Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A MONUMENT TO THE WELFARE STATE

The Architects’ website, Building Design Online, has filed a petition to save Robin Hood Gardens, a public housing scheme in East London, from demolition. The main champion for pulling it down is the Culture Minister, Margaret Hodge. She thinks those who find artistic value in architecture might like to engage with buildings via an online archive instead of a real building. Quite why anybody thought such a ministry should ever be filled by as an arrant a philistine as Ms Hodge is beyond me.



Robin Hood Gardens was designed by the Team 10 architects Alison and Peter Smithson. It was opened in the early 1970s, and unlike many contemporary projects, it remains public housing. (As a footnote, it should be noted that there are no proposals to pull down similar concrete tower-blocks, such as Keeling House, which have been bought up and refurbished by private developers, and which are now highly desirable. The Government’s enthusiasm for demolishing RHG can be partly explained by its barely disguised hatred for Council housing.)



We went to visit Robin Hood Gardens on Sunday. We alighted at Canary Wharf, spent a little time eating a picnic in the shopping mall next to the tube station, then made our way north-east towards the Blackwall Tunnel and RHG itself. Anybody visiting the estate from this direction will immediately be struck by the antagonism between the buildings of Canary Wharf and Canada Square, and the housing estates nearby. The skyscrapers in the business district have a glassy, metallic tang, a chest-beating aggression. They preside over an area in which the elite look down from their priapic towers and survey those on whom their profits depend, the people who stand passively in the shadows of these obscene buildings, shop and drink cocktails.



When one first sees Robin Hood Gardens from the A1261, it immediately exudes a brooding silence. There it stands, gravely ignoring its mightier, brasher neighbours in the south. It is undeniably a remarkable structure and is generally recognised as the great practical example of Brutalism – gigantic slabs of raw concrete separated by vast, uninterrupted lines of gridded windows, with only the stairwell panels providing a diagonal retreat from the building’s endless orthogonal lines. It is actually two buildings, both of which curve slightly to enclose a lawn with two large tumuli. It is like a cathedral in that it inspires reverence, but to people who don’t live there it is not exactly likeable.



The failures of housing programmes such as Robin Hood Gardens (and, historically, Trellick Tower in Ladbroke Grove which, for all its clean, graceful modernism, lacks the sheer brute force of RHG) has been both structural and social.

Whatever its utopian roots (the provision of “streets in the air,” proud communities for the proletariat), RHG looks unloved and shabby today. The reinforced concrete, which was never coated, has become stained and weathered ; inadequate cladding and the accumulation of water on flat roofs leads to leaks and flooding ; the lawn is unkempt and sterile, though the playground was well-used by local children, even on this chilly March afternoon ; the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel roars nearby, and the local community has become something of a desert, swallowed up by the commercial developments nearby. The local authority, perennially strapped for cash, has not been able to refurbish it or patch up the concrete as private developers have done with Keeling House.



Socially, the failures of RHG and other similar estates are indicative of the problem of social housing in the UK. Originally, slab and point housing blocks were created as part of the post-war slum clearance programme. The poorest and most vulnerable (physically, economically and socially) people, previous slum-dwellers, were placed there, which in turn meant that wealthier residents moved out of the area. Investment dropped, properties became hard to let, high void rates meant that Council did not have cash to invest, and so the vicious cycle continued. Neither right to buy nor choice-based lettings has changed the fundamental fact that a lack of social housing means that only the most vulnerable get social housing.

While the Government, buoyed by its close links with the building industry, is gung-ho about knocking the scheme down, the people who live there appear to rather like it. Here's Shirley Magnitsky, a minicab controller who has lived at RHG for more than a decade:

“Look out my kitchen window, what do you see? Trees, grass, very pleasant surroundings. It’s a great place to live, absolutely. This is the most peaceful part of the borough with plenty of facilities. The homes are run down because the council won’t spend money on them. This is a prime spot. That’s why they want to build 3,000 more homes here. The whole thing is about location and money.”

And while detractors criticise its exterior, the interior of the split maisonettes (bedrooms downstairs, living facilities upstairs) are spacious, have generous balconies and large windows, and enjoy superb views of the city.



Ms Magnitsky is right: this is about location and money. It is also about whose hands money will be held, and to whom it will flow. The successes of Keeling House and Trellick Tower (where sustained local authority attention has kept a thriving estate in public hands) mean that Brutalist blocks are not lost causes. Indeed, Robin Hood Gardens has the foundations to be a great success story. If the government is willing to fund the refurbishment of high-density public housing such as this, schemes like RHG (both existing and new-build) could be the answers to the government's and the public's prayers. If it remains stubbornly wedded to the conservatism of low-density private developments, the housing shortage in the south will grow ever more acute, and we will be left with an architectural heritage of so many Noddy houses.

The choice is yours - the petition is here.

1 Comments:

Anonymous mella said...

Interesting post!

12:45 PM  

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