Demolishing unpopular housing estates is simply a way of trying to obliterate the past rather than deal with it
To the rescue of Robin Hood
The fate of Robin Hood Gardens hangs in the balance. In the next few weeks, English Heritage will make its recommendation to culture minister Margaret Hodge on whether the housing estate in Poplar, east London, should be listed.
Listing would certainly save it from demolition - the preferred option of the building's owner, Tower Hamlets Council. The estate, trapped between two roads, is not an easy place to love. Its problems began almost as soon as it was completed in 1972. Instead of being a role model for social housing, as the Smithsons intended, it became a byword for tenant alienation and architectural wilfulness, and also ended the architects' careers.
This is one side of the story, but as a child, Simon Smithson remembers how modern the flats were, how big and light they seemed, and how quickly the estate deteriorated when it failed to hum with jolly Cockney life as his parents had hoped. He also said this week that it was their best building, the culmination of 20 years of work thinking about housing, and the belief that if you cared about design, it would improve people's lives.
Maybe the Smithsons were naive, but many architects agree that, if not a masterpiece, the building is ripe for reassessment, and it is too soon to pull it down.
Now BD is launching a campaign, which starts with persuading the government to list Robin Hood Gardens. This would give it VAT exemption and encourage a developer to come forward. This is not simply because we believe the building is architecturally important. The issue goes far beyond architecture and raises questions about exactly why vast resources are thrown at demolishing buildings simply because they are seen to belong to the unfashionable ideology of a previous era.
We have already seen this with Pimlico School, soon to be knocked down because it does not fit with the government's policy on school renewal, and the same is now happening with housing.
As one would expect from this government, Margaret Hodge believes the newly built Barking town centre in her constituency offers a more hopeful model for the future of British housing than the rugged, generous and light-filled flats at Robin Hood Gardens.
But in her book, Estates: an Intimate History, Lynsey Hamely makes a mockery of the “unimaginative and flimsy rash of new affordable housing” stretching across east London, pointing out that we still haven't learnt from the mistakes of the past. She's right, but neither is the government being challenged on where it wants people to live, and the kind of architecture they should live in. A longer-term ambition to knock some sense into the government's inadequate housing policies is the second strand to BD's campaign.
There is no doubt that in its present state, Robin Hood Gardens is not an easy place to live. But the point is, it could be. And just like Goldfinger's Trellick Tower, Patrick Hodgkinson's Brunswick Centre and Lasdun's Keeling House, it deserves another chance.
To support BD’s campaign for listing the estate, click here to sign our petition which we will present to English Heritage before March 7.