If anything, middle class snobbery was imposed upon estates at the point of conception. Evidenced by ridiculous sights such as the name John Keats House affixed to the most unpoetic building you've ever seen in your life.
These are nothing short of in-jokes invented by architects to amuse themselves (Fatima Whitbread Mansions etc...) The Arden Estate in Hoxton is the best example of titular misattribution. A Shakespearean theme emerges as you explore its ugly hinterland. Lo, my liege here lies Macbeth House, and what is this good knave, but Juliet House? Not content with desecrating these characters you soon discover Oberon, Falstaff, Bianca, Miranda and lastly Caliban all assigned to truly hideous buildings. And yet the latter, Caliban Tower, is oddly appropriate. If any building were to sum up the shipwrecked, deformed, deranged half man/half beast character from The Tempest this monstrosity is surely it.
High rises are often so outlandish in the mediocrity of their design they become beautiful oddities capturing the eye and imagination. And sometimes they are so disgusting they provoke projectile vomiting.
But the people living in them are wonderfully warm and remarkably positive. Estates and their impoverished communities guarantee you a far friendlier welcome than the opulence of Sloane Square.
As a child I was hypnotised by the sight of tower blocks at night. All those lights on in each little bedroom. All those people living literally on top of each other, surrounded on all fours sides. The bundle of tightly packed human life seemed so cosy and protected. Strength in numbers. Little did I know of the piss stenched hallways and broken down lifts .
At age 5 in a park one sunny day in the mid 1980s i watched the demolition of two tower blocks in Hackney. The event has always stuck with me. The loud bang. The hundreds of pigeons flying into the air. The delay between the detonation of the explosives and the collapse of the block. The delighted cheering and smiling from the assembled local community. The space in the air where moments before two symbols of Thatcherite oppression had stood blocking the sky.
The sound of laughter, dogs barking, sound systems pumping, scooters revving, TV soaps playing through an opened window, kids playing on the swings, old people nattering away in corridors. The everday sights and sounds of the estate. But, every estate has a finite lifespan. And for some the end is imminent.
The Heygate Estate, Elephant & Castle
Human sounds are largely absent on the Heygate estate. Soon this silently sprawling world of ghosts will be no more. Row after row of former homes are boarded up with metal panels sealing doors and windows. Even the most hardcore squatters have been deterred by eviction notices warning of the imminent demolition.
Walking around it five years later on a cold but sunny afternoon in February feels like that opening scene from 28 Days Later. Yet even more desolate. A surreal detritus of discarded toys, broken glass and deflated footballs litter the untended gardens and trees. Oceans of satellite dishes point in unison toward the sky waiting in vain for a signal that will never come to transmit pictures that will never be seen.
And yet, astonishingly, amidst the desolation, signs of life still exist. As you wander through echoing walkways, across doomed footbridges, through puddles of collected muddy water, past infinite grey sheet metal, all of a sudden you find yourself looking through a window into a perfectly normal kitchen scene with dishes on the draining board and cereal boxes on the table. You have found survivors. Survivors like Riikka, (below) from a remote village of 3,000 people in the east of Finland and her flatmate Cindy from Sydney, Australia.
When I ask if they throw parties, Cindy, 23, who earns a living selling theatre tickets offers a sheepish grin and a semi-guilty confession. I suspect the parties are more frequent and wild than they are willing to let on. The fact they have just got out of bed at 3pm and the sight of every available wall in the flat covered in home-made murals ranging from beautifully abstract paintings to childish surreal graffitti (ejaculating penises, talking clouds, He-Man etc.) gives an apt indicator of the lifestyle of this apartment. I ask if they ever get scared being so isolated and alone. "It feels a lot safer with nobody around. Police patrol regularly now. It's not as scary as the [occupied] flats near the station." I ask if they are artists and they laugh "no, not at all" as they set about creating another artwork. Their home made art, like the rest of the Heygate, will soon vanish into thin air. I leave them to their painting.
Later, her career in dancing, cabaret, variety performances and acting took off (she shows me the book of photos she keeps in her bag), yet she remained living at home with her parents. Then in 1969 disaster struck when, on the set of a film called Moon Zero II, she fell and was paralysed in an accident. Pushed, she claims, by a jealous co-star. "Six foot seven she was! And what's worse, she was German. I still haven't seen the film to this day!" Yvonne remained bedridden for 10 years, and when she finally emerged, wheelchair bound, the streets she once knew were no more. The behemoth Heygate estate had been erected.
So, after 36 years of living with it, what does she think of Southwark council's plans to pull it down? "I think it's disgraceful. There are thousands of people without homes in this country. It turns out the government only meant for these flats to last 30 years. They say the new flats will be cheap but you can tell it'll be for the rich; gated communities." She attends all the local housing meetings and feels aggrieved at the lack of care shown by local authorities and central government. "People should have right of tenure, not the council selling the land from under their feet. Thatcher started this whole thing in the 80s. And I voted for her. I'd like to blow her up and dance on her grave when she dies". She certainly knows her stuff, Ms Castelle.
So where have all the people gone? "Some of them have been put on the Aylesbury Estate over there" she points into the distance, "which is ludicrous because that's being pulled down soon too. Others have gone to Dulwich. That's alright, it's a better area."
Heading on I bump into two Community Police officers who have patrolled here for the past two years. "It's quite sad really" says Ross, "some people have lived here 30 years, they don't want to leave". Gemma, his beat partner explains how they'd got to know people here and were friends with them. She doesn't know where they are now.
On the towering menace of the Claydon block, an Eritrean woman with four children chats to an elderly family neighbour. She doesn't wish to be named or photographed, suspicious of my introduction as a journalist. Her family are the only people left on the 4th floor. That's about 35 empty flats surrounding her. It's the same on the floor above, and below. Despite the presence of the police she doesn't feel very safe. "It's very dark, here and the heating goes off all the time. I don't have heating right now." Why have you not moved yet, I ask? "I'm waiting for them to offer me something better." Despite her trepidation about the future she is still smiling and laughing as she closes the door to feed the kids. Brave, spirited and determined.
As I return to my car, heartened and proud of what I have seen I pass the Latin American Multicultural group and its colourful display of carnival costumes. I pass the defunct doctor's surgery and the Angelus Temple Foursquare Gospel Church where a small group of black teenagers are having lunch, taking a break from singing and playing instruments. I pass the Institute of Traditional Karate and Performing Arts which, it occurs to me, is rather a strange combination of physical activities. All of these things will soon be gone. The sounds of human beings are largely absent on the Heygate estate. But those that remain have stories to tell.