From Mike Leigh’s film Meantime to the TV show Top Boy, the social housing estates of east London have provided rich subject matter for writers and artists exploring the human stories intertwining in their communities. In the paintings of east Londoner Frank Laws, however, there isn’t a person in sight. The only signs of life are curtains flapping at open windows and the luminescent glow emanating from inside a home. Blocks of flats that teem with life in, say, Plan B’s film and album Ill Manors, stand eerily quiet and vacant in Laws’s images.
Laws was born in a village in Norfolk but hated the rural quiet. “I was always scared of the dark in the countryside,” says the 37-year-old. “I’m still scared of it.” It’s this fear, and Laws’ love of film noir, that informs the dramatic, Edward Hopperesque lighting in Laws’ meticulously detailed watercolour and acrylic paintings.
Each of the 4×5-ft works takes more than a month to complete at his studio in Dalston, and is based on photographs Laws takes during walks around the area – framing them from a pedestrian, spectator’s view. Their silent stature is impressive – set centre stage, the buildings are imposing characters that direct the human activity that moves through them.
After a year working as a labourer in Norwich, Laws relocated to Lower Clapton in east London in 2008. He was immediately struck by the beauty of the area’s social housing estates – his time as a bricklayer gave him a particular appreciation of the work that had gone into the postwar buildings. “The tiled roofs, the brickwork details around the doors and balconies, I was obsessed with them – it was visual overload.”
Some of the buildings that became his muses over the next decade included Valette House – an impressive five-storey Edwardian block, one of the first to be built by the London County Council in Hackney, with sash windows and red and red-grey brickwork. The postwar buildings of Mayville Estate and Pembury Estate, as well as the historic Parkside Estate in south Hackney, have featured in his work. Laws used to title his paintings after the buildings that inspired them, but he is now leaving them untitled to encourage viewers to rediscover these local architectural landmarks.
For six years, Laws lived in council estates (these days he lives near London’s tech hub, Old Street). His paintings chronicle buildings whose communities have changed dramatically – 40% of what was social housing is now privately rented. The artist has felt the impact of what he describes as massive rent increases for homes and businesses and, recently, more disturbing “in-your-face evidence of capitalism where not even a mid-tier business can survive. It feels like it’s becoming completely whitewashed,” he says. “A non-place.”
In his paintings, Laws maintains a spectator’s view as an outsider looking in. Researching the buildings at Hackney Archives, though, has deepened his appreciation of their individual history and “what they meant or supposedly meant politically – as better homes for families, affordable housing, where communities could thrive. A lot of positivity came out of those places, but that isn’t always thought about or reported.” Now, he says, the estates are “reminders of what has happened with housing since they were built”.
Laws depicts his tower blocks standing in the midst of fast-paced urban life and rapid gentrification. In recent years, some of the area’s social housing developments have introduced controversial “poor doors” – separate entrances to buildings for council and private tenants, and even separate playgrounds for children. “I’m not documenting the change itself,” he says, “but I’m documenting these [tower blocks] as a testament to the change that is going on in and around them.”
Such ruthless commercialisation, his says, is “very much the climate we live in. But it’s easy to forget what has remained. This is my attempt to really romanticise and elevate these buildings and their original purpose.” Laws’s new exhibition, Monuments, will be presented within another overlooked gem of of east London’s neglected architectural history; Holy Trinity Morgan Street, a 19th-century, Grade II-listed church that closed during the second world war, but recently reopened as an arts centre.
The east London estates he’s painted this time aren’t always considered historic. “They’re just everyday homes that we pass all the time,” says Law. “I’m trying to show them in a certain light, as future relics.” Yet there’s no didactic moral to these beautiful pictures. “My paintings ideally would be a vessel for discussion and awareness – not an answer or full stop.”
Frank Laws: Monuments is at Holy Trinity Morgan Street, London, 11-13 October.
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