The Brutalist Truth

This post was written by Dave on May 24, 2009
Posted Under: Communities,East London

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.

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Reader Comments

julia

This is a fascinating and moving piece — I was particularly interested the connection with Constructivism as I was pleased to have caught the Rodchenko exhibition at the Tate Modern the day before it closed. There is too little discussion on the left about art, architecture and the hopes and dreams of those who work to create an environment that’s fit for human beings old and young, and the history is in danger of getting lost. Thanks for this contribution.

#1 
Written By julia on May 24th, 2009 @ 5:30 pm
Dave

A further point of possible interest… thethirdestate.net ‘iconic’ logo in the top right corner is a picture of the Robin Hood Gardens estate.

#2 
Written By Dave on May 25th, 2009 @ 7:32 pm
jeanette

Unfortunately we live in a state that is run by the higher classes who think they know what is best for the common good of all. Have I got news for them ………….what possible life experiences have they got from living in their over priced Georgian mansions with their butlers and hired help!!! Lets not even go to there misuse of funds for personal expenses……….. Anyway before we know where we are these highly “qualified” people will be deciding that actually, like any true sci-fi movie, houses will be built from the bottom down………….into the depths of gods knows where. What then will happen to the green leaves of that poor sorry little tree???
As for pubs, well don’t even get me started on the blatent destruction of them across Britain. Do people not realise that mental health is on the increase, in part due to peoples innate needs not being met. One of the most fundamental things we all need is community contact and how did we get this? We got this through the community spirit of pubs. Poor Grandad Sid, Great Uncle Ern and myself will be rattling around in that wonderland in the sky in the future suffering from depression caused by where our community life has gone.

#3 
Written By jeanette on May 26th, 2009 @ 5:35 pm
Oodah

At long last, attention paid to social housing by someone with a heart.
Since the “sell-off of council housing” it’s as if housing has been invisible as a political concern (apart from “getting on the ladder” and eating up green belts” of course). Why has there been such scant attention paid to this the most fundamental of people’s human needs – shelter, safety and security (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs)? Maslow also opined that higher needs, like an opportunity to unfold well, privacy to reflect and consolidate life experiences and self-actualisation cannot be met if lower needs are not. And so with poor housing we commit people to lives of mental and (because they are so linked) physical illness and the improbability of being able to put “meaning” in their lives.
Thank you Dave for an article with warmth and one that gives hope that people with an interest in politics on the left, and jobs in the business like you, will focus on Mrs. So and So’s local environment and her house. It was “probably a first” that someone like you asked those two men what it was that they wanted. Cheers

#4 
Written By Oodah on May 26th, 2009 @ 5:42 pm
Will Brambley

A great article, and I agree with almost all of it. Except the last sentence. Developing a housing system “top-down” can work if it’s done right. The problem seems to be that these aren’t.

One particular thing this reminded me off was Bryanston Square, a group of people who try to create schools (as in the actual buildings, primarily) that encourage learning better. It’s a similar idea applied to education as Le Corbusier’s was to housing, though from my limited understanding it seems to have been far more successful.

While growing things organically can work very well, often with forethought and planning you can create things that work even better in practice. Though it does need to be designed while strongly thinking about how people will use it, and – the difficult part – it needs to be right in how it is thought people will use it.

#5 
Written By Will Brambley on May 27th, 2009 @ 3:10 am
#6 
Written By Paddy on July 29th, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

Interesting post—catching the main dilemmas. I wrote about this building a while back, and if you want, I could get you in touch with erect architecture, you’ll see why that might be of interest (I suppose you might not) if you go to: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/opticon1826/archive/issue1/easystreet.pdf
if you do read it, just a quick errata: p. 2 should read ‘public stairwell’ not ‘pubic stairwell’—god is in the details.

#7 
Written By Nick Beech on August 11th, 2009 @ 2:36 pm
Luis Diaz

Two problems with the debate over Robin Hood Gardens which are rarely addressed. 1) The question of ‘failure’ is never adequately defined or justified. Is the project a failure because it did not forsee the way in which housing would be treated by future regimes? Is the housing a failure due objective criteria which we can identify and agree upon? Is it a failure simply because its form is wrong? Is such a thing possible? The question of failure has been addressed by various historians (Forty, Summerson) yet too many commentators speak with authority on the issue without ever engaging with the serious problematics of the question of ‘failure. 2) Let’s agree this project has failed. Is the solution to tear it down and start again? Isn’t this what got us in this predicament in the first place? Why is adaptation never taken seriously? One reason: housing has been a political toy since at least the 19th century (e.g. Victorian moral reform housing) and the messages sent by construction and destruction are more important than material analysis of any project and material proposals for making things better.
I’ll add a third problem – the idea that we can ‘know’ how people intend or want to use spaces. In polar opposition (but equally problematic) to authoritarian decision making is the idea that democratic processes can achive some notion of ‘correctness’ or ‘truth.’

#8 
Written By Luis Diaz on December 6th, 2009 @ 5:40 pm
Roger Woodward

Fascinating article. How did either planners or architects ever believe something described as Brutalism would be viewed as an attractive environment? Decades before this was built, concrete faced buildings were popularly dismissed as ugly.

It’s almost impossible to predict what is going to be successful, so boldness and risk taking are excusable. But this was predictably unsuccessful, in terms of providing a homely environment.

#9 
Written By Roger Woodward on January 12th, 2010 @ 10:00 pm

Its funny how these brutalist buildings although created as social housing have in several succesful instances fallen into the hands of the rich elite. For instance one sees Lasdun’s Keeling house in Bethnal green turned into a swanky residence.

Shame is that underneath all the grime and neglect, Robin Hood gardens is an amazing building.

Tragically, it is part of our heritage which will be deemed just as important as other phases of architecture.But quality is for the rich. Lets not let the social underclass share it?? Bring out the bulldozer not the restoration team???

#10 
Written By jon on June 5th, 2010 @ 10:19 am
John Kyle

Government zoning, construction, and stewardship is not organic. Hence its problems.

A corollary: people need some control over their environment for the good of their own mental health. Id est, government planning is anethma to the human spirit.

#11 
Written By John Kyle on June 7th, 2010 @ 7:09 am
John Kyle

Rather, government planning is anathema to the human spirit.

#12 
Written By John Kyle on June 7th, 2010 @ 7:11 am
Dave

It’s worth noting that the ‘brut’ of brutalism refers to the French for ‘raw’ and is not directly derived from the English ‘brutal’.

Other than that, I think everything wrong with these buildings is incidental to the buildings themselves, rather than inherent in them. There are many worse buildings out there that are not dysfunctional in this way – in fact, the architects did a good job, if not a perfect one.

The change in attitude that makes us ask questions like this is what’ll make a difference. If we don’t change the way we treat the people who live there, rebuilding will merely paper over the cracks.

#13 
Written By Dave on June 7th, 2010 @ 11:23 am
Nick2

Dave, interesting article on the Peckham estate. However, what is the building shown in thethirdestate’s site header? That appears to take Brutalism/Modernism/distopian architecture to a new level…

#14 
Written By Nick2 on July 27th, 2010 @ 8:41 am
Laura Lockington

Hi, I was wondering if you knew of a pub called The Robin Hood that my grandparents owned in that area? Their names were Matilda (Till) and William Deering. It would have been from teh 30′s I guess till the early sixties….

#15 
Written By Laura Lockington on November 10th, 2010 @ 10:22 am
Dave

Swan Housing has been shortlisted to regenerate Robin Hood Gardens. Below is a link to a web site regarding Swan Housing.

http://swanhousingdissatisfied.blogspot.com/

#16 
Written By Dave on November 28th, 2010 @ 11:45 pm

God help these people if Swan Housing gets this project.
Its Seems that Swan Housing Association is a disgraceful social landlord (RSL), see a catolugue of Swan housing blunders and unbelievable Swan horror stories on this blog that tenants have to contend with here http://swanhousingdissatisfied.blogspot.com.

#17 
Written By George on December 8th, 2010 @ 12:17 am
James

The author started to loose me when he blamed “Tory cuts”, as if he has a batural right to stel other peoples miney
He of course renders the article totally irrelevant when he further starts talking about socislism from the bottom up. A dead and buried destructive and thieving philosophy.
What a shame, this could have been a useful article

#18 
Written By James on November 30th, 2012 @ 8:10 am

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