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Robin Hood Gardens estate is a housing project of Tower Hamlets Council and is located at Poplar. It was designed by the renowned architect couple Alison and Peter Smithson in the 1960s. Built in 1972, it has 213 flats that are home to hundreds of people. The Smithsons designed the estate in the modernist Brutalist style that has structures with exposed concrete. Klettner wrote, “Completed in 1972, Robin Hood Gardens is a design very much of the era – incorporating the then much lauded ‘streets in the sky’ concept, with wide landings where people living on higher floors could socialize as if on their doorsteps on the ground.” (Klettner, 2011a). The building had wide balconies which allowed the residents to roam about freely and feel as if they were on the ground floor. The RHG estate comprises of two buildings, one taller than the other. There is a beautiful and massive garden between the two buildings that serves as a playground for children. Also, there is a spacious parking lot. The walls are made of solid concrete and are very strong. Owing to mismanagement and non-maintenance of the property, its condition is deteriorating day by day. There are leakages from the roof, and the concrete is falling apart. Seeing the condition of the buildings it is advisable that the buildings be either renovated or rebuilt. However, according to authorities, the cost of refurbishing is not feasible. So there is no other option other than demolishing the buildings and raising new buildings. On the following pages, we shall read the views of different people and the interpretations.
Robin Hood Gardens estate was initially designed to construct a massive residential building with lots of fresh air, space and pollution free environment. Quoting the Smithsons, Rory O’Callaghan wrote, “The site has been organized to create a ‘stress-free’ central zone, protected from the noise and pressure of the surrounding roads by the building themselves. In this stress-free zone, there is no vehicular movement whatever. There is a quiet green heart which all dwellings share and overlook. At this ‘quiet, green heart’ is the artificial hill, formed out of the rubble…” (O’Callaghan, 2010). Although the intention of the novel architects was for the good of the residents, yet the intentions were defeated. Rowan Moore wrote, “…it is big, and grey, and concrete, with two cliff-like blocks that hold between them a mounded landscape. Flats are reached by broad balconies, following its architects’ theory that they would be ‘streets in the air’, places where the lively street life of the cockney city would be replicated. Sadly, it was not to be (although street life cannot be found, in too many ground-based streets...).” (Moore, 2010a). The architects had planned the estate keeping in mind the social integration of people. It turned out to be a disaster for people living there. Looking at the prevailing condition of the residents, some questions pop up in our minds. Were the original inhabitants contented with the living conditions? Why is there lack of maintenance in the estate? Was the decision to bring in new families in vacant apartments right? Elain Harwood and Alan Powers wrote, “He discusses the influential publication of Alice Coleman’s ‘Utopia on Trial’, in which she outlined her analysis that social exclusion and poverty is attributed to the process of urban development, the effect of social choices, and the outcome of economic constraints.” (Harwood et al, p.357). The accommodations at RHG were based on the economic status of people. The so called upper middle class kept away from RHG estates. It was looked down as a place for the poor. There was the development all around, but RHG was never thought of being renovated. Since the residents were not well to do, financially, there was not enough money with the Residents’ Association to carry out the works. According to an online article in Kosmograd, “As the future of Robin Hood Gardens hung in the balance, debate has raged, both in the broadsheet press, and the ‘blogosphere’, both of the merits of RHG and the Brutalist architecture, but also the wider debate about preservation, restoration and resurrection of modern buildings, seemingly only loved by architects themselves.” (Kosmograd, 2008a). After seeing the plight of the residents of RHG, some people came forward to voice their opinion on the restoration of the estates, reasoning that it was a heritage building and hence it should be preserved. They gave the reference of the Brutalist architecture on how important it was to the city, as most of the buildings were designed based on that style. However, it seems that instead of restoring the old buildings, architects were more interested in the refurbishment of the modern day buildings. The obvious reason was undoubtedly the financial gains that the architects would make in resurrecting the modern buildings. Andrea Klettner wrote, “Much love has been shown to the Alison + Peter Smithson-designed project over the last few years, spurred on by a campaign for listing spearheaded by UK magazine Building Design which collected over 1000 signatures from across the world.” (Klettner, 2011b). Building Design, a UK based magazine on architecture, showed its concern by starting a campaign in order to save RHG estates. Alison and Peter Smithson were a very respectable architect couple, and as such there works should be kept intact as much as possible. The residents were unable to do so due to their financial constraints. The management of this magazine went to the extent of getting signatures from people all around the world that were in favor of getting the RHG estate listed. Once listed, it would have become the duty of the government to preserve it in good condition. Karl Sharro, an architect, wrote, “Yet according to a group of famous and respected architects, including Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid, the estate is a masterpiece which should be preserved. They lent their support to a campaign initiated by the architectural weekly Building Design to rescue Robin Hood Gardens.” (Sharro, 2008a). Among the people who gave their signatures for the listing of RHG estate were some very famous architects. However, even their support could not get RHG estates a place in the listed buildings. There has been a lot of reasoning on the topic of listing; within the architect groups and the government as well. Karl Sharro, “Architects should dare to be radical. There have not been any inspiring or truly innovative ideas in housing in the last three decades, and so it is a shame that the big-name architects who have rushed to the defense of Robin Hood Gardens have largely avoided designing housing projects, focusing instead on flashy office buildings and museums.” (Sharro, 2008b). To save their name from being labeled as money minded, some architects have come to the rescue of RHG estate, but actually speaking, they have always been after money, designing only posh locations. Their unmeant support actually misled the people in believing that they had a lot of support to get RHG estate listed. They did not realize the cunning nature of such architects. While writing for an online blog site, Tubeman said, “The argument extends beyond RHG, really we should be refurbishing as much council estates as we can. Brutalism is now an established part of Modern London, soon it will also be accepted into its heritage. I can’t imagine a London anymore without its scattered 20 storey high-rises and maze-like estates. I think that they add an incredible diversity to London’s urban landscape.” (Tubeman, 2008a). Tubeman is right in pointing out that London is full of buildings that have been designed according to the Brutalist style of architecture. It is really difficult to imagine London without such historical buildings. They give a different and unique look to the city of London. People visit the city to view such masterpieces of architecture. Dilettante wrote, “There would be a much stronger argument in favor of pulling down Robin Hood if it was being replaced with something of worth. However, plans for two possible schemes, recently released by THC show that the current favored option is more insipid mediocrity.” (Dilettante, 2011a).
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There can be some good options to generate money for the refurbishment of the RHG estate. One of them may be to make good use of the vast terrace space. It can be used for various purposes like parties, a sports club, gymnasium, banquet hall, etc. the income thus generated can be used for the repair and maintenance work in phases. However, for such works, there should be some initiative from the residents’ side. It seems that the majority of the residents too have given in to the plans of demolishing of the RHG estate. According to a survey done by one of the residents, almost 80% of the inhabitants are in favor of constructing a new building in place of the RHG estate. Tom Clougherty blogged, “The residents would certainly welcome such a move. As Aktar Hussain, the Vice chairman of the residents’ association, said, ‘All these high-minded people who want these flats to stay should actually try to live in them – it’s not fun, it’s tough. They don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s hell…” (Clougherty, 2008). The residents, who once were the proud inhabitants of the RHG estates, today are against living there. According to them, now the place has become shabby and unhealthy to live in. According to an article in Parkhill, “Residents of the estate were in the main happy with the decision not to list, with comments such as ‘People live in Robin Hood Gardens, like they live in a prison, You could be walking along and all of a sudden you find something has hit you – an egg, a stone, a drink or a cup thrown from the top.’ Hearing this it is not hard to understand why the long suffering residents of Robin Hood Gardens do not share the same feelings as those who are pro conservation.” (Parkhill, 2010). Ok! Accepted, but are these people aware of the fact that their flats that they call cages are, as far as size is concerned, are far better than the houses built by any developer. In fact, most of the developers built houses don’t even comply with the requirements of size as per the council norms. Whereas, the RHG estate flats are bigger than the minimum size stipulated by the council.
In spite of all the efforts made by people from different walks of life, it could not be managed to get RHG estates listed, and as such, the time has now come for RHG estate being demolished and for the construction of a new building in place of that. People are not happy due to the reason that if a better building were proposed to be built at the site, it would have been nice. According to the scheme that has been released, the design seems to be unexciting and of poor architecture. However, nothing can be done now and residents who plan to shift to the new building will have to be satisfied with what they will be getting. Some people argue that RHG estate should not have been approved for demolition, owing to the fact that it was a masterpiece from renowned architects. Some feel that simply being a building designed by renowned architects does not make a building fit for being used. There are so many defects in the building that it is better to demolish it. Rowan Moore wrote, “One argument was technical – that by the criteria of architectural importance under which buildings are listed, Robin Hood Gardens qualified. It is an important work by important architects. The other argument was that to judge by the quality of new development nearby, there was no reason to suppose any replacement would be better.” (Moore, 2010b). An article in Kosmograd, “Is Robin Hood Gardens really ‘not fit for purpose’, as Margaret Hodge’s report concludes, it’s one of those horrible phrases, like ‘EPIC FAIL’ or ‘broke by design’ whereby an individual’s subjective opinion is presented as immutable objective fact. There’s little doubting that RHG is currently not fit to live in, but this is a scandal that has been ongoing for many years.” (Kosmograd, 2008b).
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An online article in Housing quoted Culture Secretary, Margaret Hodge, “The architects’ brief was to design a place fit for people to live, of course. In that respect, I agree with my expert advisors English Heritage, that it simply does not work. When functional failures are fundamental, it raises questions about the architectural performance of the building and thus its claims to special interest.” (Housing). In my opinion, the function failure is not because of the architectural problems. It has been due to the negligence of the concerned authorities. They are not ready to carry out the maintenance work on the pretext of not having enough funds. Tubeman also said, “The problem though is not the buildings themselves, but the maintenance. (Excluding the Barbican and other anomalies which got away), the local councils don’t give a shit about these places, nobody gives a shit about them, including the people that live there. There’s not enough money to keep them maintained properly so they become run down and even more unwanted.” (Tubeman, 2008b). What I think is that the concerned authorities have not carried out the maintenance work just because they wanted to get the building vacated so that they could construct a new building and bring in new and better residents. The same was done in almost all such projects in various locations of London. If the authorities wanted, they could have got the leaky roofs and the concrete repaired. But they were least interested in this. All these are tactics of money matters. Another misgiving for the residents was that the authorities had put big families in apartments meant for small families. In such situations, the system ought to be paralyzed. Simon Jenkins wrote for The Guardian, “Other brutalistic icons, such as Sheffield’s Park Hill and the intrusive Trellick Tower in north Kensington, have been converted for singles living, but this is apparently less feasible in the near intolerable setting of the Blackwall tunnel approach.” (Jenkins, 2008). The main problem due to the RHG estates has been the approach to the Blackwall tunnel project. So now that the site is being demolished, this time around, proper care should be taken about the road network.
Some people believe that the RHG estate has given a rise to vandalism. In a letter to the Corporate Director, Aman Dalvi, Laura Warren wrote, “There are conflicting views on whether Robin Hood Gardens was a decent place to live and therefore successful as a housing design. One of the factors against listing was vandalism and the Secretary of State remains of the view that vandalism was present soon after the completion of Robin Hood Gardens.” (Warren, 2009a). It should be noted that acts such as vandalism are the results of mismanagement. If proper security would have been employed, how could people resort to vandalism? Since the authorities did not take any decisions, the ruffians got the loop hole, and in order to meet their ends, they started such acts.
Architects still are not able to swallow the fact that the RHG estate has crossed all hurdles successfully and is now ready for redevelopment. Dilettante wrote, “As an experiment in an ideal for social housing, it has undoubtedly been a failure. However, this is still an impressive and dignified building – one that no less an authority that Baron Rogers has described as ‘as good, if not better, than any modern building in Britain’. It is undoubtedly an important building in the history of British 20th Century architecture…” (Dilettante, 2011b).
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Finally, in the same letter that Warren wrote to Aman Dalvi, she also mentioned, “The decision letter presented the Secretary of State’s conclusions on the arguments and evidence put forward, including that the innovation demonstrated by Robin Hood Gardens was insufficient to raise the interest of the estate over the threshold for listing. The conclusion that Robin Hood Gardens may have been innovative in only limited aspects of its design was not the sole justification for the decision not to list; it was one of several factors clearly set out in the decision letter.” (Warren, 2009b).
Now that the demolition is a reality, we should think of ways and means to relocate the residents of the RHG estates. It is proposed that some of the inhabitants will be put up in new buildings coming up in the north of the existing building. The remaining will be relocated in various Tower Hamlets buildings. It is also believed that the inhabitants will have an option of going back to the same site, once the redevelopment has been done. But to me, it seems to be a remote possibility.
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Amidst all this fuss, unknowingly, a noble thing has happened. A good thing in all this action is that numerous jobs will be created like for plumbers, electricians, masons, carpenters, etc. Thousands of new homes will need the services of these trades. The project is planned to start soon and is scheduled to be completed by 2018. The new project boasts of having a community centre and even a health centre. Unfortunately, the future expansion plan of Woolmore School is expected to be affected by this project.
The people will definitely miss the sturdy outer surface, a large patio amidst a huge and gorgeous mound of grass. New buildings will come up on the present parking lot. The new flats will not be as spacious as before. Initially the residents will be happy to live in new homes but gradually, the rooms will start to look tattered, because since there was no maintenance of the RHG estate, what’s the guarantee that the concerned authorities will do their job in a justified manner. This time, the residents should be vigilant enough to take care of such problems. If things are followed promptly, on time, response has to be there. The community should be responsible for this, because ultimately it is them who will be living there and facing the consequences, not the concerned authorities.
Swan Housing Group has won the contract for the redevelopment of the RHG estate, beating its contestants London & Quadrant and Telford Homes. The project has been named the Blackwall Reach project. The project comprises of building around 1600 homes and amenities apart from numerous shops and a community centre.