words Owen Hatherley
image Robin Maddock
These two books are mainly collections of photographs of council flat interiors, although neither of them present themselves as such. Both are centred on the council estates of the perhaps overly self-regarding London Borough of Hackney. The ostensible topic of the two books is very different, but we’ll get to that presently.
In the history of social housing, interiors are a peculiarly overlooked matter. Rooms are usually of a fair old size, invariably bigger than those of recent “stunning luxury developments”, but as to what they’re filled with, well, any architect of the post-war generation can talk of how disappointed they were to find their light, airy flats filled with lumpy, pre-modern furniture. Conversely, many residents will say of the bleakest of blocks, “Well, they’re lovely inside.”
Taken entirely in the abstract, these two books present a very different image of these rooms. In one, the group Fugitive Images (here comprising artists and Haggerston Estate residents Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Lasse Johansson) present straightforward, undistorted photographs of emptied rooms. A bookcase of National Geographics colour coordinated with a yellow wall, with anti-burglary bars on the window; a wall decorated by blue-paint palm prints; a neo-baroque decorated polystyrene ceiling; wallpaper derived both from Ikea and some 1970s catalogue; or an alarming image of a burned and rotting bed.
In the other, photographer Robin Maddock presents a vividly lit, lurid, almost cinematic space, but many of the details are similar. A cartoon skeleton affixed to a toilet door, flowery wallpaper, a framed picture of Malcolm X above an interrupted game of dominoes. Except this time it’s populated, as armed police hold someone down below a reproduction of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, and heavy boots walk on a wood-effect kitchen. Both are fond of zeroing in on particular objects: Fugitive Images chooses a can of “Omelette and Chips” and a TV aerial balanced in a bottle of Christmas ale; Maddock has a page from a porn mag, lottery tickets and a gun’s packaging riddled with bullet holes.
It should be pointed out, though, that these books have entirely different aims. The other half of Estate is an argument about the disputed history of, and the currently utterly urgent need for, council housing. The essays therein on its subject, the brick, medium-rise, 1930s Haggerston Estate, and its replacement with a “mixed class”, “pepper-potted” new development are mostly excellent and important polemic, albeit with a sometimes obtrusive academic apparatus of references. Our Kids Are Going to Hell is Maddock’s documentation of his time “embedded” in Hackney’s branch of the Met, as it went about various raids of flats (and one or two houses). Text is limited to an introduction by grand vizier of Hackney Iain Sinclair, and evocative snatches of witticisms from the raids themselves. Estate is pocket-sized, undemonstrative; Our Kids Are Going to Hell large-format, bound in fetishistic rubbery paper.
If that makes Maddock’s book sound flimsy and exploitative, it isn’t. More than anything else, the photographs are melancholic, swathed in a smoky light, without machismo or heroism, but for a missing analysis of how we got here, Estate is a lot more useful. However, what is the function of these books in Hackney itself? These glimpses of the insides of soon-to-be-condemned inner London municipal housing, as government reforms promise to cleanse council tenants to the outskirts – aren’t they destined just to sit on the shelves of chic “new East End” bookshops? Or will they sit on the coffee tables of redeveloped estates next to the incomers’ Barcelona chairs?