When Peter and Alison Smithson designed Robin Hood Gardens in the 60s it was to be their embodiment of brutalism’s utopian vision. It was an attempt at high quality, social housing at a time when London desperately needed it. One of the ideas at the heart of their plan was ‘streets in the sky’: an attempt to hold on to the communities that the new construction was replacing. The estate’s location meant it became a contradiction; social housing in the shadow of Canary Wharf, concrete next to polished glass, the post-war vision of Britain juxtaposed with the rampant capitalism of 21st Century London.
So maybe it was doomed to fail. Over the years it fell victim to vilification in the press; the stigma attached to “sink estates” and the slow erosion of social housing meant that estates like Robin Hood Gardens didn’t stand a chance. The estate is in the middle of its ‘redevelopment’ as it is torn down and a new high-value, high-density replacement is erected in its place, with no lead on how many flats will be genuinely affordable.
The decision to pull down Robin Hood Gardens was a controversial one, and the debate over the estate’s future took a long time to reach a conclusion. Architectural heavyweights like Lord Rogers and Zaha Hadid fought the estate’s corner, publicly supporting the 20th Century Society’s attempt to get the building listed. Most of the debate about the impending demolition focused on the architectural legacy of the Smithsons, rather than on the lives of the residents. Speaking about the campaign they ran, the 20th Century Society’s director, Catherine Croft, said their campaign was about more than just the building itself: “We campaign to keep things we think are architecturally and historically interesting, but we totally recognise that with large public housing buildings that there’s no way that they can have a future unless they can provide good quality housing for future tenants.”
For Croft, Robin Hood Gardens hit that sweet spot. “We got a housing specialist to come and look at the building with us, and we spent a lot of time talking to the residents and we were convinced that it wasn’t only architecturally incredibly exciting and interesting but it was actually providing really appropriate housing.” The obvious question is why, while rents soar and the housing crisis continues, is this building being torn down? “The desperation to provide more housing has meant that they’ve taken an estate that was designed with enormous care and with enormous desire to provide really high quality living conditions with outdoor space and they’re cramming a lot more people on to that site” says Croft. “It’s sheer numbers and the economics of it that have done for it.”
In an attempt to move away from this focus on Robin Hood Gardens as an architectural landmark and not as a home to actual people, photographer Kois Miah set out to photograph the residents and tell their stories. Working with him was Nick Thoburn, a senior lecturer in sociology from the University of Manchester. They began the project to change the conversation about the estate. “The debate has been framed by a cliché, endlessly repeated, that Robin Hood Gardens is either a ‘concrete monstrosity’ to be demolished or a Brutalist masterpiece to be saved,” says Thoburn. “Both sides of this cliché tend either to marginalise or denigrate the people who actually live there.” This approach had led to a standoff between developers and conservationists, with neither position doing enough to consider the needs of the people who had made Robin Hood Gardens their home: “Either residents were to be saved from Robin Hood or Robin Hood Gardens was to be saved from its residents.”
While the debate raged, the rights to redevelop Robin Hood Gardens was won by Swan Housing, an Essex-based organisation with a less-than-perfect record. In the years since they won this contract, Swan have deservedly had some bad press. They’ve been accused of sending thugs round to the legendary George Tavern in East London to force the owners out. The Housing and Communities Agency, the industry regulator, found Swan guilty of claiming government money they weren’t yet entitled to so Swan could “enhance its reputation.” The report, which came out in 2012, was pretty damning and included the HCA admitting that “the regulator has significant concerns about the strength of the internal control environment at Swan.” Two years after this report came out, and six months before the HCA said they’d cleaned up their act, the Mayor of London’s office gave Swan extra money to speed up their work at Robin Hood Gardens. Thoburn was understandably reluctant to comment too much on the behaviour of Swan Housing but according to him, “residents have experienced significant rises in rents and utility bills on transferring from Robin Hood Gardens into Swan schemes.”
“The debate has been framed by a cliché, endlessly repeated, that Robin Hood Gardens is either a ‘concrete monstrosity’ to be demolished or a Brutalist masterpiece to be saved. Both sides of this cliché tend either to marginalise or denigrate the people who actually live there” – Nick Thoburn
Residents have been kicked out of their homes and moved into more expensive replacements, with no choice over rents and no chance of getting council housing like Robin Hood again. In the early days of the redevelopment process, Tower Hamlets council consulted with the residents to find out what they wanted. According to the resulting document, 95 per cent of residents wanted to remain in council housing (in the council’s own words, “the vast majority of existing tenants want both redevelopment and council housing”). They also went on to add that the “consultation has … raised the anxiety levels of the local community.” Not that surprising, really.
With the residents dead against the plan that was chosen, and Swan finding themselves in trouble during that time, why has the whole redevelopment gone ahead? Jessie Brennan is an artist who, over the last few years, has worked closely with residents of Robin Hood Gardens and produced a number of works on the estate. In her book Regeneration! Conversations, Drawings, Archives & Photographs from Robin Hood Gardens, she told the story of Abdul Kalam, a Robin Hood Gardens resident. For him, this was about who belongs in East London now: “when mates sit down, what we say is ‘they are basically driving the poor people out.’ … It’s not racism – it’s more about wealth. ‘We don’t want you here ‘cause you don’t belong here anymore.’”
Brennan has produced a number of artworks and as well as a book about the process, all produced in collaboration with the estate’s residents. She decided to get involved because of what the Robin Hood Gardens redevelopment was a symbol of. “The planned demolition doesn’t merely sweep away an entire social housing estate, it is symbolic of a wider attack by successive government policy: the ideological attack on council homes, and the actual dismantling of public housing.” We’re living through a time when government ministers can call for housing quality controls to be scrapped, we’re told that we should settle for tiny flats and rocketing rents. The Smithson’s flawed but brave utopia, embodied by Robin Hood Gardens, is a long way away now.
Follow Jack Stanley on Twitter here @JackOStanley