Memory & Emotions

Heygate Estate’s stories: Home sweet Home & Ghost Town

In 2004 Southwark council decided to demolish South London’s Heygate estate. As a companion piece to Michael Romyn’s recent History Workshop Journal article on the Heygate estate, filmmaker Enrica Colusso reflects on the transformation of this space. Both her film Home Sweet Home and interactive multi-media project Ghost Town reflect on community, transformation and the future of this inner-city London neighbourhood. Enrica has kindly made her film freely available to History Workshop readers below. Michael Romyn’s article ‘The Heygate: Community Life in an Inner-City Estate, 1974-2011‘ will also be available free to readers until November 30.

Home is no longer a dwelling but the untold story of a life being lived.
John Berger – And Our Faces, My Hearth, as Brief as Photos

Four years in the making, Home Sweet Home1 (90min, 2012) is a contemporary urban tale portraying the forces at play in the transformation of our cities. The documentary brings out the drama of a massive regeneration scheme unfolding in the heart of London. It is also a personal journey of discovery of the city I have chosen as my home for over 25 years.

Centred around the now demolished Heygate Estate, the film records the estate’s gradual transformation from a living community into an empty carcass ready to be dismantled. Home Sweet Home follows tenants throughout the re-housing process, gathering their memories of living in the Elephant & Castle area and on the estate, and their expectations for the future. These are set against the vision and challenges of those responsible for shaping the Elephant & Castle’s future: Southwark Council, master-planner architects MAKE, and the world’s largest property development company Lend Lease.

Since moving to London’s borough of Southwark in 1997, the Heygate Estate had become such a familiar presence outside my window that it barely registered anymore. Now that this brutalist citadel and its inhabitants have gone, my personal landscape, as well as part of London’s core, will never be the same again. Will I miss it? And if so, what exactly will I grieve for?

The Heygate Estate

Completed in 1974 the Heygate estate embodied the spirit of utopian socialism characteristic of Brutalism. This architecture movement informed most post-war redevelopment and was an attempt to translate an urban ideal into three-dimensional form.

The Heygate – in many ways a character in itself – is the film’s main setting and focal point. With over 1,200 homes it was a true microcosm and home to a diverse community. Some, mostly of Irish descent and nicknamed ‘the originals’, moved to the estate when it opened. Others who arrived in the early 1980s had been among the first wave of immigrants from the Caribbean who travelled to England in the 60s to play their part in the post-war re-building of the country. In its 35 years of life, the estate transformed from a mostly white working-class community into a multicultural one, echoing most British inner cities areas, and British society as a whole.

As a filmmaker, I am particularly interested in the relationship between people and the places they inhabit. Charting the regeneration of the Elephant & Castle was a captivating and challenging journey of discovery and questioning of the city I call home. This journey also allowed me to bear witness to the ebb and flow of the area’s development and its fast fading histories. The film tells a complex but intimate story of urban and social transformation and asks: what kind of society are we building?

Home Sweet Home is the second work of a film trilogy that explores places and communities that I am personally connected to and inhabit.2  They examine the relationship between place and identity as well as the notions of displacement, home and belonging. Each film also interrogates my own sense of belonging in these places and the communities, which I inhabit while remaining, nonetheless, a stranger.

The fertile, albeit at times unsettling, condition of the stranger – in Georg Simmel’s terms the potential wanderer ‘who comes today and stays tomorrow’ – is by far the best way to define the place I look from, my insider/outsider perspective within these works.

He is fixed within a particular spatial group, or within a group whose boundaries are similar to spatial boundaries. But his position in this group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it, which do not and cannot stem from the group itself.

Home Sweet Home tells a story that is also, in a way, the story of Labour’s pledge of ‘putting roofs over people’s heads’ and of the demise of our welfare state system, in particular with respect to housing.


Ghost Town

Since the film’s completion in 2012, I have been working on its companion piece Ghost Town, an on-going multimedia project that also investigates the transformation of the cityscape over time. An immersive, interactive living documentary,3 Ghost Town is designed to provide an innovative framework for developing new perspectives on urban experience. Evolving through time (and interaction with its users), the work explores the relationship between place, identity and memory; interrogates notions of home and belonging; and examines the impact on individuals and communities of the loss of these places.

Drawing on renowned archaeological theorist and artist Michael Shanks’ notion of ‘deep-mapping’ and Jesse Shapins’ theory and practices around urban representationGhost Town takes the form of a constantly evolving interactive ‘deep’ map of the London’s Elephant & Castle, and in particular of the Heygate Estate over the last hundred years.


Engaging with one of modernity’s ruins and virtually re-presenting the now demolished Heygate estate, Ghost Town bridges the gap between storytelling and archiving by building an immersive environment to house story fragments and memories of the Heygate. Users will be able to ‘walk’ around a place that no longer exists and – transformed into archaeologists of the recent past – engage with its traces. They meet its former residents and those who are planning its future, discover how life used to be when the estate was inhabited, find out why it is now abandoned and learn who its future inhabitants might be. Ghost Town’s users can approach it as an experience, a world to explore and unveil, a journey in time, or an environment to start or continue a meaningful conversation.


Ghost Town’s initial 2013 publication set up the conceptual story space and introduced users to the idea of the story as a navigated, cognitive journey. The recently added (February 2016) Common Room incorporates a participative element to Ghost Town. Users are able not only to explore the layers of memory, stories and media buried within a single location, but also to contribute to a shared history of this contested site. They can publish their own material and join on-going debate about the urban regeneration that continues to affect this area. The Common Room is conceived as a living organism, a virtual museum growing and transforming through time and use.

The Common Room allows registered users to upload media and tag content with various descriptors. It also hosts a blog for further comments and reflections. Please visit it to upload your photos and stories, and to partake in defining the past, present and future of this area.

Creating a Virtual Collective Museum

On February 6, 2016 the Common Room’s prototype was presented to a small group of local residents, campaigners and artists during an all-day workshop at the Siobhan Davies Studios. Each participant was involved in different ways in the Elephant & Castle transformation.

Some had already been involved in the making of Home Sweet Home, like Ivy Simson, Jerry and Felim Flynn or campaigner Richard Lee. Others were local artists, like Eva Sajovic, who has produced a substantial photographic archive of Heygate residents. It also included significant local figures such as Reverend Dr Peter Stevenson, who came to the Heygate in 2009 and has recently become Chaplain to the Elephant Park development.

Participants all came to share their own experiences of living and working at the Elephant & Castle, and brought their own material memories: photos, moving images, drawings, objects, stories, diaries, newspaper articles and documents mapping the regeneration saga. These offered a starting point for a discussion and sharing of ideas around the notions of community, place, memory, identity as well as the relevance of a collective museum.

The aim of the workshop was to raise awareness about the Ghost Town project and of the issues it explores. It was also the first step in the process of collecting personal stories and archival material to be uploaded to Ghost Town’s Common Room.

By collecting and curating stories and data that would otherwise be lost, Ghost Town strives to bring together a community – even expand it – in virtual space. The project aims to enable users to develop new perspectives on urban experience, whether in relation to the role of capitalism in shaping our cities, the biases of city planners, or the myopia of accepted political rhetoric. Ultimately, I want Ghost Town to be part of empowering communities to promote change and play an active role in our increasingly urbanized society.

A French/British co-production, produced by Serge Lalou (Les Film d’Ici) and Sandra Whipham (for Tigerlily films, UK), for ARTE France’s prestigious slot Grand Format. Presented at various international film festivals, it was nominated for the Time Out best city award at the Open City Docs Film Festival (London) June 2012.

[2] The first being ABC Colombia (90min 2007). Produced by Les Films d’Ici (France) and GA&A (Italy) for ARTE Grand Format (France) More4, Yle (Finland) and ITVS (USA), ABC Colombia was transmitted on ARTE France, More4 “True Stories”, Yle Tv and premiered in the USA on PBS World, “Global Voices”. It has won several wards and nominations, including the Spirit Award for documentary at the Brooklyn International Film Festival (2008).

[3] Sandra Gaudenzi, The Living Documentary: from representing reality to co-creating reality in digital interactive documentary, PhD thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London, 2013.

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