Robin Hood Gardens: An estate worth saving?

To some, Robin Hood Gardens is an architectural treasure, to others, it's home. The local council wants to knock it down but resistance is fierce, as Chris Beanland discovers

Christopher Beanland
Friday 24 February 2012 01:00

Robin Hood Gardens' detractors say the place is stuck in a time warp. If you stand at the top of the grassy hill at the centre of this most contentious of London's East End estates you can see why. They don't make flats like this any more. Some consider the brutalist estate in Blackwall to be a significant architectural treasure. The local council, however, does not. It will soon begin tearing the place down.

From this manmade high point, you can see Canary Wharf on one side and Balfron Tower on the other. Balfron's Hungarian architect Erno Goldfinger, got sloshed on gin fizzes with residents in a flat on the top floor in the 1960s; a pointed gesture to demonstrate that council estates were classless. Now places like these have fallen from favour.

"I used to sledge down this hill as a kid," says Darren Pauling, who's lived in his flat in Robin Hood Gardens for 14 years. "I've grown to love this building and I'd be sad to see it go." He didn't always feel this way. "I had reservations when I was offered the flat – the estate had a bad reputation then."

Robin Hood Gardens is an artefact of black-and-white Britain; a more communal era where a higher proportion of us lived in council housing. The two snaking concrete blocks will face the wrecking ball because Tower Hamlets council and the developers Swan want to build 1,000 flats for sale and 700 as "social housing" in a £300m scheme.

They say the blocks are worn out. They're right – chunks of cladding have come off and the 40-year-old building is having a mid-life crisis. But that concrete shell invites you to run your hands over its textures. The building was designed by married couple Alison and Peter Smithson. It still possesses the power to shock, however, not everyone agrees with the council's prescription.

"It has the potential to be refurbished," says Catherine Croft, director of the 20th Century Society. "Demolition would be an enormous waste of materials and the obliteration of an important chapter of our architectural history."

"I didn't know about 'streets in the sky' until I came here," says Darren Pauling. "They're so wide," he gestures expansively. In 1972 this was a world away from the crummy, system-built flats such as nearby Ronan Point, which famously partially fell down when cake decorator Ivy Hodge lit a match, caused an explosion, and blew out the building's half-baked load-bearing walls.

No amount of lionising of the Smithsons' progressive philosophy or the sheer sculptural drama of the building can disguise the tenants' current problems. "The flat's too small. I've got a family and my father living with me," 20-year-old Monsur Rahman tells me. "I've lived here all my life." Rahman's father was from Bangladesh, as are a sizeable proportion of the residents.

"This project continues to place Tower Hamlets at the forefront of social housing," says the borough's mayor Lutfur Rahman, who is keen to point out that the amount of social housing on the site will grow. Owen Hatherley, author of A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, takes issue: "Social housing is weasel wording. It can mean anything from housing association to shared ownership to studio flats."

So what if the council flat you've bought is due to be knocked down? Homeowners on the estate will, the council says, get market value, a 10 per cent "loss payment", help with relocation fees, and the opportunity to buy a flat in the new Blackwall Reach towers. "It's short-sighted and unimaginative, a solution deeply compromised by largely financial parameters," says Catherine Croft grimly. The council and the developers were less keen to go on record. One source on that side told me: "You don't hear architects accepting that the estate suffers from design failings." But architect Jonathan Sergison, who is campaigning against the demolition, says his colleagues should refuse to work on the divisive redevelopment.

Tower Hamlets' council offices are across the road from the estate, beyond the choking river of traffic going into the Blackwall Tunnel. Apartments ring Poplar and Blackwall – pie-and-mash places that look increasingly out of kilter with dashing Docklands. Hatherley says rents are likely be higher in the new development. Sale prices vary wildly here: a two-bed, ex-local authority flat in Carmichael House, five minutes from Robin Hood Gardens, is on at £210,000. Five minutes the other way, a two-bedroom penthouse at New Providence Wharf costs £2.5m.

Darren Pauling tells me he believes the consultation process was a sham. He says a sizeable number of tenants oppose the redevelopment. Tower Hamlets counters: "The majority of residents who provided feedback support the redevelopment." Croft disagrees: "I'm convinced that most residents would ideally like to have their homes comprehensively refurbished."

An extravagant four-decade experiment in a new way of living seems all but over, with Alison and Peter Smithson's utopian dreams on the rocks. Attention is focused on Robin Hood Gardens now because it signals that a chapter in Britain's housing history is coming to a close. Monsur Rahman sighs: "There's been a lot of journalists and photographers round here lately," and heads off to the shops.

Brutalist estates: Left to Rot or redeveloped?

Park Hill, Sheffield

Listed by English Heritage and redeveloped by Urban Splash, Sheffield's brutalist Park Hill has been given a second bite of the cherry. Re-clad in garish chocolate wrapper colours, many flats here are now for sale, starting at £90,000 for a one-bed. But an exodus of council tenants has led to accusations of social cleansing.

Hulme Crescents, Manchester

They were supposed to evoke the regal crescents of Bath, but shoddy 1970s construction damned Hulme's four superblocks from the start. The Crescents took on a life of their own, nurturing alternative culture, anarchism, and the post-punk and acid house music scenes, before being razed in the 1990s.

Heygate, Elephant & Castle, London

The demolition of the Heygate Estate is part of Southwark Council's plan to redevelop the whole Elephant & Castle with apartment blocks and Continental boulevards. Critics say the place needs sprucing up, but locals counter that the Heygate, and the Elephant's infamous modernist shopping centre is distinctive.

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