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The secret history of estates

Lynsey Hanley explains the enigma of London's high-rises as we go #tripping above the city

All this month, we're tripping out with daily adventure stories. Iconic journeys, recent travels, sideways looks at out-there places and the sharpest of shots of the world’s underreported zones. Everest to Ibiza. Sahara to Big Sur. Under the sea to higher than God. Check back daily on This morning, we're having an adventure close to home: looking up at the streets in the sky across Britain with the laurel 

Across all our city skylines there exists a blueprint for the social and political history of how and where people lived in urban Britain through an era of modernity to now. What is now known as an 'estate' was once a 'city in the sky'. The idea that started with a utopic, post-war sentiment of building homes fit for heroes - desperate to avoid a return to the poverty and class inequality of before the war - has become cruelly demonised by politicians, comedians and the forces waging class war within neoliberal Britain. 

Cultural theorist Lynsey Hanley's vivid book Estates: An Intimate History takes this as its theme. On September 20, she will speak as part of The Barbican's Urban Wandering series, in conversation with Will Self and Andrea Luka Zimmerman. For us, she selects four estates in London, the story of each one capturing the capital's social and political narrative – it's written into the concrete of their construction and the grand ideas of their design. 

Robin Hood Gardens
I lived in the East End of London for many years and often passed Robin Hood Gardens. I often thought, Who in God's name designed that? There are many defenders of the architectural qualities of this estate but to me it exemplifies the idea that architects so often design the kind of places architects want to live in... or, perhaps, think they do, seeing as they very rarely do. The Smithsons were called 'New Brutalists' because they used glass, steel and concrete in such an uncompromising way; for a building such as their Economist building, this works, but I just don't think it works for housing. To me it's a sort of template for living in someone else's experiment.

Ronan Point
Ronan Point is the exemplar of what went wrong in the race to get people housed quickly and cheaply after the war. From the early fifties until the end of the sixties, Labour and the Tories competed to see who could chuck up the most houses and flats. In 1968 450,000 new dwellings were completed, including the 110 comprising Ronan Point. After a gas explosion tore off an entire corner of the building, it was found that load-bearing bolts were missing and balls of newspaper stuffed into gaps between the concrete panels. Nowadays Newham is one of the greatest pressure points in the London housing crisis: people are moving there from more expensive areas to live there just as the Olympics engineered a housing bubble based on the idea that much of its much-needed (relatively) affordable housing was disposable.

Balfron Tower
There's an urban myth that Erno Goldfinger, the architect of both Balfron Tower and its west London sister, Trellick Tower, threw himself off the top of the block upon realising what a nightmare high-rise living had become. It's not true: he was so proud of Balfron that he moved into one of the flats for two months with his wife and held cocktail parties to which all tenants were invited. The relative desirability of Trellick Tower, in comparison with Balfron (which is now catching up in popularity due to the spread of gentrification throughout east London), is all to do with where it is: people interested in architecture and design are prepared to overlook the fact they're living right over the Westway for big balconies and Portobello Market. 

Pembury Estate
I spent quite a few years walking past the Pembury estate every other day and it always got me in a rage that there was a great big sign at the entrance to it telling everyone that it was undergoing a multi-million pound regeneration scheme. No amount of money was ever going to change the fact that it looked utterly different to the handsome, private, Georgian townhouses around the corner, and that there were bollards every few yards to remind you that some liked to use its walkways as a motor-racing track. The fact that Pembury Road was one of the centres of the 2011 riots did not surprise me at all: it's at the frontline of an insidious wave of gentrification which supplants useful resources with coffee shops.

Estate will be shown on September 20 as part of the Barbican's Urban Wandering – Film and the London Landscape season.

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