J’ACCUSE! Selected Letters to the Architects’ Journal, June 2015-July 2017

ASH first encountered the Architects’ Journal in June 2015 when, together with Fight for Aylesbury and Class War, we organised a protest at the AJ120 Awards, and Will Hurst, at the time the Deputy Editor, appeared among our motley crew of squatters and class warriors resplendent in a navy blue suit, and engaged me in debate. The idea had been inspired by Fight for Aylesbury’s occupation the previous May of the offices of HTA Design, the lead architects on the Aylesbury estate regeneration, during a meeting in Camden with their fellow practices Mae, Hawkins\Brown and Duggan Morris Architects, and which had drawn Ben Derbyshire’s memorable response: ‘Well, thank you very much for your point of view. Would you be so kind as to leave now?’ Rather symbolically, the AJ120 Award ceremony was being held in a huge tent erected in the moat of the Tower of London, and in order to get our message past the line of bouncers we had printed out our protest on about two hundred sheets of A4 paper and folded them into airplanes. I remember opening our protest by launching the first plane, and by lucky chance it flew over the heads of security, across the battlement walls, down into the moat, and landed in one the champagne glasses lined up on the tray of a waiter. On the back of these sheets we had printed in large black letters:

Q. Why do architects always wear black?
A. Because they’re the funeral directors of the working class.

As any good Deputy Editor should, Will tweeted this on his Twitter account, and the following week the protest was widely covered in the Architects’ Journal, with a mention in Rory Olcayto’s editorial, a feature by Colin Marrs including the full text of our protest, and even in that drunken-uncle-at-a-wedding rant of intellectual ideas that is Paul Finch’s personal column, then was followed up the following week by a page of responses from architects on the ‘ethics of regeneration’. Great, we thought, the conscience of the profession has been pricked! In the words of Humphrey Bogart, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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In formation: ASH Residency at the ICA

In 1960 the Fourth Conference of the Situationist International was held in London’s East End. This was the SI’s only visit to the land of Les Rosbif, and while here they were invited to speak at the Institute of Contemporary Arts at its old site in Dover Street. After their presentation – which largely consisted of rejecting the art world’s attempt to recuperate their actions as ‘Situationism’ – the British public – which largely consisted of that mix of bourgeois, bohemians and bankers still recogniseable today – started demanding clarifications. At which point Guy Debord got up to leave, but not before saying in demotic English: ‘We’re not here to answer ******* questions!’

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The Truth about Grenfell Tower: A Report by Architects for Social Housing

A PDF file of this report is available here: The Truth about Grenfell Tower

On Thursday, 22 June, 2017, in response to the Grenfell Tower fire the previous week, Architects for Social Housing held an open meeting in the Residents Centre of Cotton Gardens estate in Lambeth. Around 80 people turned up and contributed to the discussion – residents, housing campaigners, journalists, lawyers, academics, engineers and architects. Below is an edited film of the meeting made for us by Line Nikita Woolfe, with the assistance of Luc Beloix on camera and additional footage by Dan Davies, and is produced by her company Woolfe Vision. The presentations we gave that evening are the basis of this report, to which we have added our subsequent research as well as that collated from the numerous articles on the Grenfell Tower fire published in the press and elsewhere, to which we have attached the weblinks, with the original documents included whenever they are available.

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Déjà lu: Who are Academics For?

On the weekend of 10-11 June ASH attended the Housing Justice conference being held as part of the ‘Small is Beautiful’ festival in Wales, and for something to read we took Anna Minton’s new book, Big Capital: Who is London For? a copy of which, signed by the author and sent to ASH, had arrived earlier that week.

Reading it, however – and particularly the third chapter on ‘Demolitions’ – was a strange experience, like reading a summary of just about everything ASH has written about and published on our blog over the past two years. That’s not surprising, as we met Anna in 2015, and she and Paul Watt had invited us to publish our October 2015 blog article ‘The London Clearances’ in the special feature of City they were editing on housing activism. I remember Anna had been generous in her appraisal, arguing that this text, which was one of the first to identify the threat the IPPR report City Villages represented to council estates, should be more widely published. In fact, in the days when Labourites still read the ASH blog, and following the demonstration we organised in January 2016 against the Housing and Planning Act, this single article was visited over 15,000 times on the ASH blog. Ah, heady days!

Since then we have introduced Anna to some of the estates ASH has worked with, taking time out to show her around Central Hill, and at their invitation we presented our design work on West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates at a conference she and Paul organised at the University of East London.

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Ambition: The Green-eyed Twitter Troll

Towards the middle of May, Architects for Social Housing became aware that we were being subjected to what appeared to be a trolling campaign on Twitter. Knowing its origins – both the people behind it and their motivations – we blocked them and ignored it, hoping that they would tire of the publicity they got from attacking ASH and eventually go away. However, over two months later the trolling has not stopped, and has in fact expanded to include anyone who has anything to do with ASH, including the organisers of the Small is Beautiful festival, whose conference on ‘Housing Justice’ we spoke at in June, and the Architectural Workers, who last month organised a debate on ‘What is the Architect’s role in the housing crisis?’ at which we also spoke; as well as general call-outs to individuals and groups such as the Focus E15 Mothers and others not to share a platform with us. I must admit we sort of hoped that a knight in shining armour would come along and defend our blemished honour, but – alas! – it seems these days a girl must fight her own battles. Also, a number of people attacked by association have asked us why we haven’t responded. Unpleasant as it is, therefore, we feel we must explain where these attacks are coming from and why, and refute the accusations they make against ASH.

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Jeremy Corbyn and the Haringey Development Vehicle

Across the country, Labour councils are putting Labour values into action in a way that makes a real difference to millions of people. It is a proud Labour record, and each and every Labour councillor deserves our heartfelt thanks for the work they do.

– Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party conference (28 September, 2016)

In the lead up to last night’s decision by Haringey Labour council to go ahead with the transfer of £2 billion of land and assets, including thousands of council homes, into the hands of international property developers Lendlease, Aditya Chakrabortty, who has been following the Haringey Development Vehicle, and who is the best of the journalists writing on housing at the Guardian, published an article highly critical of Haringey and other Labour councils implementing social cleansing through estate privatisation and demolition.

In response he was widely attacked on Twitter by Labourites, whose spluttering objections can be narrowed down to the one that indignantly demanded: ‘How is this helping the Labour Party!’ This conforms to everything we’ve been writing not only about the Labour Party’s antagonism to the truth, but it’s belief that the homes and lives of residents it threatens should be sacrificed to its electoral success. Apparently Chakrabortty was also told that the Haringey council leadership regard him as a ‘one man left wing Daily Mail’ (welcome to our world, Aditya: at least they didn’t denounce you as a Tory, as they have us). However, in his article Chakrabortty couldn’t refrain from absolving the Leader of the Labour Party from his accusations of corruption.

‘However easy it is for pundits to conflate today’s Labour party with Jeremy Corbyn, to do so ignores the daily experience of people under many Labour councils that are his ideological opposite. Such as the zombie Blairites who run Haringey, and who bear as much resemblance to Corbyn’s Labour as Jive Bunny does to Death Metal.’

It’s a strangely dismissive and overstated comment in an otherwise serious and measured article, and suggests the difficulty Chakrabortty has in believing what he asserts. Is Corbyn really the ‘ideological opposite’ of the Leaders of Labour councils? Is Corbyn’s Labour really Jive Bunny to Claire Kober’s Death Metal? And if so, why has Corbyn consistently refused to condemn the actions not only of Haringey council but of every other Labour council engaged in the social cleansing of working-class communities through estate regeneration schemes?

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Oh, Jeremy Corbyn! The People’s Assembly

Tories Out!

Did I hear right, or was I making it up? As I stood outside the pub having a fag, the crowd shuffled past, branded like an Olympic team with flags and banners and placards bearing the logos of every Labour-affiliated union and other left-wing group, including several I thought no longer existed. I recognised the tune – it was the opening bars from the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army – but what were the words being sung over the top? Was I imagining it, or were they really chanting ‘Oh, Je-re-my Cor-byn! Oh, Je-re-my Cor-byn!’ over and over again? We’d listened to a couple of speeches outside the BBC, where the People’s Assembly demonstration – titled ‘Tories Out!’ – had assembled, but this was too much. We decided right there and then to abandon any idea of joining the blushing throngs.

Later on in the day we joined Class War in the Chandos off Trafalgar Square for an ill-earned pint. A small commando team had gone off to ambush Jeremy Corbyn in Parliament Square, and while waiting for him to arrive confronted Len McCluskey – the General Secretary of Unite the Union, which pretty much funds the Labour Party – with the record of Labour councils socially cleansing working-class communities from London through council estate privatisation and demolition. He simply turned his back on them, showed not the slightest interest in hearing what they had to say, or even in looking at the posters they held up listing just some of the 155 London council estates threatened by Labour councils.

Later on the Messiah himself arrived, and rather like Moses parting the Red Sea the crowd fell back to let him through. Quick as a flash Lisa Mckenzie of Class War ran up behind him and confronted Corbyn with the same question she had asked McCluskey. It’s a simple question, one we’ve been asking the Labour Leader for two years now, so far without receiving an answer: ‘When are you going to stop Labour councils socially cleansing people out of London?’

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