Monday, March 11, 2013

The Heygate Estate

Yesterday I took the tube down to Elephant & Castle, in South London, to wander around the Heygate Estate, a sprawling housing complex from the 1970s closed by government officials and awaiting demolition. Heygate once housed more than 3,000 people, but it gradually developed a reputation for crime, with stairwells and walkways that one former resident described as a "mugger's paradise."

Critics say the architecture of Heygate is part of the problem, with vast, impersonal housing blocks in a Brutalist style. The buildings are also said to have asbestos and energy efficiency problems. The area is now part of a massive redevelopment plan, and nearly all the residents have moved out.

It was eerie to wander through the development. I was wary at first, hypersensitive to every noise and wondering if I'd encounter criminals or overly zealous security guards who would kick me out. (You can walk right into Heygate -- I didn't go anywhere I couldn't walk freely without climbing a barrier.) But then I saw two women with two small children exploring as well, and I relaxed.

Like all buildings awaiting demolition, Heygate has attracted the graffiti and street art crowd. That was one of my main purposes in visiting -- to document some of the street art. It looks like there's also a gardening project going on in the buildings' courtyards.

The redevelopment plan for Heygate and surrounding areas has been controversial, with some arguing that its reputation for crime was exaggerated to justify its demolition. A 2011 article in The Guardian explored some of these criticisms, and included interesting comments from the estate's architect, defending its design and the philosophy of public housing at the time.

Heygate is supposed to be torn down in phases. Part of it is already gone, demolished in early 2011. The next two phases will take place over a couple of years, with completion in 2015.


  1. Reminds me of the housing in Call The Midwife.

  2. Ah! You've discovered my tried and true "women with baby strollers" rule!

    The first time I visited NYC, I wanted to explore Central Park, but I'd heard the usual horror stories about women getting mugged, raped, and left for dead there. My rule, then, was to go only in those parts of the park where I could see women pushing baby strollers. I figured women with strollers would be locals who knew which parts of the park were safe. As it turned out, there were women with strollers everywhere, and no muggers to be found.

  3. I'm surprised all those satellite dishes were left instead of being recovered.

  4. That is one crazy place....a photog's paradise!

  5. That looks like a pretty grim place to live but at least most of them had satellite TV!

    Love the backpack full of colored pencils!

  6. Love the art (well, the first one left me scratching my head - ha!). It seems like such a waste to tear buildings down, but I guess if they're not being maintained then they'll fall down on their own easily enough...

  7. Fascinating. I have always been somewhat intrigued by council estates both modern and old. I can't help but stare at them as I go by in the car or on the train wondering what life is like inside them. Call me strange but I'm drawn toward the darker side of human life.

    Thanks for sharing!

  8. It reminds me of the public housing in the eastern communist countries -- I watched a marathon of movies once, whose name I can't remember -- a series by a Polish director. They were remarkable, and many of the people lived in housing like you've pictured.