Dr David Roberts



Make Public: Performing public housing in regenerating east London

Second supervisor(s)
Professor Ben Campkin

This thesis explores the history and future of two east London housing estates undergoing regeneration; Samuel House, a 1935-8 London County Council neo-Georgian perimeter block on the Haggerston West Estate demolished in 2014; and Balfron Tower, a 1965-7 Brutalist high-rise on the Brownfield Estate designed by Ernö Goldfinger and facing refurbishment and privatisation in 2016.

To ‘make public’ expresses a demand and an aspiration; materially – to protect and extend public housing provision at a time when austerity measures are dismantling it in ideal and form [Phillips and Erdemci, 2012]; procedurally – to make visible problematic processes of urban change that are increasingly hidden from public view under the pervasive metaphor of regeneration [Campkin, 2013]; and methodologically – to make public the act of research through long-term collaborations with residents and other practitioners, using archival research and socially-engaged performance practice that reveals spatial changes and their affects on social relations [Harvie, 2013].

The thesis draws on the idea of ‘multiple publics’ to re-conceptualise a constructive approach to public housing and to evaluate the ethic of ‘making public’ [Fraser, 1990]. It works between architecture and performance to forge new connections with the research of Forty, Rendell, Schneider and Roms, and choreograph relationships between buildings, texts and residents through critical acts of writing, dramaturgy and re-enactment.

The practice is conducted through performative workshops that open a social, discursive and imaginative space for residents to re-enact the histories of each estate and build collective knowledge and experience. This collaborative work is shared with wider publics through a feature-length artist’s film, site-specific performance, and six-week exhibition, and is documented in the thesis as two acts, comprising scenes interspersed with reflective essays. The evidence gathered is fed into formal and legislative frameworks with the aim of influencing housing policy: at Samuel House, a redesigned housing survey and at Balfron Tower, a listing upgrade nomination and online archive.



Related publications

Roberts, D. (2020) ‘Why Now?: The Ethics of Architectural Declaration’, Architecture and Culture.

Roberts, D. (2019) ‘Reflect Critically and Act Fearlessly: A Survey of Ethical Codes, Guidance and Access in Built Environment Practice’, Bartlett Ethics Commission

Roberts, D. (2018) ‘Housing Acts: performing public housing’, in Filmer, A. and Rufford, J. (eds.) Performing Architectures: Contemporary Projects, Practices and Pedagogies, London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, pp. 125-142

Roberts, D. (2017) ‘Make Public: Performing Public Housing in Ernö Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower’, Journal of Architecture, v. 22, n. 1, pp. 123-150.

Roberts, D. et al. (2016) ‘From “Heroin” to Heroines’, in Campkin B. and Duijzings G. (eds.) Engaged Urbanism: Cities and Methodologies, London: IB Tauris, pp. 73-82

Roberts, D. (2016) ‘Make Public: a building archive of London’s Balfron Tower’, in Beebeejaun Y. (ed.) The Participatory City, Berlin: Jovis, pp. 65-73

Roberts, D. (2014) ‘Telling Stories / Empty Words Build Empty Homes’, Opticon1826, v. 17, n. 16.

Campkin, B., Roberts, D. and Ross, R, eds. (2013) Urban Pamphleteer 2: Regeneration Realities, Northampton: Belmont Press.


I am a Lecturer in Architecture at the Bartlett School of Architecture and Research Ethics Fellow at the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment. Alongside my teaching and research, I am part of collaborative art practice Fugitive Images and of architecture collectives Involve and BREAK//LINE.

My research, art and cultural activist practice engages community groups whose homes and livelihoods are under threat from urban policy, empowers ethical reasoning in built environment practice, and extends architectural education to primary and secondary school children.

Through my collaborative practice I co-wrote and co-produced the feature-length documentary/fiction film, Estate, a Reverie. I co-curated a six-week project Real Estates, opening PEER up as a social, discursive and imaginative space around issues of housing and spatial justice in East London through a constantly changing series of exhibitions, screenings, discussions, readings and workshops. I developed an interactive website A Building Archive and co-coordinated a successful campaign to list Balfron Tower at Grade II*. This work has been exhibited, performed, screened and presented at Tate Modern, Hayward Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery, ICA, Somerset House, De La Warr Pavilion and National Gallery of Lithuania.

Through my collaborative research I completed a PhD in Architectural Design Make Public, which explored the history and future of two east London housing estates undergoing regeneration. I was supervised by Professor Jane Rendell and Professor Ben Campkin, won a RIBA President’s Award for Research 2016 and received a High Commendation. My current research for the Bartlett Ethics Commission led by Professor Jane Rendell, seeks to raise awareness, expand understanding, and collectively develop approaches of ethical practice specific to built environment researchers and practitioners. My paper Reflect Critically and Act Fearlessly was commended by the RIBA President’s Awards for Research 2018.

Through my collaborative teaching I work with students to develop creative projects that intervene into a site in order to raise questions and make proposals, initiate independent research into the social relations of architecture, devise situated protocols setting out ethical terms of engagement, and write manifestoes to define what practitioners they seek to become. My BSc, MArch and MA students have thrice won the Bartlett’s Dissertation PrizeTrevor Sprott PrizeFifteen Award, and RIBA Dissertation Medal and my teaching has been nominated and shortlisted by students in awards for Outstanding Teaching 2017, Diverse and Inclusive Education 2018, Exceptional Feedback 2019, Amazing Support Staff, 2020 and Brilliant Research-based Education, 2020.

I am driven by an aspiration to defend welfare state architecture and revive the principles at its foundation.