It was quietly announced last week that the Minister for Culture, Andy Burnham MP, is to uphold English Heritage’s initial recommendation that the Robin Hood Gardens estate in Poplar, East London, should not be listed.
Robin Hood Gardens means little to those who don’t live there and is, alas, held in even less regard by those who do. As a community organiser in East London, my first week on the job took me back to the corner of Poplar High Street and Robin Hood Lane, where the estate now stands, in an attempt to solicit and then organise residents’ concerns over its coming foreclosure. “Them fuckin’ pricks who built it wanna try n live hear mate,” I remember one man saying to me. Another gentleman, a Somali man of very little English, simply gave me a thumbs down.
I remember being aghast at that the time that the architectural magazine Building Design was launching a campaign to save such a monstrosity. As a gap year student trying to reconcile my youth, my politics and my libido in Havana, I too had had the dubious pleasure of once living in a great Stalinist concrete slab. I remember sitting there one evening, 30°C of glorious sunshine, a vi ew golden tobacco fields below, and thinking… what a pile of shit. What kind of ideology builds this? The answer: a noble one.
Completed in 1972, Robin Hood Gardens was supposed to be to the crown jewel in the East End’s post-war reconstruction. Lacking both the necessary resources and the cultural assurance to justify the use of its traditional forms, British architecture had embarked upon a sociological crusade following the New Towns Act of 1946 – a mood paralleled across the formation of welfare state, with similar acts elsewhere such the Education Act of 1944. Britain was not only to be rebuilt – it was to be reconceived. And along with the nearby Balfron Tower and Carradale House, both of which had just been completed, architects Alison and Peter Smithson sought to build Britain’s answer to Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. Honest, functional, rational: its ‘streets in the sky’ where to engineer in Britain a materialist realisation of the Russian constructivists abstract and then betrayed dreams.
Forty-five years later and Robin Hood Gardens has failed. Please debate any of the above, but it has failed. For all the principled thought and design, it is simply not fit for purpose. And although Tory spending cuts, right-to-buy and ALMOs are no doubt partially to blame, you cannot dare venture, as the Smithson’s contemporary Erno Goldfinger once did, “I built skyscrapers for people to live in there and now they messed them up- disgusting.”
I started by saying ‘took me back’ to the corner of Poplar High Street and Robin Hood Lane – truth be told, I think I had only been there once before. It was to survey what is now just a hollowed out mess adjacent to the municipal car park. There, amongst some grit and a rather sorry attempt at a tree, still stands the visible the remnants of what was once ‘The White Hart’ pub. It was here that my father and his family lived between 1964-1967- one of four or five pubs owned at one time or another by my Grandad Sid and my Great Uncle Ern around the East India Docks. It was demolished to make way for the new estate.
And so, it is with a heavy heart and a certain reluctance that I will soon welcome the end of part of the East End’s, and my family’s, post-war history. Over the past few years, I have come to love and hate Robin Hood Gardens in equal measure. What is undoubtedly so alluring about these buildings is that they attempt to conceive of world which we have not yet built, and then look to transport us there. They are truly rationalist and revolutionary – built in the belief that social architects can turn over a clean page, start afresh, and then conceive of and construct something better out of the ruins of what went before. But unfortunately, like much preplanned revolutionary wholesale change before it, it could not continue to inflict its will upon a people forever. Houses, like socialism, must be built from the bottom up.