Social housing in ruins:

Heritage, identity and the spectral remains of the housing crisis

Zeena Price

Published in Issue 3.2 // The Long Read

Keywords: social housing, ruins, heritage, identity, housing crisis


This article explores a recent acquisition by the Victoria and Albert Museum in the context of the current housing crisis. The exhibit is a fragment of a recently demolished social housing estate, Robin Hood Gardens in East London. The museum, which hails the acquisition as a significant example of the Brutalist movement in architecture, frames the exhibit both as a means of conserving a piece of architectural heritage and as a means of engaging the public in discussion about the future of housing. Yet it cannot be separated from its previous function as a home to several thousand residents before the estate was demolished as part of the area’s ‘regeneration’. This article therefore seeks to explore the contested memory of the estate in the context of today’s housing crisis, and how the exhibit illuminates wider questions of class identity, spectacle and how we define the heritage of the built environment. It will consider a potential defence of the exhibit as ethically motivated by a desire to protect the ‘unofficial heritage’ of the estate, before going on to argue that it ultimately fails in this regard, serving only to aestheticize the act of displacement.

Zeena Price is a doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies at Tilburg University in The Netherlands. Her research focuses on the intersection between urban geography and visual culture, exploring representations of gentrification in photography, installation art, graphic novels and film.

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