Make art before the bulldozers roll in

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The Independent Culture

Try and imagine a clapped out housing estate, complete with graffiti, corroded brickwork, flaking walls and the stench of urine. Imagine this is a place that has seen death and violence, gangs and criminals. Remember too, that it has been the living space for hundreds of families for 50 years; But not any more. Now it has been transformed into a giant concrete playground for more than 75 artists, who, using found materials, are manifesting creativity between its sullied walls for one last hoorah before the bulldozers reduce the whole thing to rubble next Monday.

The Market Estate is a typical 1960s construction made up of 271 flats and maisonettes and built on the site of the Metropolitan Cattle Market, near Caledonian Road in London. An ornate clock tower, a remnant of the old market, overlooks the site incongruously. The tower blocks have been awaiting demolition for six years, more and more of its residents leaving it to wrack and ruin, knowing it will be torn down. But the last family moved out just yesterday. On Saturday it will be open to the public for one day only.

“I know it sounds arrogant to say it, but I think the estate was built for this project,” says Gadi Sprukt. He came up with idea along with his housemate, also an artist and Central St Martin’s graduate, after they became temporary caretakers of the building last May. “I approached the Southern Housing Group which owns the estate almost immediately. I expected to be confronted with a den of bureaucrats but my contact, Stephen Ross, was surprisingly open to it.” Along with other sponsors Higgins Construction and HTA Architects Ltd, the housing association stumped up £20,000 for it, and with an additional £5,000 from the Arts Council Sprukt and his team were able to get the ball rolling.

Although from a distance the estate looks like any other, move closer and you’ll see intricacies of innovative design too special to have been accidental. The huge outside space is littered with strange objects. An 8ft shell-like structure by Hinchee Hung and Nigel Goldie curves elegantly, revealing itself to be more than 90 doors “harvested” from the living spaces, with scratches, dents and, poignantly “Jim’s Room”, still intact. Elsewhere murals signifying the estate’s history masquerade as common garden graffiti, while paint splodges litter the place made by the balls and bicycles children were banned from using in the estate’s heyday.

The corridor walls are stark, the doors covered over with metal casements to safeguard against squatters. It is truly bleak. But enter one of the many flats that have been turned into installations and its like falling down a rabbit hole.

You’re forced to step over the debris, cover your mouth from the dust and venture through a maisonette ripped to shreds until you come to a tiny room at the bottom which glows with iridescent colour, the walls, ceilings, chairs, everything fluorescent yellow. Even the tea in the cups. “We chose the colour because it seems carcinogenic and nuclear, which relates back to the ‘60s theme. We thought about its usage in modern day as well: flashing jackets on police and wardens, warning signs that sort of thing,” remarks Jess Blandford, one half of the Blandford and Joe Morris artistic partnership. Angela, who lived in the flat up until only a few days ago, has just visited to see what the artists have made of it. She was bemused by the whole thing, the artists tell me, and just kept saying: “It’s mad!”

Down the corridor again and through another door: Mr and Mrs Smith’s flat is wonderful. The walls are green and swirly with original ‘70s wallpaper, the soft carpet is a clashing blue and red; the kitchen a beautifully preserved box of original veneer cupboards and net curtains. It has been lovingly looked after by its occupants, who until two weeks ago, had lived there for 40 years. This is Guilia Sala’s project, and the aesthetics hardly needed changing. As of much of the work produced here, the work is led by the residents who lived here.

As a whole the project is a success. Not all of it works and it is by no means perfect. Sometimes you’re not even sure what’s art and what’s simply decay. You’re likely to get lost, wouldn’t want to get locked in after dark, and the temporary nature of the installations lends more of a slap dash atmosphere than the artists might usually go in for. But the sheer epic scale of the thing and the ambition of its creators is infectious. And it is a fitting end for a building constructed as a flag for a better era, but which came to be a negative symbol.

The exhibition is open Saturday 6 March 2-10 pm only.

Photographs by Alex Springer, Rob Baker Ashton, Clara Molden and Tom Willcocks