We left Robin Hood Gardens in limbo last week. In 2008, Tower Hamlets Council had voted for its demolition. Its supporters – primarily architects excited by its founding vision but also campaigners for social housing – mobilised to save it.
Much of the architectural case appears to me somewhat self-referential – an argument about the ‘iconic’ status of the buildings and ‘seminal’ role of the Smithsons with – in many, though not all, of the contributions – little regard for the lived reality of the estate for those who inhabited it.
It’s perhaps unfair to select the most egregious example of this approach but Stephen Bayley does, in my view, deserve special mention. He wrote: (1)
Robin Hood Gardens suffered from the start with a singular lack of commodity and firmness. Worse, the unintelligent housing policies of Tower Hamlets populated Robin Hood Gardens with the tenants the least likely to be able to make sensible use of the accommodation. You have to whisper it but the Unité d’Habitation works because it is populated by teachers, psychologists, doctors, designers, not by single mothers struggling with buggies
Aaah, social housing made safe for the professional middle classes – what a vision! In fact, to be fair to the Smithsons, they designed the estate very much with mothers in mind. Perhaps it’s just single mothers Bayley objects to though they’re not that common on an estate with a significant Muslim community.
He continued, ‘As Marx asked, does consciousness determine existence or does existence determine consciousness? Or, to put it less correctly, do the pigs make the sty or does the sty make the pigs?’.
This was not only insulting but stupid, given that Marx had concluded very firmly – it was the keystone of his philosophy – that being determined consciousness or, as Bayley might prefer, the sty made the pigs. Not, therefore, a great encomium for Robin Hood Gardens.
More serious commentators, headed by BDonline which has campaigned to save and renovate the estate, made a better case. They pointed out that the poll of tenants was seriously flawed. Residents did want better housing conditions but their dissatisfaction focused on the poor upkeep of the estate and problems of overcrowding – neither of which problems can be blamed on its design.
Another resident conducted his own unofficial poll and concluded firmly that a majority of residents favoured refurbishment and most were wary of the alternatives on offer. Darren Pauling found that out of 140 households surveyed, 130 opposed demolition. (2)
At this point, I’d normally quote residents’ views as evidence – and plenty are available – but in this case, to be honest, they’re likely to offer little better than an anecdotal back-and-forth. The reality is that responses tended to reflect the questions being asked and the choices being offered and often reflected the bias of the questioner.
I’m not claiming, therefore, to offer some definitive judgment but I hope these conclusions are balanced at least.
The residents do generally seem to think that the flats themselves, notwithstanding problems of overcrowding as families grew, are pleasant: (3)
You know what they call this place around here? They call it Alcatraz. At least the people who don’t live in it do. My friends ask ‘How can you live there?’ but they can’t believe how nice it is inside.
I don’t like the outside very much – but once you get inside your own flat it’s really very nice. You’ve got fresh air back and front – either on the street deck or on the balconies.
But the estate as a whole does suffer serious design flaws, agreed by their defenders and acknowledged even by the Smithsons. Those ‘streets in the sky’ never really worked – they were too narrow and placed inhospitably on the outside of the blocks.
The ‘pause places’ never offered even a simulacrum of personal space. Entrances and access points were unattractive.
And then there’s the overall appearance. As Rowan Moore concludes: (4)
Personally, I can see what they brought to make it stand apart from the average estate – presence, dignity, an integrity of concept and detail – but I can also see how, for almost everyone but architecture buffs, such concepts might seem vaporous next to the more obvious truth that it all feels a bit grim.
This has to matter, doesn’t it? And Brutalism doesn’t really need to be quite so ‘brutal’.
Unlike many other much-criticised estates, Robin Hood Gardens never seems to have enjoyed a heyday. It was born into bad times – a period of economic decline in the East End when racist thuggery and racial tensions were rife. This, of course, was not its fault.
And, for all the superficial plausibility of the ‘defensible space’ thesis, the longer history of Robin Hood Gardens does not bear it out. Antisocial behaviour has declined – even as the estate has been run down and its environment declined. Recent reports reveal much less graffiti and far less antisocial behaviour – these appear to have been a generational and social phenomenon rather than one rooted in the estate’s design.
Ironically, the estate’s problems may have reflected less its modernism and more a backward-looking design conception. It was predicated on what had become – even when it opened – an old-fashioned view of working-class sociability.
The street-life it referenced and attempted to resurrect was finished – not killed by the Council or callous planners but superseded by working-class aspirations towards home and family and the relative economic affluence which fostered these. Those that lament this shift should remember that streets and pubs loomed large when home circumstances were fundamentally inhospitable.
In fact, the estate received little architectural acclaim at the time of its construction. It suffered the backlash against high-rise of the day – as did the World’s End Estate in Chelsea completed five years later. When English Heritage controversially rejected the estate’s listing, they concluded that it was neither: (5)
innovative or inﬂuential. The case for historic interest is…lost precisely because the project came so late in this phase of modernist architecture in Britain, without however representing a glorious culmination.
If, as I think, the case for saving Robin Hood Garden is unproven, powerful questions remain about what will replace it. For this, we have glossy brochures and slick websites in abundance to persuade us of the brave new world on offer.
What the £500m Blackwall Reach regeneration project offers is basically more – more housing, more commercial units, more open space and higher density. Up to 1475 new homes will replace the 214 on the current low density estate. In terms of design, however, as critics have argued, it all looks a bit generic.
But though we might feel some cynicism towards this developers’ dream, the context of housing need is Tower Hamlets is compelling. There are 23,400 households on the waiting list of which almost half are designated priority cases and two-fifths are suffering overcrowding. The Council currently has 1500 families placed in temporary accommodation. (6)
In the new scheme, around half the dwellings will be privately-owned and some 35 per cent will remain social rented. The remainder will be shared ownership.
Those social rented homes will be transferred from Council control to the Swan Housing Association. Current council tenants who want to be rehoused in the new scheme are concerned about being transferred to a new landlord. They expect their rents to increase and rights to decrease.
The Council claims that 43 per cent of new homes will be ‘affordable’, of which 80 per cent will be socially rented. There is also improved provision of larger ‘family’ homes of three-bedrooms or more – 429 in all.
Of course, ‘affordability’ is a slippery concept. The Government now defines ‘affordable’ rents as being up to 80 per cent of local market rents. According to Government figures, the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom property in Tower Hamlets in 2013 was £1777 which leaves a supposedly ‘affordable’ rent of £1422. (7)
Back in September 2012, before even the worst excesses of the London housing market, Tower Hamlets calculated that a four-person household would require an income of £48,464 to afford a so-called ‘affordable’ rent on a two-bed property. Median household income in the borough was estimated at £28,199. (8)
Of course, housing benefit is available. As Colin Wiles has argued: (9)
the consequence of this policy is the creation of thousands of new benefit-dependent tenants while the £24bn housing benefit bill will continue to soar. The government has rendered the word affordable meaningless.
That is the reality of Benefits Street and the ‘welfare dependency’ suffered by millions of hard-working families in Britain today.
In conclusion, ‘affordability’ – as we noted in the case of the Aylesbury Estate – is a sorry, dishonest travesty of the term. More homes are needed and there may be a case for social mix. There seems – as things are currently organised – to be a necessity for private capital.
But it’s hard not to feel that all this is a long way away from those very practical municipal dreams which embraced our collective duty to house the least well-off and were driven by need not profit.
Tower Hamlets gave final approval for the demolition of Robin Hood Gardens in March 2012. That demolition began in April 2013. Architects, historians and – most importantly – residents will now have to comment on this modern vision of social housing and assess again how closely reality matches ideals.
(1) Stephen Bayley, ‘You want the brutal truth? Concrete can be beautiful’, The Observer, 2 March 2008
(2) Darren Pauling, ‘I’m sick of concrete jungle creeping up on Robin Hood Gardens’, East London Advertiser, 6 December 2010. See also, Chris Beanland, ‘Robin Hood Gardens: An estate worth saving?’, The Independent, 24 February, 2012
(3) John Furse, The Smithsons at Robin Hood
(4) Rowan Moore, ‘Robin Hood Gardens: don’t knock it…down’, The Observer, 5 December 2010
(5) John Allan, ‘Robin Hood Gardens, Poplar, London’ English Heritage, Conservation Bulletin 59, Autumn 2008
(7) Valuation Office Agency, ‘Private Rental Market Statistics: England Only‘, December 2013
(8) London Borough of Tower Hamlets, ‘Response to Housing Issues‘. 11 September 2012
(9) Colin Wiles, ‘”Affordable housing” does not mean what you think it means‘, The Guardian, 3 February 2014
I’m very grateful to Soraya Smithson and the Smithson Family Collection for allowing me to reproduce Sandra Lousada’s evocative pictures of the estate.