Utility or Ideology?

Stephen Willats, Vision and Reality

Uniformbooks, 288pp, £18.00, ISBN 9781910010082

reviewed by Owen Hatherley

'If I look at any object', says one of the residents of his flat in Saffron Court, Bath, in an interview with the artist Stephen Willats about life in the building, 'it tells a story.’ This book collects some of the interviews and photographs collected by Willats over several decades of work in planned housing, from the 1970s through to the 2000s – mostly, if not exclusively, in post-war, high-rise estates. Willats' extensive work on housing (never just 'houses') and the people who live in it usually consists of intensive work with a small group of, or sometimes just one or two residents of an estate, which is translated into neo-Constructivist graphics that combine their impressions of the physical and emotional effect of the buildings on their lives with photographs taken by Willats of the exteriors and interiors, linked together through a design approach – stark, usually monochrome, enigmatic, often darkly humorous – which you could easily imagine on the inner sleeve of a post-punk record.

These works are exceptionally intelligent and humane in their patient, totally non-judgemental approach to a question which is usually freighted with ideology to the point of hysteria. Residents are given the space to describe how the building makes them react, what they do with it, what the community life is like (or lack thereof), what the problems are and the virtues. A resident of Sandridge Court in Finsbury Park tells us he lives in a penthouse, a tenant in an estate overlooking Canary Wharf in the Isle of Dogs thinks that towers are inherently inhumane and they should all be pulled down, and none other than the late Leigh Bowery speaks well of the privacy enabled by a self-contained, easily sealed tower block flat in Whitechapel. The photographs show a dizzying range of interiors, many of which are probably now coming back into fashion, but the unpretentious framing doesn't labour the question (we're a long way from Martin Parr here). The views from the flats, of bushes, trees, towers and car parks are sometimes abstract, sometimes perfectly clear and readable. It's a fascinating, page-turning book.

The trouble is, work of this kind, even as clever and as thoughtful as Willats', tends to isolate 'planned' housing as something special, something totally unlike that which has apparently emerged naturally, through the market and through 'personal choice' – as if that choice has ever been anything other than heavily mediated. At a time when planned housing with low rents and secure tenancies is reserved and means-tested to the degree that it's mostly for those in serious trouble and otherwise a distant dream, this can be a little frustrating. What sort of discontents and anecdotes would a similar project on people living in private rented accommodation reveal? Do they like their housing more, or less? People with mortgages, have they taken them out because this is somewhere they genuinely 'want' to be out of 'choice', or has it been forced upon them by circumstance, ambition or necessity?

'The physical and ideological context of social housing creates a polemic,’ Willats tells us in his introduction; 'on the one hand, the reductive thought and perception of the environments created for living within 'the plan', on the other, the actual complexity of people's lives.’ This assumption that many of these estates emerged as a consequence of commitment or ideology, rather than a utilitarian, pragmatic attempt to rehouse thousands of people in decently sized flats at reasonably low densities without building on a green belt, is questionable. Of these estates, very few are noticeably driven by modernist ideology, as a new and different kind of landscape. One of these is the Brentford Towers, Hounslow, with their abstracted green parkland setting and views alternately over Kew gardens or over a flyover, depending on which direction you're looking. But mostly, this is banal, ordinary housing, without the easy community life of a Victorian street corner but also without the damp and cold of a Victorian house. And curiously, nobody seems much more content in the semi-detached, arts and crafts houses of the Charville Lane Estate, although they look pretty indistinguishable from most private housing of the period.

Anyone trying to formulate any sort of policy on planned housing would find it very hard to do so on the basis of Vision and Reality. Some people complain that their walls are too thin and they can hear everything; others complain about the soundproofing, meaning they can't hear people walking by. Some people argue that old people shouldn't live in tower blocks, some old people seem entirely happy in them. Some like the views, others find them frustrating – all those things you can see and not touch. And as Willats himself finds, two almost identical towers in Leeds present totally different stories, one of chaos and collapse and the other of contentment and comfort. It's quite possible that in this the effects of planning and designing, rather than the effects of mundane things like location and maintenance, has been taken just a little too seriously.

However, two things do come up a lot. One, that towers are isolating – quite possibly true, although it would be nice to compare their isolating qualities with those of a Barratt estate, or even a Victorian street. Do people know all their neighbours there? And do they want to? Have the cars parked outside and the TVs inside not affected this in their own way? The other constant is that the flats are 'lovely inside.’ What this means in practice, for Willats or for those sensitive souls who don't like seeing open, light-filled rooms blocked up by net curtains, flowery curtains and 70s/80s bric-a-brac, is that this is about a reaction against a particular aesthetic – where, as a resident of the Avondale Estate in Hayes says, 'they've tried to organise us.’ The flat is 'modern' outside, with clean and sharp lines and muted colours; the interior is not, ergo this is a fight being fought with the environment. But it seems equally possible that a 'period' house might impose a style on a resident, whereas a blank one leaves a canvas for them to do what they like with.

Some of the housing catalogued in Vision and Reality was and is awful – the breeze-block shacks of early Milton Keynes, for instance – or just dull, mean and monolithic, like the system-built estates of Newham. And these things matter – what it is like to use a lift, how long you have to walk along a walkway system just to wash your car, whether a neighbour is helpful or making your life a misery, whether you even have space to talk to your neighbours, or whether you can touch or just see trees. The images themselves have a combination of starkness and wit that makes the book worth reading on its own. There needs to be more work along these lines, working with communities in a way that isn't ingratiating or patronising but lets them speak. All that said, reading many of these perspectives on an increasingly obsolete form of housing, crushed first by Right to Buy, then by 'regeneration' and then by austerity, it is sometimes hard to work out exactly what everyone's problem was.
Owen Hatherley 's latest book is The Chaplin Machine: Slapstick, Fordism and the Communist Avant-Garde.