Stephen Willats, Vision and Reality (Uniformbooks, 2016)
Stephen Willats has been one of the most interesting and innovative artists in Britain for many decades. To those who see the significance of art as existing beyond the academy and to those of us, in particular, with an interest in social housing, he is one of our most important artists. Uniformbooks, are to be congratulated, therefore, for publishing this new book as a permanent record of his many community-based artworks on council estates up and down the country.
As Willats states in the introduction to this book, ‘it is the audience of a work of art which gives it meaning’ but, rather than hope for a public better-educated in the language and mores of the art world, he was clear that it was the ‘wall-mounted, object-based tendency of art galleries’ which had come to seem ‘archaic’. To Willats:
a work of art exists between people, and only has meaning when it in some way addresses their society.
He wanted ‘a new function and meaning for art, and that the artwork could then become an agency for transformation’.
Here lies the credo and the mission. The form he chose was the creation of what he called a ‘Symbolic World’ – a series of installations, of text and images, made collaboratively with estate residents and placed in the key meeting places of those estates, representing and articulating the residents’ life and experience and the meanings placed on them.
If all this sounds somewhat hifalutin (and I’ll confess it does to me), the finished product is something rare – a view of estate life largely created by (not for and, for once, not against) estate residents in all its (and their) diversity, complexity and contradictoriness.
Willats is clear that the outcome is not mere ‘descriptive documentation’ but I hope he’ll forgive me as a social historian if I do treat it as a record, a significant record of time and place and people usually neglected and often denigrated. As such, it defies easy summary – you’ll need to read the book to appreciate its richness – but I’ll pick out a few of the themes I found most compelling. It’s a testimony to the interest of his work that I’ll be questioning too of some of its approaches and assumptions.
Willats captures an important moment in the history of council housing – an incremental turn from its being aspirational housing, a site and symbol of upward mobility, to being something lesser and something troubled and, to many, troubling. With hindsight, from what might come to seem (if the present government has its way) the end of this proud and complex story, we see the beginnings of a process by which social housing has been designated (though not, of course, by its residents or those who know its essential role and purpose) housing of last resort, a safety net for the poorest and most vulnerable incapable of either aspiring to or achieving something ‘better’.
As Willats notes:
When I first started, people on the whole seemed quite optimistic about their ‘modern’ surroundings, which were often new to them, but gradually as the 1970s progressed, with the media’s stigmatisation of social housing, and the withdrawal of essential services such as maintenance, the mood in most of these recordings turned more negative with a critical, sometimes even depressed, tone prevailing.
By 2001, a BBC report described the Ocean Estate in Stepney as ‘one of the most deprived in Britain, ravaged by poverty, crime and drug use’. (1) In 1978, Willats talked to an elderly couple, long-term residents (to those who dwell in stereotypes, his photographs of their home capture a world of utmost ‘bourgeois’ respectability) who recalled a different time:
These flats, when they were originally opened, were a showpiece for all over the world and they used to come to these flats…Then you could walk into the lift and the lift would be spotlessly clean because we had a porter there. He was fantastic.
We’ve seen the same stated of the Brandon Estate in Southwark (which Willats also covers) and of high-rise blocks in Birmingham. The truth was that the removal of on-site caretakers was often as much the result of rising antisocial behaviour as its cause but the reality of the latter was undeniable.
So the trajectory – from ‘showpiece’ to ‘problem estate’ – is a familiar one. Willats captures it well and it was not his task to fully explain it but the deep dynamics underlying the shift are worth a brief mention. The rise of working-class owner occupation from the 1960s and needs-based assessment (which gave priority to our poorest and most vulnerable citizens in allocations) in the 1970s played their part. Right to buy and the halt on council housing new build in the 1980s – and the unforgiving media coverage which Willats identifies – did much to complete the process by which council housing became ‘residual’.
As the least desirable council housing became hard to let, Willats also captures another moment which might be familiar to some readers – that time when (either officially or unofficially) some of its flats became home to young people – Willats focuses on the most countercultural of them here – willing to take on accommodation that by now traditional council house residents were refusing. (We’ve seen this too, most melodramatically in Manchester’s Hulme Crescents.) Again, there is reciprocal cause and consequence here to explain the changing perceptions and realities of council housing.
What I haven’t mentioned yet is the most common explanation of council housing’s decline, that of ‘design disadvantage’ or, to put it as crudely as it was more usually understood, the trouble with tower blocks. This is an agenda which Willats shares to some extent. He asks a lot of questions about the ‘isolation’ of high-rise living, about its lack of neighbourliness.
Much in the book could be taken to taken to confirm the worst stereotypes – the residents of the fifteen-storey Skeffington Court block for example:
I am not as friendly since I have been here, once you get into your flats, you shut your door and you don’t see anybody…You feel so enclosed.
You should never have to suffer living in a tower block all your life…It can become a prison.
But although Willats asks the leading questions, the residents speak for themselves and actually give very varied responses. Charville Lane is another Hayes estate, a low-rise interwar cottage suburb. Unexpectedly, maybe, one its residents tells a very different story:
I’ve got used to it now but I missed the company at first, ‘cos being in a flat we always had a sort of open house and everybody in the block would pop in and have a cup of coffee. Once we got here most of the neighbours are out.
Another resident, living in the seventeen-storey Marlborough Towers in central Leeds, also turns the ‘common-sense’ assumptions around:
You do get to know quite a lot of people living in the block. We have lived in a street, and if you live in as street you may know your neighbour at that side and your neighbour at the side, but further down the street you don’t get to know them, but here, moving in and out of the lifts and using the buses, and coming into the block you get to know everybody.
You can see similar views of life in a multi-storey estate expressed in my post on the Pepys Estate in Deptford in its heyday. And for very resident who decries the isolation of their high-rise flat, there is another for whom it is a window on the world.
None of this should be taken as a denial of the problems of the tower blocks. At the very least, you needed the lifts to work reliably and you wanted their shared spaces properly respected. All too often neither was the case at their lowest point when maintenance and security were shamefully neglected.
But it gives, I hope, a more rounded picture – one reflecting the very varied real-world experience of residents as opposed to the commentators’ caricatures. I think it raises another issue too – what is the metric here? What is the implied alternative?
It feels too often – I am speaking generally here rather than in relation to Willats’ work – that the experience of estate living is juxtaposed to some lost world or some form of notional community which ought to exist. Sometimes this is explicit, expressed in an idealisation of the close-knit life of the slum terraces – the life that so many generations of working-class people were desperate to escape, of course. Sometimes it seems based on a simple but surely questionable assumption that streets are always friendlier, more neighbourly – that closing the front door of a suburban semi is somehow less isolating than the same action in a high-rise flat.
What’s missing in all this discussion is class. What’s common is that it is invariably the working class who are the object of this discussion. Working-class lives are dissected and held to standards that are never applied to the middle-class. Who bothers about middle-class community? Who even uses the phrase?
That, in a sense, is the great paradox of Willats’ work. He does allow – it is his purpose – council house residents to speak for themselves, to tell their own stories, but the exercise as a whole is an artistic intervention of a form that would never be applied to middle-class owner-occupiers because they are never – to use the jargon – problematised. Of course, you could make the same criticism of this blog and I raise it, not as condemnation of Willats’ work – far from it – but as an issue we might all want to consider.
To return to the book and the body of work it represents, its great strength is the variety of estates it covers – twenty-two in all, most in London but including estates in Bath, Leeds, Oxford and Milton Keynes, illustrated in over 500 black and white images across 288 pages. Many of these are the tower blocks that sprang up in the sixties but it includes interwar cottage estates, more recent low-rise developments as well as traditional five-storey flatted schemes. And within those, a complete range of their residents – a range which completely belies the lazy stereotypes that much contemporary commentary and much of what passes for policy seem to rely on.
The interviews and images capture and celebrate this variety. Opinions are expressed forcibly on one side or another but the overall effect is one of nuance. If there’s a constant, it’s only the individuality and care that residents applied to making council housing – that bland generic term – their home. As a resident of the Friar’s Wharf Estate in Oxford expressed it, they were all people ‘trying to make their own lives in their own way, which is what we’re here for’.
This is a rich, though-provoking book, perhaps unique in both its specificity and breadth. If it has one great revelation, perhaps it is only that there is no great revelation; it simply portrays decent people in, overwhelmingly, decent homes. For that reason alone, it should be widely read.
Vision and Reality is available direct from Uniformbooks or from online booksellers and independent bookshops.
As noted, all black and white images here are the copyright of Stephen Willats. My thanks to him for making them available and to Colin Sackett of Uniformbooks for his assistance.
Stephen Willats’ website has much more detail and illustration on the full range of his creative work.
Sharon Irish has a website detailing her work and interests. My thanks to her for sharing the fruits of some of her own research.
- Dan Coles, ‘The Ocean Estate: Sink or Swim?’, BBC News Online, 15 January 2001. It should be noted that the Estate was about to become a key site of New Labour’s New Deal for Communities programme and much has happened since. In 2015, major reconstruction saw the refurbished Estate nominated for two design awards. (See Mike Brooke, ‘East End’s “deprived” Ocean Estate is shortlisted for top UK design award’, Inside Housing, 11 July 2015.)