away from the path of resistance, rely on an imaginary in which infantilized welfare dependents readily trade scuffed council surfaces for gaudy gift clad ones. Neoliberal lamps for old! What could be the problem?
The installation in 2016 of shiny new cladding, not much more than a decade after a major refurbishment only makes sense in a world of signifying surfaces, where rebranded council flats are not valued as homes but as giant billboards, advertising opportunities for capital accumulation created in the process of council estate development. Often on prime urban sites, next to rivers or attractively landscaped, these estates built in the 1950’s and 60’s, provide lucrative opportunities for partial or complete privatisation. Any remaining whiff of welfare is not just airbrushed out of the promotional materials aimed at remote property speculators, but out of the buildings themselves. Colourful cladding, updated windows and so on help to sanitise a whole area of its associations with council housing, with poverty and those who live with it, in order to secure property prices for the rest.
This summer in the pollution hyped sunlight, the tower blocks lustre is manifestly plasticky. It’s sheen is less pearlescent and more oil slick. An atmosphere thick with cement and polyethelyne obliterates the lingering stench of welfare in favour of a scented post-welfare property-owning occutopia, where streamlined state agencies manage ‘customer relations’ at arms-length and developers buy in crisis communications and reputation management consultancy services, if things go wrong. And they did. They went toxic.
Since the Grenfell fire the first three floors of cladding on our block have been removed for testing and replaced with a trim of cement panels imprinted with the words CEMBRIT. The sheen has literally come off the building. If tenants were previously in doubt about the function of the refurbishment and its most visible manifestation, the cladding, they are no longer.
Amadou says: “It wasn’t for us”.
“It’s for the people driving past to the upmarket development over the bridge”, says Sara.
“It was to make the building look good, so they get a better price for the private properties they built when they demolished the council houses down the road”, says Genette.
Arms length management enables local authorities and developers to side step responsibility for life and death. At the same time the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) sees fit to micro-manage tenants use of the block, invoking fire regulations at every opportunity. Plastic garden furniture is a fire hazard, so are football flags, flower planters and anything wooden. Barbeques are obviously out of the question and seating for people in the foyer is prohibited because it might catch fire. Notices about tenants meetings are removed and access to community rooms restricted due to the risk of fire. Tenants do not think it is by chance that these restrictions affect their ability to organise themselves, and to challenge their current living conditions. The irony of being addressed solely by means of these petty and risible rules and never being informed about when the block will be made safe…the irony of being the victims of this war of attrition, whilst living in a tower of toxicity, now emblazoned with lurid panels advertising greed and criminal disregard for life…these ironies escape none of the tenants in our block.
About Jane and John: Jane Brake and John van Aitken are based in a council tower block in the north west of England. Residents are currently awaiting decisions regarding cladding to their building, which they believe is potentially lethal. Real names and the location are withheld to protect the privacy of tenants. Quoted passages are literary assemblages drawing on research and fieldwork. Brake and van Aitken collaborate as researchers and artists under the title Institute of Urban Dreaming.