Kennington’s Brandon Estate feels severed from itself.
Perhaps dissociation was the only reasonable response to a history too complicated and too contradictory to integrate into a cohesive, consistent character. The paving stones encircling it and the veins of asphalt that weaving among its buildings been the platform for a bewildering variety of identities and occurrences.
In 2018, blood stained them. The Times declared it the most dangerous estate in London — the epicentre of violence in Southwark, which was the borough with the highest rate of murders in the Capital that year. Since, over ten incidents involving bladed articles have occurred in its alleys. Moscow 17, the incumbent Drill group, have been blamed repeatedly for fuelling the homicidal fire.
During this period, though, the walkways were also shined by the soles of Hollywood’s shoes. In 2022 Dominic West, Elizabeth Debicki and a Netflix production crew used the cracked concrete as backdrop for scenes in Season 5 of The Crown. It has had close ties to film and television since its construction: Sean Locke’s sitcom 15 Stories High was filmed on site, and it was the home for Billie Piper’s character Rose when she was Dr Who’s companion. Recently, a letter from HBO informed residents that filming for a dystopian TV show was beginning on site: a few weeks later, the roads were inundated with flatbeds supporting crushed cars and other apocalyptic scene dressings.
While forensic tents and film sets come and go, historical relics and cultural artefacts stand stalwartly among the passages. A fossilised mammoth’s tooth was discovered during the site’s excavation; and is memorialised by a cartoon of the creature on the side of the library. There is a Henry Moore statue on a bank between the high-rises. His sculptures usually appear in far more prestigious settings: in the square opposite the House of Lords or in the Christie’s auction room (where they have sold for nearly £20 million).
Originally, the Estate was built with far simpler intentions — and it emerged into the world less laden with paradoxes.
When work began in 1958, it aspired to be a paradise of social housing — a project that would revitalise “the decaying and lifeless south bank of the Thames.” Southwark Counsel selected Edward Hollamby as the architect — who’s objective throughout his career was to “build communities” not just to build housing. It was a vision shared by many 20th Century architects, that has its roots in the philosophy of the 1920s French architect Le Corbusier. His principles were crystallised in the idea of the ‘Radiant City’: if people’s behaviour is determined by their environment, he thought, then utopia could be achieved by careful urban planning that mimicked the mutually supporting configuration of human anatomy.
Hollamby believed that the means of fulfilling this dream was to make Brandon Estate a “mixed development” in every sense of the words. The objective is manifested most clearly in the Estate’s plethora of structural styles: from Victorian townhouses, to modernist mid-rises, to imposing tower blocks which were the tallest in London at the time that they were built. The architectural spectrum catered to a diversity of lifestyles and household formats. Nuclear families occupied the multi-storey terraces; pensioners moved into the bungalows; and bachelors occupied the two room apartments on the 16th floor of each tower — although the Housing Manager ensured that all four of these high-rise apartments were let to people of the same sex because, presumably, they feared some orgiastic heterosexual community forming in the heavens.
What it subsequently became is a far cry from the dream it was built on. Over the next few decades, local headlines declared the decline and degeneration of the project — describing it as “slum estate” riddled with “corridors of fear.”
The explanations for the deterioration were wide and varied.
Alice Coleman used the Estate to illustrate her principle of ‘Design Disadvantagement’ — stating tower block living inherently produces “social malaise” and “many other kinds of stress and trauma, including crime, fear, anxiety, marital breakdown, and physical and mental disorders” that would be “avoidable in more socially stabilising environments.” Reputedly, £40,000 worth of glass had been vandalised in single year on the Estate; and the delinquency had become so pervasive that people living in the the towers had boarded up their windows — subsisting entirely on artificial light. Other commentators blamed an influx of new residents who did not share the beliefs and values of the original inhabitants: the accusations were usually inflected with the racial prejudice that Enoch Powell was propagating at the time. A handful of the inhabitants in Tony Parker’s People of Providence, which is composed entirely of interviews with people living on Brandon, deny the narrative entirely and claim that it was never a paradise to start with.
Now, more than anything else, it feels sparse.
Leathery old men use the niche of the doctor’s surgery to loiter and smoke a cigarette; dogs without discernible owners stand outside the pub; and ghostly figures walk around with their hoods up despite the summery weather. It is the opposite of pointillist paintings; which produce a coherence out of individually senseless brushstrokes. On Brandon, aspects of the Estate’s history are easy to recognise when they are embodied in individual figures navigating the hallucinogenic concrete passages. But the fragments are dissonant and contradictory when they encounter one another at the till of the off-license, by the communal bins or in the lifts of the towers.
Sometimes, there is a flash of absurdity. On a rainy day, a man in a green dinosaur onesy serves hundreds of balls to an absent partner on the other side of the communal table tennis table in Kennington Park — which has frequently marked the culmination of Pride rallies. By the stairway in Cruden House at 7am, a dying squirrel lies next to a shoebox intended to be either its hospital bed or its casket. It has disappeared an hour later. These eccentric incidents evoke almost no response from passersby — there is only the smallest of tranquillised acknowledgements, as if the even the strangest events are merely another thread in a banal and formless existential tapestry.
Sunny weekends are the only time that the Estate seems to become what it was intended to be. The park next to the towers is used for football, cricket and volleyball matches, which frequently transform into vibrant gatherings. Fiesta melodies merge with hip-hop rhythms, acrid barbecues are ignited and a splay of generations chatter among the sunset fragmented by the shadows of the tower blocks. The next day, though, the festivities feel like a collective hallucination — the only traces are piles of Corona bottle-caps, and the labyrinth of residences that surround the park become eerily empty again.
There have been numerous attempts to destroy the estate; to wipe the slate clean of its schizophrenic history and construct something less conflicted. Lambeth Counsel’s proposed demolishment in 2016 had to be blocked by the High Court. However, in September 2022, a regeneration of Maddock Way, the Estate’s central street, was announced — and the management committee called on people to submit ideas for the rejuvenation of the “mishmash of broken paving and mismatched tarmac,” as the latest Chairs report described it. It seems like a tenuous commitment to Brandon’s continuation; an investment in its future.
The effect that it will have, though, is difficult to predict. It may mark another non-nonsequitous chapter in the Estate’s history. It could create another corridor that people fear to tread. It may tie some of the disparate strands of the Estate together, and be the first step on a pathway to providence.
Whatever the result, it is a reassertion of Le Corbusier’s belief that the spaces that people occupy determine their behaviour. Although Hollamby hoped he could condition a paradise and Coleman feared that he had determined a depravity, their stances are both inflections of this principal. There is some truth to it; the foundational mechanism of evolution is the organism’s adaption to the environment they are situated in.
The mistake, though, is thinking that this can be reduced to formula; that every human will adapt to the same constraints in an identical fashion. The Brandon Estate is characterised by its unpredictability: it never became what people wanted it to; but, equally, it never quite turned into what people feared it would either.
If there is one consistency that ties it together, it is that a consistent reaction cannot be effected by an architectural algorithm; and that there is a strange beauty to the thousands of lives unspooling in their own directions and according to their own forces despite the uniformity of the surroundings that contain them.