De-Naturalising Failure: A Foucauldian Archaeology of the Southgate Estate

Cullen, Charlie
(2023) De-Naturalising Failure: A Foucauldian Archaeology of the Southgate Estate. PhD thesis, University of Liverpool.

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Conventional history attributes the late twentieth-century decline of social housing to the failure of its built products to provide environments where citizens could live in peace and prosperity. As a challenge to such a narrative, this research turns to the Southgate estate, a scheme completed in 1978 at the heart of Runcorn New Town. Demolition began just 12 years later in 1989, prompting questions over what ‘went wrong’ with this ambitious project. In order to problematise the dominant narrative of this estate’s demolition as inevitable and its failure absolute, this research utilises a theoretical framework inspired by Michel Foucault, who advocated the ontological principle that the ways in which we think and behave are largely defined by contingent factors that are specific to a given time and place. More specifically, his archaeological method involves exposing the underlying rules or ‘discursive practices’ that functioned to generate knowledges and produce statements. By explaining how discursive practices contributed to the estate’s demolition, I seek to problematise the received causal narrative that Southgate’s failure and demolition were natural occurrences. This has meant unearthing the extensive body of archival material that survives Southgate to reveal how shifts in knowledge and practice allowed this housing scheme to be thought up, realised and razed in such an acute time period. My findings suggest many instances in which relations between power and knowledge enabled the authorities responsible for Southgate to determine what could be known as true and objective, a process through which the voice of Southgate’s residents was often subjugated. A specific set of conditions made this inequity possible, and, through a forensic process of analysis, I define a heterogenous series of discursive shifts, which occurred against a consistent backdrop of environmental determinism. Such a position, I argue, paradoxically underpinned both the construction and demolition of the estate. These facets of discontinuity in knowledge relate to a range of interdependent discursive practices, the emergence of which were collectively fundamental in the defining of this estate as a problem and ultimately in validating its demolition as rational. I illustrate how the estate’s object, as a form of visibility, increasingly took on meanings of immorality and social failure. This led to the reinforcement of negative statements being produced about its residents, who were often characterised as ‘problem tenants’ or ‘bad citizens’, a dividing practice that was reinforced by the environment in which they lived. Reciprocally, these subject characterisations led to a cyclical emphasis of Southgate’s material environment as an object of shame and deprivation, and even as a direct cause of the criminal or antisocial behaviours that were sometimes manifest. Therefore, it was largely through the practice of viewing the object of the estate in this specific way, combined with the subjectification of its tenants that led to a profusion of damning statements being produced about the estate, a circumstance through which demolition was soon able to be justified. By destabilising the certainty of this estate’s failure, I illustrate that there are other ways that we may ‘know’ the legacy and cultural position of the social housing estate more broadly. This demonstrates the possibility of alternative ways of thinking about housing in the present, of building it in the future and of realising a more egalitarian order than we have currently.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Divisions: Faculty of Science and Engineering > School of Environmental Sciences
Depositing User: Symplectic Admin
Date Deposited: 16 Jan 2024 09:33
Last Modified: 16 Jan 2024 09:33
DOI: 10.17638/03168366
  • Abrahams, Gareth
  • Sykes, Olivier