ASHwash: Architects for Social Housing AND for Establishment Values?

This blog post is about ASH - Architects for Social Housing.  It uncovers a different side to ASH's founder that is rooted in the establishment and seeks to work with local councils to promote citizenship and art as a public good.  It suggests that these values (and others) are at odds with the aggressive and passionately political persona often adopted by ASH.  ASH's work has been outstanding but is it all it appears?

Central Hill in Crystal Palace, London, one of the threatened estates by celebrated council architect Ted Hollamby. Photograph: Simon Elmer/Architects for Social Housing - Taken from Social housing is good. But let’s make it beautiful too by Zoe Williams in The Guardian, 22nd May 2017... The Guardian used this image in an article which praises gentrifying architect Studio Egret West who are currently working with LondoNewcastle and Poplar HARCA on the socially cleansed Balfron Tower.

Central Hill in Crystal Palace, London, one of the threatened estates by celebrated council architect Ted Hollamby. Photograph: Simon Elmer/Architects for Social Housing - Taken from Social housing is good. But let’s make it beautiful too by Zoe Williams in The Guardian, 22nd May 2017... The Guardian used this image in an article which praises gentrifying architect Studio Egret West who are currently working with LondoNewcastle and Poplar HARCA on the socially cleansed Balfron Tower.

The arts have long been embroiled in urban and social regeneration and renewal.  They’re often involved (directly or indirectly) in gentrification agendas – often exploited, sometimes complicit.  Art and artists can be used to artwash social cleansing, for example, even if it/ they are unaware that’s what’s happening.  Increasingly, art is used to artwash gentrification and those involved know that’s what’s going on.  Sometimes, art is used as a façade to hide the complex workings of gentrification and social cleansing – to hide those really involved (property developers, financial investors, even government cultural, social and economic agendas).  These projects become known as ‘astroturfing’: the intentional hiding of those really behind projects by creating a falsely ‘grassroots’ feel or message that distracts from the wider purposes and interests of those involved.  Indeed, I argue that artwashing and astroturfing often, and increasingly, go hand-in-hand: perfect accomplices.  2015 Turner Prize Winners Assemble, for example, are a classic example of artwashing and astroturfing.  This process isn’t just about art, however.  Many activist groups perform these functions too.  Some of them are architects.

This blog is about an activist group: Architects for Social Housing (ASH).  It reveals an unsettling aspect that seems to conflict with the group’s radical claims.  ASH is a ‘collective’ that aims to ‘respond architecturally to London’s housing “crisis”’.  It has undoubtedly produced a great deal of very useful and detailed reports about social housing and have campaigned vigorously against social cleansing, gentrification and displacement.  It has also rightly exposed Labour councils for their disgraceful wholesale sell-offs of council and social housing and a whole raft of abuses of tenants’ human rights.  Nevertheless, ASH have always seemed rather odd to me.

ASH has recently decided to become involved in this year’s London Festival of Architecture (LFA).  LFA is possibly the world’s biggest architectural promotional event and a gathering of a cabal of vested interests in gentrification and urban regeneration.  The list of supporters indicates the wide range of different organisations and corporate interests who are keen to be part of LFA.  There are, of course, many arts organisations involved and some obvious artwashing initiatives by organisations such as Bow Arts and Hotel Elephant.  In fact, there were 94 ‘exhibitions’ listed on the LFA site at the time of writing.  But it is truly surprising to see ASH taking part as an official partner event in this year’s LFA.  ASHs Open Garden Estates event aims to ‘help change the widely held but inaccurate perception of council estates as “concrete jungles”’ by offering estates the opportunity to highlight their campaigns against social cleansing to a wider audience via walking tours, etc.  But how, I wonder, can ASH have their name associated with LFA and its swathes of corporate and institutional backers, many of whom have very strong associations with social cleansing and gentrification?  It seems to contradict their clear activist messages.

ASH seemed to have two sides to its activism: a hard side and a soft side; an aggressively political (perhaps even anti-political) front and a thoughtful, campaigning front that works with residents facing dispossession and displacement to suggest alternatives to planned ‘developments’.  Lately, however, it appears that ASH has a third element to their practice: a community interest company (CIC) that was set up in September 2016 by the two directors and founders of ASH, Geraldine Dening and Simon Elmer.  This is obviously a necessary step when offering your services to estates and communities in need of information, advice and planning support.  This is ASH’s stated objects for their CIC:

ASH CIC's Objects

ASH CIC's Objects

Nothing unusual in these social business aims and objectives.  But ASH’s political campaigning seems to sail a little close towards purposes for which, as a CIC, it is not permitted to undertake.  The following clause is standard to all CICs:

ASH's CIC36 form declaring it cannot engage in political activities

ASH's CIC36 form declaring it cannot engage in political activities

It would seem that ASH needs to be very careful to differentiate between its social enterprise function and its broader, collective functions.  It is unclear as to whether all of ASHs activities are part of their company or if some are not.  It has only one Twitter account (from which I’m blocked at the moment).  This could be problematic.

Nonetheless, it is the seemingly innocuous link with SPID Theatre Company that begins to reveal a completely different side to ASH.  If ASH fold or dissolve, they will transfer their assets to SPID Theatre’s charitable arm, as seen here:

ASH CIC's asset transfer recipient

ASH CIC's asset transfer recipient

The thing is that one of SPID’s directors is ASH founder Geraldine Dening, although on the register of directors at Companies House, she uses the surname Denning (perhaps an administrative error?)  Dening also has her own “socially engaged architects practice” (which won a RIBA National Award in 2013) and is a lecturer at the University of Leicester.  Indeed, her practice involves working for larger architects, local authorities, schools and others on a range of developments.

Yet Dening’s directorship of SPID Theatre is interesting and reveals a very different side to her work.  SPID describes itself as ‘an award winning youth charity specialising in high quality community art on council estates’.  They work on estates quite often.  Here is a video they made on Balfron Tower’s twin Trellick Tower which was featured on the BBC:

Trellick Tower is in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, half a mile away from SPID's base in Kensal House.  The film documents how Trellick Tower has 'improved considerably' now it has been regenerated, unlike Balfron Tower which was socially cleansed. SPID went on to produce a series of workshops called Reimagining Goldfinger (the towers' architect) which formed part of the area's regeneration consultation exercise.  The workshops encouraged local children to work with architects, the Twentieth Century Society and the V&A to build models of their ideas about what the area might look like in the future.  There is a whiff of artwashing here...

Check out SPID’s take on Young People, Creativity, and the Arts: ‘… just having the chance to be creative sometimes can make you happier, and better at your (future) job (even if the job itself is not in a creative industry)’.  This is bang on, straight-down-the-line arts and cultural policy speak.

Look at the other members of SPID’s board.  It includes an investment manager, the Marketing and Communications Manager at Battersea Arts Centre, the Development Officer at the Tricycle Theatre, the Resident Engagement Officer at Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, etc.

Look at SPID’s sponsors and funders.  The list includes the influential Twentieth Century Society which ‘exists to safeguard the heritage of architecture and design in Britain from 1914 onwards’; The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – a mainly Conservative council in one of the richest areas in the UK (although some areas are poor, leading the district to be recognised as having a large imbalance between high and low earners; and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation – this is what people have said about them recently:

So ASH founder Geraldine Dening is a board member of an arts organisation that works closely with Kensington and Chelsea council and a tenant’s management organisation.  SPID are based in Kensal House – a Grade II* listed modernist housing scheme in Ladbrooke Grove.  Let’s just say that prices for apartments in this block are not cheap!  SPID have created a community hub in the estate’s community rooms.  Nice!

This is SPID's charitable aims:

So Dening is a board member of an organisation that exists to promote the arts as a means of instilling citizenship and developing the community – a form of public benefit.

It is fair to say that Dening’s other activities outside of ASH span social enterprise, private architectural services to corporate and institutional clients, and the promotion of arts in a posh London borough for as a form of ‘public good’.  It is perhaps now clear why ASH might want to be involved in LFA 2017.

Whilst there is nothing wrong with any of this - nothing illegal – it is difficult to be able to understand how ASH can be so radical, given its founder’s other interests and streams of work.  The idea that ASH are against the establishment must be cast into doubt.

I have been blocked from ASH.  This is unfortunate as it would seem important that these perspectives are discussed openly.  I welcome further discussion and debate…