Laura Oldfield Ford: Spectral Developments – Haunted Schemes

in the first of a new series of columns, the artist and author of Savage Messiah takes us on a psychogeographic tour through London's old and new housing estates, from the April 2015 issue

By Laura Oldfield Ford

London 2015 – conjuration of empty apartments – spectral dromes; from Qatari enclaves in the Olympic Park to vitric apparitions in Nine Elms, they emerge across the city as glowing husks.

Networks of property developments create zones of control, landscapes pulsing with symbolism and intent. Squares and plazas shimmer in the haze of international finance, money sparkling in water features, private cinemas, rooftop gardens.

The signs are everywhere –
you hear the faint crackling of power, notice where it lies… encoded, encrypted… not concentrated in the City of London or Canary Wharf, but dispersed, iridescent in Italianate gardens, chequerboard paving, columns and neoclassical facades…

We search for thresholds, tissuelike walls –
as public space is enclosed, so protest shifts into the realm of the private – it regains potency by interrupting and rerouting channels of commerce and consumption.

We occupy by haunting.


Vast estates like Ferrier, Trowbridge, Aylesbury and Heygate rose in the embers of postwar consensus. These abandoned sites are reliquaries, walls are imbued with skeins of memory. Landings and stairwells are the crystallised fragments of another time.

Spectral channels wait to be activated – militancy, the commons – subterranean potentials on the brink of realisation.

February 2015, occupation erupting from a Saturday afternoon housing demo, two shimmering threads, one spooling from the New Era estate in Hoxton, the other from the Aylesbury Estate in Elephant & Castle. The planned convergence point is the mayor’s office, conveniently close to that other contested site, One Tower Bridge.

The march splinters, shards piercing the side streets of Southwark, breaking open the Sitex walls and barriers of the Aylesbury; in that panicked moment of spontaneous occupation, steel-encased flats are activated.

Gate kicked in, surge into empty buildings, – a legion of plattenbau blocks connected by aerial walkways – the fabric of the architecture is charged with desire, flats become prismatic, avenues of rose and amber.

Notes of mandarin, patchouli, vanilla.
Glittering tableaux rising from incense burners –
cigarette smoke… woodsmoke, chemical stink
of burning warehouse.
Waxy police, out of condition, can’t keep up.
Boys in tracksuits running in and out.
Ground shifting, sub-bass tremors… juggernaut sound system…
the effect is petrifying, a total reordering of space…
shuddering, low-end pileup.

CARPENTERS ROAD, E15, southwest of Stratford City, marooned in the hangover of 2012. Maisonettes form a transient zone – a crucible, proliferation of new occupations cascading from multistorey point-blocks.

Residents were told by Newham Council they’d be ‘decanted’ to ailing estates in Birmingham and Manchester.

The destruction, the apocalypse, has happened… SOCIAL HOUSING DESTROYED IN THE 1, 2 and 3 ZONES – councils ‘gutting’ estates – smashing up plumbing, driving through walls, puncturing ceilings with the zeal of the IDF.

Decanting = class cleansing – but with disappearance comes haunting.

Laura Oldfield Ford April 2015

The tactic of occupying estates is remembered, reactivated. During the 1980s and 90s, vast estates were deliberately run down in a Thatcherite drive to malign the commons. Groves of brutalist blocks like the North Peckham and Stamford Hill estates became militant sites where architectural détournement was deployed as a tactic.

All the rooms spilling out, interconnected, strings of coloured lights,
stacks of tyres.
Alcoves replicating, yards leading to lost parks and meadows.

Empty council blocks are important sites for occupation, they are concrete reminders of what we have lost, but surely we need to reroute the libidinal channel of capitalism, to occupy the luxury dromes, not just the gutted and dilapidated estates. We need to take the empty towers bought off-plan in overseas auctions, be delirious in acts of audacity, deflect the cascades of psychic platitudes.

It’s what you’ve been waiting for, what you always dreamed of.
Carries hedonism at its heart, seizes the attention.

After a decade of sustained social cleansing, inner London is a gated matrix – pages of A-Z sinking into property empires in China, Malaysia, the Middle East. In the 3 and 4 zones, places become contingent, they unravel under a confusion of ownership, the interstices between boundaries become sites of conflict, entropy and confusion. Architecture becomes nomadic, there are encounters, the splintering of ideologies, beliefs and desires.

Crystallised fragments scuttle back to the central zones – we lace them together, necklaces of bruising gems glistening in loading bays, containers and service tunnels.

Portals, soft points – the porosity of the suburbs seeping back in.

On zero-hours contracts in the service sector, on construction sites, in airports and shopping malls – we hold the keys.

On construction sites, in Travelodges, we succumb to the pleasure of power – a sudden cataclysmic inversion – spooked markets, anxious investors – we need to recognise ourselves as articulate, nomadic, on the brink of power.

Laura Oldfield Ford April 2015

inside//outside recoded

… It is only by visualising ourselves inside and outside simultaneously that we can prepare for occupation, for taking a city that has been colonised.

Our strategies should have more in common with perfume adverts than articles in Socialist Worker – promises of elevation, spellbinding intoxication, infatuation and mad love are the tropes we should to collapse into.

Uninhabited acres of ‘investment opportunities’, with their bespoke kitchens, designer bathrooms, underfloor heating, are the zones we should occupy.

Security guards paid to sit around in kiosks of boredom are strategically placed – Berkeley, Ballymore, Barratt, Lend Lease, St Modwen.


ONE COMMERCIAL STREET, echo of Ballard’s High-Rise – economic apartheid, two doors, marble-clad lobby at front, bin yard at back – 2015 promotional video pans around American Psycho-style, high above the antagonisms of the city.

Every week the building is vexed by a voluble, aggressive presence, the burning of effigies, the assault on image. Lobby is rushed, concierge submerged in a melee of class anger.

Hear the tannoy.
The tension, palpable in the alleyways,
feel it rising,
hallucinogenic hate….

Pressure on investors, negative ambience…
a detrimental and aggravating presence…

We should appropriate Bateman, the suave yuppie, with his smooth tan and Savile Row suit – we should cloak ourselves in haute couture, the most exquisite scents and become an elegant, ruinous presence.

Laura Oldfield Ford April 2015 column champagne


Private rooftop gardens commanding spectacular views… an extraordinary opportunity. Its reconfiguration, its occupation, should emerge as a virulent strain under the skin of the development.

We need to mentally prepare ourselves for taking over these luxury dromes. We need to think how we will repurpose them…

We should visualise empty apartments as labyrinthine palaces with vast dining halls, opulent bars, hexagonal dance floors, prismatic walls of stained glass…

We need to think of occupation as not just strategy but new mode of living – a return to collectivity – not to create ‘pockets of resistance’ but to hijack libidinal channels… not to disavow luxury lifestyle but to reject deleterious individualism, neoliberal self-interest.

Inversion, sleight of hand, projection…

Mass building of council housing in the UK would solve the housing crisis – it would end the speculative free-for-all that is the UK property market. Imagine the boldness and intoxication of European apartment blocks, lawns and orchards, the swoop and magnificence of Lubetkin’s Clerkenwell.

The desire for more is there… the yearning for transcendence.

This isn’t enough – we’re not getting what we want.
A radical reordering, the scrambling intoxication of love.
You feel the exquisite rush of anticipation…
Chalk marks on walls, staircases and landings…
Saturated inscriptions, crossing, looping, overwriting.

Beautiful views.

Magnificent apartments.


[all images courtesy the artist]