Nye Bevan Commons

Between post-war socialism, the industrial commons and beyond.



1. Demolition


For 30 years, from the open spaces of the Hackney Marshes, the west bank of the river Lea was marked by a wall of 5 towers: 70s hi-rise slabs each 20 storeys high.
In the space of 2 years, all but one were gone.

A landscape was blown open. What disappeared were not just the icons of high modernity but a vision of society – it marked the end of the post-war modernity of 'Homes for Heroes', the modernity of the brave new world.

When the towers were built in the 70s, everywhere Modernity looked, it saw itself reflected without contradiction, self-assured in the faith that rational planning would overcome all social problems.
But this faith never touched the deep structure of society, its fault-lines of social division mired in the high rise council block. Here they remained contained. 30 years after they were built, the same tenements were stereotyped as unmanageable. The only solution was demolition.




2. Reconstitution


Building Height Floors
Built Demolished
Norbury Court 54.80m 20 Concrete 1972 1993
Ambergate Court 54.80m 20 Concrete 1970 1993
Bakewell Court 54.80m 20 Concrete 1970 1995
Repton Court 54.80m 20 Concrete 1968 1995


The stored social memories of Ambergate Court, Bakewell Court, Norbury Court and Repton Court are relocated in a flatpack version of modernity, with new cells of compartmentalised privacy and mass consumption, without the utopianism of high modernity.
This is now the identi-kit module of social housing in a modernity of convenience, no longer the exclusive domain of Welfare State public housing but hybridised with the entry of the public sector into the private market through the 'right to buy' clause. Whilst social housing remains a key site for the reproduction of labour, its role is re-purposed in a reconstituted modernity to produce new relations between capital and community. It is a form of modernity that softens the hard granularity of old community, making it porous, easily penetrable to new realities of market exchange.


This working site of a contemporary reconstruction of community finds itself through notions of resilience and sustainability. It opens up narratives of social self-production and social ecologies growing out of the stump of an amputated high modernity in a new equation between market, society and nature. With this the notion of a 'sustainable city' enters community.
The sustainable city is a concept which in its turn brings contradictions as deep as high modernity, ecology mediated through mass consumption whilst at the same time creating a counter-movement of emancipatory social practices.



3. The valley of glass



To help re-image the sustainable city within the bricks and mortar of a modern housing estate we can go back in time. The map of Clapton 1800 where Nye Bevan stands in Millfields by the river Lea shows nothing but fields. By 1830, it was full of Victorian terraces. And glasshouses, growing vegetables for the city. The lower Lea valley was known as the bread basket of London, as much for its fields as the 'valley of glass'. The open marshes were for most part commons land or lammas land which were open to commoners during the winter months. At the time, city and country had in place systems of reciprocal exchange. A million tons of horse manure and other organic waste went with the barges up the Lea back to the countryside.


With the industrial revolution such systems became redundant diminishing the role of the waterways as a conduit between the city and countryside.
The railways, the modern sewers along with the introduction of fossil fuels in agriculture brought about what Marx called the 'ecological rift'. A rift emerged between city and countryside, between humans and nature. The countryside and much of the commons were enclosed with unprecedented urban growth and long distance trade: the hallmarks of industrial capitalism.


The challenge of contemporary mass housing is how it relates to the ecological rift through the idea of a sustainable city.
Within modernity, the 'sustainable city' as an idea is not new; it was there at the start of the 20th century. Paul Geddoes in 1915 wrote about possibility of the 'garden city' being everywhere; replacing the slums with an agri-industrial environment that combined factory work with mass housing and agriculture. But neither technology, nor capitalism nor society evolved in that direction given the scale at which these things were transformed along with the very idea of 'who we are' as modern subjects.



4. New Commons


The disappeared towers of Socialism's high modernity - Ambergate Court, Bakewell Court, Norbury Court, Repton Court - return to create a hypothetical working space for the commons for the 21st century. They straddle across the river Lea as they fall back to the marshes.


Here along the river, they create imaginary bridges across the rift. On the east bank, we have the history of our Commons heritage in the marshes. The marshes are designated as Common land but vulnerable to legislation changes in the aftermath of the 2012 Olympics with the Lea valley blown open to finance capital and large scale globalised speculation.

On the west bank, we have the remnants of our public sector housing, as a legacy of socialist welfare state planning now outsourced to new forms of management.
Inbetween is the river Lea.


Within this small locus, the landscape mediates between 3 different conceptions of land: that of land as private property, land as publicly owned estate, and the notion of the Commons. These are fundamentally different conceptions of the spaces we inhabit and each has its own problematic of accountability and management, of access and participation. The inter-relation between the value of these three notions will determine the social and ecological constitution of our city in the future. The site of a Nye Bevan Commons then becomes the prototypical working space in the broader context of the sustainable city.