An Icon Reborn
‘An Icon Reborn’ the words stencilled onto hoarding near Blackwall Station.
The Robin Hood Gardens estate in Poplar, East-London, was a common feature of architecture enthusiasts’ to-see lists. Its name circulated in the company of British architecture that was co-opted by aesthetes, such as the Balfron Tower or the Brunswick Centre, and took-on an iconic status that ran parallel to its original purpose. Designed by the influential British architects Alison and Peter Smithson and completed in 1972, the estate was built during a government-supported housing drive after the Second World War. Intended to improve the country’s housing and push towards a ‘New Britain’, the post-war period saw the demolition of slums and the erection of high-rises and estates. In this climate of mass-produced housing – which commonly used standardised parts and exercised a Fordist rationale – Robin Hood Gardens became a symbol of an alternative approach to providing homes. A bedfellow of projects like the late Neave Brown’s Alexandra Road Estate, the Smithson’s design showcased a mode of building which sought to imbue high-density housing with the neighbourly qualities that were absent in tower blocks.
Today, however, if you visit the estate it is for a different reason. After its demolition began late last year, the Smithsons’ innovative spirit is gone and the architecture is fast disappearing with it. When I went there in mid-January, the site was noticeably transformed from the archival photographs that I had seen in the past. I recall one in particular, taken just after the estate’s construction, which featured children playing in the green space enclosed by the estate’s two housing blocks. On my visit, however, there were few people: just a couple of joggers who had also come to look around.
At the centre of the estate there is a small hill; when standing on it, you can survey the whole site. What you see is a grim (de)construction site. Bright orange hoarding envelops the western block and diggers shift the rubble from the part which has already been demolished. The acoustic barriers which surround large parts of the estate – part of the noise-reducing design – have taken on the character of an Alcatraz-style concrete wall. Stencilled onto them is the logo of ‘Blackwall Reach’, the name of the new development being constructed in the area. The site of Robin Hood Gardens will be consumed by the development, becoming ‘Parkside East’ and ‘Parkside West’ when the £300 million project is complete. According to the Swan Housing Association website, their new development will comprise 1,500 new homes with 679 of them being classed as affordable. Together, Parkside East and West will provide 621 of the total houses – over double the number contained within the Smithson’s original design.
But this increase in housing is likely to be bittersweet for the original residents of the estate. In her book, Big Capital: Who is London For? (2017), the journalist and academic, Anna Minton, highlights the ambivalence of the ‘affordable housing’ notion in the contemporary housing market. She cites Boris Johnson’s 2013 ‘London Plan’ which redefined ‘affordable rent’ as up to 80 percent of market value, and the 2016 Housing and Planning Act which qualified Starter Homes costing up to £450,000 as affordable housing. Therefore, although ‘affordable housing’ is a promise written into the developer’s plans, these policies undermine its assumed meaning. Certainly, though, it is not a synonym for ‘social housing’ – the original rubric that Robin Hood Gardens was constructed under.
When the demolition of the estate was approved on 15 March 2012 by Tower Hamlets council, it marked the end of an acrimonious campaign to save the estate that had begun in 2009. In the years leading up to the decision, the combination of poor maintenance and design flaws in the architecture had resulted in the Smithsons’ intentions of neighbourliness descending into hostility. Although the council used this to justify the regeneration of the estate – a trend which is widely being practised throughout the capital – the residents wanted to remain. In fact, according to an article by Will Hurst in Building Design from June 2009, a resident-initiated survey suggested that nearly 80 percent of the residents of the eastern block wanted the estate to be refurbished rather than demolished.
In addition to the residents’ concerns, the plans for demolition – and Historic England’s decision not to list the estate – attracted the attention of conservation groups. The Twentieth Century Society, one of Britain’s premier heritage groups for modern architecture, were instrumental in efforts to preserve the estate. Their campaign attracted the support of leading architectural figures including Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry.
On their website, the society features a ‘Lost Modern’ list, a kind of honour roll for British architecture that conservation efforts have failed to preserve. The list currently features ten buildings that have been demolished, including a variety of civic buildings, private and social housing and even a Sainsbury’s supermarket. Writing about the buildings, the Twentieth Century Society’s Director, Caroline Croft, says: ‘these buildings are a valuable legacy which add to the richness of the fabric of our architectural heritage and the best examples should be safeguarded for future generations.’ Now that the demolition is underway at Robin Hood Gardens, it occupies the top-spot on the list, a definite symbol of its position in the consciousness of those wanting to maintain Britain’s modernist heritage.
But to what extent should the safeguarding of architectural heritage trump the need to bolster Britain’s housing stock? The actions of the Victoria and Albert Museum are an interesting response to the issue. In 2008, Mark Jones, the then director of the museum, declined to participate in the Building Design magazine campaign to save the estate. The news in November 2017, then, the museum had announced plans to salvage a three-storey section from the western block of the estate, comprising the exterior facades and interiors of a maisonette flat, was an unexpected turn. Quoted on the museum’s website, Dr Christopher Turner, the Keeper of the Design, Architecture and Digital Department, echoed Caroline Croft, describing the estate as an ‘important piece of Brutalism, worth preserving for future generations. It is also an object that will stimulate debate around architecture and urbanism today – it raises important questions about the history and future of housing in Britain, and what we want from our cities.’
The Robin Hood Gardens Estate, Poplar, January 2018
While Turner is correct in suggesting that the estate raises important questions, the museum’s actions in light of the demolition raise important questions too. A crucial one being: who is architecture being preserved for? In Preservation is Overtaking Us (2014) the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas highlights the shrinking gap between a building’s construction and its attention by preservationists. ‘We are living,’ he writes, ‘in an incredibly exciting and slightly absurd moment, namely that preservation is overtaking us.’ In the case of Robin Hood Gardens, the debates about its preservation as a landmark – if you search it on Google Maps, it is listed as a ‘historical landmark’ – appear to have oftentimes eclipsed its importance as a housing estate (i.e. where people were living, and in the case of the eastern block, still do).
The V&A’s last-minute intervention makes clear their belief that the estate should have been retained for its architectural merit and safeguarded for ‘future generations’. Certainly, by museumizing a small fragment of the architecture, the V&A has succeeded in preserving the Smithsons’ ideas about housing. However, this appears to be merely a souvenir gathering exercise: the museum’s concern is not for the dispossessed individuals and families living on the estate. So where do the residents of modern architectural ‘icons’ fit? A consideration for the residents featured in the Twentieth Century Society’s campaign. At one point – when it seemed possible – they supported the idea of refurbishment, rather than demolition. Sarah Wigglesworth Architects even collaborated on a book published by the Twentieth Century Society in 2010 which featured plans for how a refurbishment could be implemented. This third way would have retained much of the original architecture and sympathetically adapted it to increase the density of the site.
But this proposition was ultimately futile due to English Heritage’s decision not to list the estate and Tower Hamlet’s desires for its regeneration. Underlying the division between regeneration and conservation is the pragmatic argument: as Tower Hamlets is the second-most densely populated borough in London (according to the ONS statistics for 2016) should estate regenerations like Blackwall Reach be encouraged, or is the sacrifice of Britain’s architectural heritage an unfair trade-off? The consolation for the loss of the estate’s architecture would have been the increased number of homes and new facilities offered at Blackwall Reach. But if the uncertain definition of ‘affordable homes’ that Minton references affect the new dwellings constructed there, the regeneration will be a lose-lose situation for both the residents and conservationists. Not only will the estate have been lost from Britain’s architectural heritage, but many of those who lived there will be dispossessed.
The failed campaign to safeguard Robin Hood Gardens and its redevelopment are indicative of a trend which is likely to amplify in future years. As the capital’s population continues to grow, and its density is forced to increase, more conversations about what constitutes Britain’s architectural heritage will arise. At the core of these debates will be the question of which buildings to keep and why to keep them; and they will result in evaluating what is more important: heritage or pragmatism. When you leave the DLR at Blackwall station, you are met with an edifice of orange hoarding. On it, are the words ‘An Icon Reborn’. But for conservationists, the iconic qualities will have left the site when the last piece of rubble of the Smithsons’ estate is carted off. And for the residents, this cycle of re-birth is one that excludes them.