What the destruction of Robin Hood Gardens says about London's housing crisis

What the destruction of Robin Hood Gardens says about London's housing crisis

Published 23rd May 2018
Credit: κύριαsity/Flickr, CC BY-NC
Written by Peter St John
Peter St John is a partner at Caruso St John Architects. Alongside Adam Caruso and Marcus Taylor, he is a curator of "Island," the exhibition commissioned by the British Council for the British Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Biennale. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.
It will be poignant to see parts of the former Robin Hood Gardens housing estate on display at this year's Venice Biennale. The way it was built, especially the coarse texture of its concrete facades, was always very powerful to me, more a rock face than a system building.
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Before demolition finished earlier this year, many architects -- myself included -- campaigned passionately for it to be listed as an important structure and saved, but it wasn't enough. The decision, delivered in 2012, came at a time when an immense volume of market-driven private housing was being built in London. How mean and ordinary it all seems compared to the social vision of many architects working within the welfare state in the 1960s and 1970s.
A pedestrian walks past Robin Hood Gardens in March 2012. That year, Tower Hamlets Council slated the building for demolition. Credit: Bloomberg via Getty Images
The architects of Robin Hood Gardens -- Alison and Peter Smithson, partners in work and life -- were the leading architectural thinkers of their generation in the UK, from a period when architects struggled to humanize the organization of the high-density housing estate. They built relatively few buildings, and Robin Hood Gardens, completed in 1972, was one of their most enduring works.
The Smithsons' ability to formulate ideas, write beautiful books, and then bring their concepts into reality made them the closest equivalent to the visionary Le Corbusier this country has ever seen. They were instrumental in turning British architecture in the 1950s and 1960s away from the generic modernism prevalent at that time, towards a more tailored, regional response.
Architects Alison and Peter Smithson at work in 1961. Credit: Davies/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Their designs and the priorities they brought to the forefront (over and above the modernist obsession with mass-production) were extremely influential. They introduced, for example, the concept of deck access housing, "streets in the sky" where you could walk horizontally at high level to your front door, which they believed would encourage socializing between residents. At the time, it was a socially progressive alternative to the tower block with central lifts. Although it was widely copied, Robin Hood Gardens was the only building the Smithsons' managed to build with this idea.
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I discussed Robin Hood Gardens with students on many occasions. (Indeed, the Smithsons' work has always held a fascination with architects.) There was always a good discussion after their visits to the estate, a living warning that an architect's social idealism and aesthetic intentions mean little if the building is not properly managed.
The widely reported social problems for tenants living in Robin Hood Gardens, as well as the high cost of the refurbishment it needed, were the reasons given for the decision to demolish it. These are perfectly valid reasons from the perspective of a cash-strapped local authority. Just as important a factor however, was the financial value of the site, near one of London's financial cores, and the possibility of erecting a much denser redevelopment, where flats for sale will subsidize a reduced element of socially rented housing retained by the local council.
General view of the Robin Hood Gardens, Poplar, London where a campaign is currently underway to save the buildings from demolition. (Photo by Matthew Lloyd - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images) Credit: Matthew Lloyd/PA Images via Getty Images
This is a process of densification and gentrification, along with the weakening of influence of councils as housing providers, that is going on everywhere in central London. Robin Hood Gardens was sadly caught up in this process.
A parallel story was the poor effort from English Heritage, the statutory body responsible for the protection of old buildings, to the campaign to save this important piece of architecture. Of course, with some public subsidy the building could have been refurbished, the tenant mix could have been changed and the estate better managed, and it could have been made into a very popular place to live in east London.
A close look at the concrete facade of Robin Hood Gardens. Credit: Jack Taylor/Getty Images Europe
Historic England is good at standing up for pre-modern buildings, but not for modernist ones. They were not willing to burden the local council with the responsibility of looking after the building by designating it a listed building. In this case they were behind the times. In fact, brutalism has become increasingly popular with the public, particularly the younger generation, who are not afraid of concrete and identify with its optimism, its lack of fussiness and its careful planning of flats and social spaces.
It is important that the best architectural examples of this period are preserved, not least for the socially generous ideas that they represent.
"Robin Hood Gardens: A Ruin in Reverse" will be presented by the Victoria and Albert Museum and La Biennale di Venezia at the Pavilion of Applied Arts from May 26 to Nov. 25, 2018.
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