“The Farm is alright!” Exploring a UK panel block estate

The story of Broadwater Farm in South Tottenham is that of many of London’s other post-war prefab social housing developments: it started with radical but poorly conceived architecture and culminated in severe social problems. That’s why so many have since been torn down. The Farm survives, for now. A photo essay by Edward Douglas.

The few weeks I waited for Jurassic World to come out felt like a lifetime. And the book I accidentally ordered from America the other day will probably never turn up. But most things, you know, things you can hold and touch and see, those things don’t take that long. Days or maybe weeks, occasionally a few years.

And what do you get for ten years? One possibility is a flat in Haringey’s largest social housing estate, the ‘notorious’ Broadwater Farm in Tottenham: a sprawling 1960s development, its separation of pedestrians from traffic via suspended walkways designed by unnamed architects from the Haringey Borough Architects’ Department and inspired by Le Corbusier. Named after the farm it was built on, and today home to over 2,500 people, the estate’s 12 concrete-panelled blocks sprawl across the site like a Soviet university campus.

It gained its notoriety following two major riots in the 1980s. Police were attacked and became too scared to return. Despite significant investment – including on work to address the indefensible ground floor spaces created by the walkways – the place has remained synonymous in the popular mindset with all the ills attributed to mass social housing projects of the 1950s and 1960s.

Last weekend, I visited the estate with my friend Andrea to get a better sense of what Broadwater Farm is like today. As we stood in a communal garden surrounded by the bewildering mismatch of blocks that make up the estate, a guy carrying three Asda bags shouted at us.

“Great place to live. Nothing else like it in London! £450 a month and I’ve got a bedroom and a living room. People used to come from all over the world in the 60s to see this place. Now the council wants to knock it down or sell it off. They’ll have riot number three if they do that. The Farm’s alright!”

Jumping the gun, I assumed he was angry or being sarcastic or at least not happy to see us on his patch. Turns out he just felt strongly about where he lived and wanted some outsiders to know.

We continued on. The buildings are generally pretty run down. Some effort’s obviously been put into opening community facilities – a church, community and health centres, employment and enterprise centres, etc – but the buildings themselves have been neglected. In the early 90s, the prefabricated concrete exterior was covered with more colorful geometric patterns. Now, one can see paint flaking off concrete wherever you look.

The waterfall mural is a notable exception. Painted in 1991 by local artists Bernette Taylor and Donald Hall, it was chosen by residents and was inspired by the sound of rain on the slanted Tangmere building (the twelve blocks are named after different World War II RAF aerodromes).

broadwater_farm_mural

Around the empty playgrounds, past the whirring of a weird industrial building and down the ‘high street’, some guys were listening to afrobeat and smoking weed and having more fun than anyone else.

Until we got a bit too close. They got annoyed and wanted to see my pictures. It was okay because I hadn’t snapped them but our first experience of the estate’s community had turned sour pretty quickly.

As we made our exit, we walked past Kenley tower, the estate’s largest.

“Are you moving in? Yeah? Have a good day guys!”

It was our new friend smoking out a third floor window, and he invited us up to see his £450/month flat.

We navigated the intercom system (which has stopped people breaking in), past an empty concierge office through the tiled hallway to the lift, and up. Welcoming us in, Ian told us he’d waited seven and a half years on the housing list, which I guess makes him one of the luckier ones.

He couldn’t have been much happier with what he’d got, and it was nice: a bachelor pad with good views of London and decorated according to contemporary tastes.

Ian told us he’d grown up in Tottenham. Did he remember Broadwater Farm 20 years ago? “We used to call it ‘Nam. There were drug dealers on the streets, in the houses. Prostitutes too. It was just a free for all. The police left people here to fight between themselves.”

broadwater_farm_resident

So what’s it like to live here now? “I don’t understand why it’s still got this rep. Yeah, some guys sell weed, but they’re alright. Some Eastern Europeans have moved in, we have a mix of people and that’s good for the community. It’s got everything you need. It’s alright on the Farm, you know?”

Well, for now. But the future looks cloudy for the Farm after Haringey Council recently put it on a list of sites for potential redevelopment. It would be an unremarkable end for another of London’s post-war council estates, completing a narrative that hides the thousands of everyday stories like Ian’s that constitute a more complex history of London’s urban development, regeneration and renewal.

Links:
Youtube interview with artist Bernette Hall about the mural
Broadwater Farm Exhibition

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About the author: Edward Douglas is a policy and projects officer at ResPublica. His policy interests include housing, immigration, the environment and climate change. @_edouglas