neil cummings


In September 2018, as part of The Peoples’ Bureau residency at The Collective, they invited me to participate in one of a series of discussions themed around the future of living, community and art that seeks to engage socially.

Out of the residency a publication developed, for which I wrote a text that jammed my understanding of Bruno Latour's deployment of 'matters of concern' with my experience of living on the Boundary Estate in east London. Here is an extract:

Phantoms, controversies and communities

Boundary Estate plan 1900

For the past thirty years I’ve lived on the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch east London, its the first public housing scheme built by a London wide authority, the London County Council in 1891. The estate was designed by a team of young architects inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement with a utopian intent, it was to replace the notorious slum the Old Nichol, and be a model for future public housing.

The Boundary Estate consists of 23 blocks of flats arranged around seven tree-lined roads radiating from a central raised garden, with a bandstand at its heart. Each block is subtly different and beautifully detailed, with decorative brickwork, Dutch gables, Doulton ceramic signage and main entrances that always open onto or from courtyards. The flats themselves are varied in size, some designed for large extended families, others couples and some for individuals, the original plan was to house some 5,000 people in a dense yet generous urban setting.

As well as housing, there’s also infrastructure, the kind of infrastructure necessary to encourage communities to form; two schools, shops, a communal laundry, two pubs - although they were not in the original plan, a community centre, gardens and bandstand, courtyards in which children can play and clothes could be dried, a church and three mews lined with small craft and small-batch workshops. Public housing for an aspirational working class.

While housing Bethnal Green locals, the estate has also accommodated waves of migrants, initially european Jews escaping fascism, Irish families seeking employment and since the 1960s Bangladeshis working in public service, the local garment factories and increasingly the restaurant trade. Since I’ve been living on the estate, and the Conservative government’s 1981 Right to Buy scheme has come into effect, the Bangladeshi majority has been offset by an influx of younger, creative types.

All the time I’ve been living here, there have been constant attempts to make the Boundary Estate Community appear, and it never does. Never.

Communities are like phantoms. Everyone - artists, funders, fans, politicians, developers, enthusiasts, even members of a given community - know that they exist. Everyone can name them – Bengali community, the local community, beekeepers, mining, millennials - sometimes you can even identify as belonging to one, yet when you address them; when you ask their views - through appeals to vote, referenda or questionnaires, or call them to assemble en masse, they fail to appear. Always.

Communities are like phantoms; like dark matter.[..]

Publication [with full text]

Arnold Circus 1907

















Related projects include Open Cinema: Home, making stools and transacting.


51.5251, -0.0757

Boundary Estate
E2 7HG
United Kingdom

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