Why it’s time to demolish Robin Hood Gardens
The co-author of a new architectural manifesto says tearing down the brutalist housing estate is fully in the spirit of modernism.
Despite its charming-sounding name, Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, east London, is one of the capital’s most rundown social housing estates. Yesterday, the government, after months of protest headed by some of Britain’s most renowned architects, rejected calls for the estate to be listed. The government has now given the green light for the estate’s two council blocks to be demolished, and for a 30-storey tower to be built in its place. The new tower will include housing for the Robin Hood Gardens’ current occupants.
The Robin Hood Gardens complex, which has 213 flats, was built in 1972 and was designed by Alison and Peter Smithson, the highly respected architect couple who were among the leaders of the modernist brutalist style, which favours the use of exposed concrete. At the beginning of 2008, Tower Hamlets council proposed to demolish the estate as part of a wider redevelopment scheme. Council officials justified the decision on cost grounds, citing a study that proved it would be more expensive to renovate the estate than to pull it down and build anew. Yesterday, culture minister Margaret Hodge concurred that Robin Hood Gardens is not ‘fit for purpose’.
English Heritage, a quango which advises the government on conservation issues, did not consider Robin Hood Gardens worthy of listing, a status that would have given it protection from demolition and placed tougher conditions on its redevelopment. English Heritage claimed that ‘in the end it failed in its original brief to create a housing development which worked on human terms’ (1).
Robin Hood Gardens
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 (2).
Others saw this as a great opportunity not just to advocate the demolition of the estate, but also of the modernist ideology. The polarised debate soon moved beyond the merits of the building itself and quickly escalated into a wholesale condemnation of modernist architecture. In a particularly verbose piece, Philip Stephens of the Financial Times decried the ‘expensive mediocrity’ that typifies London’s skyline and promised to cheer alongside the Robin Hood Gardens residents when the bulldozers arrive (3).
Stephens and others are delighted to see this icon of modernist design go, but the response of some of the high priests of architecture in Britain to the whole affair shows that they, too, have a problematic relationship with modernism. Rather than seeing it as a continuous project of innovation and experimentation – elements that are intrinsic to the modernist ideology – they prefer to regard it as a finished project that is in need of preservation. The views that these self-appointed guardians of modernism have expressed in the past few months reveal that they see architectural works as separate from the lives of the people who inhabit and engage with them. Richard Rogers, for example, commented snobbishly that Robin Hood Gardens has been lived in by those ‘least capable of looking after themselves, much less their environment’ (4).
The supporters of the Building Design campaign have urged for Robin Hood Gardens to be ‘rescued’ and to be given a second chance, but they seem to believe the estate’s inhabitants are as big a threat to the building as the wrecking ball.
In truth, these architects have shown incredible cowardice in this debate. Instead of simply lamenting the dilapidated state of iconic buildings and trying to blame their decline on the ‘wrong’ type of inhabitants, the architects could have taken this demolition plan as an opportunity to propose better schemes, to recognise some of the mistakes of the past, and to push for even more radical experimentation. They are clearly not acting in the spirit of modernism.
By contrast, the recently published manifesto, Towards a New Humanism in Architecture (ManTowNHuman), of which I am co-author, argues against such dismissive attitudes (5). We think it’s time architecture re-engaged with society, but rather than fetishising ‘community participation’, we believe that striving to understand the genuine needs of residents, or other types of ‘users’, does not preclude the ability of architects to exercise professional judgement.
The manifesto is free of contemporary architectural buzzwords such as ‘accessibility’, ‘community building’, and ‘local identity’ because it is not up to architects to fulfil crass government policies. It is not up to architects to build communities, or to dictate to people how to live their lives. But it is their responsibility to design good housing that caters for changing lifestyles. Our manifesto emphasises respect for architects’ autonomy as well as the general public’s.
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 defence of Robin Hood Gardens have largely avoided designing housing projects, focusing instead on flashy office buildings and museums.
As my co-authors and I argue in our manifesto, we should not be afraid of building and experimenting more, in the knowledge that we can, and should, rebuild again later. It is impossible to predict what the value, usefulness and purpose of a building will be in the future. All this changes with time, and buildings can ultimately stop working the way they were originally intended to work. This is the case for Robin Hood Gardens – regardless of the noble aspirations of its designers. While the estate should be admired for its boldness and experimental nature, we should have no qualms about tearing it down and building something better in its place.
Sadly, given the multiple constraints that are placed on architects today – with stringent health and safety and environmental requirements choking creativity and boldness – it is questionable if a genuinely innovative project can replace Robin Hood Gardens. Instead, we are more likely to get yet another bland (but safe and ‘sustainable’) scheme that will fit today’s lack of aspiration and vision in architecture.
Windows at Robin Hood Gardens
Instead of futile and misguided campaigns to rescue buildings like Robin Hood Gardens, architects would do better to stand up for their professional autonomy and integrity, to argue for more freedom and fewer restrictions, for a more inspiring urban landscape for everyone and less instrumental meddling by regulatory bodies. More importantly, they should stop self-imposing these constraints and quit worrying about being ‘socially responsible’.
Towards a New Humanism in Architecture is an attempt to translate our discontent with the current state of architecture into a meaningful project. This is only possible if we have the self-confidence that the Smithsons and their contemporaries had. They did not shy away from the monumental task of rebuilding Britain after the war, and they dared to experiment with new forms, materials and arrangements. The scale of such an ambitious project made mistakes inevitable, but such is the nature of experimentation. If we want truly to be loyal to the memory of that generation of architects, the best thing we could do is to learn from their attitude. The worst thing we could do is try to preserve their buildings as museum pieces or as relics of a bygone era.
The late Cedric Price, one of the most influential architects in Britain – despite having built very little – once campaigned against the preservation of one of his own buildings. Price conceived the InterAction Centre in Kentish Town, north London, as a building with a limited life span and to that end planned for it to be dismantled within 20 years. When conservationists tried to defy his will and campaigned for preserving the building, Price fought them hard and won. The InterAction Centre was demolished in 2003.
Price understood that continuous innovation is much more important than the need to preserve buildings once they have served their purpose. Such self-confidence seems to be absent today. It is the intention of ManTowNHuman to rebuild this confidence – and we ask other architects to take up this challenge with us.
Karl Sharro is a London-based architect and writer. Manifesto: Towards a New Humanism in Architecture will be launched tonight, 3 July, in central London. You can find more information about the launch here.
Karl Sharro thought Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron had made a mess of the Tate Modern extension. Austin Williams looked at New Orleans and the New Urban vision, and examined the state of English cities. James Heartfield urged us to stop romanticising council housing. Previously, he said the end of the boundary between town and country is a liberation, not a loss. James Woudhuysen wanted to demolish Brown’s plans for eco-towns, and warned of the dangers of Brownfield Brutalism. Or read more at spiked issue Architecture and planning.
(1) See the English Heritage website.
(2) To the rescue of Robin Hood, Building Design, 22 February 2008
(3) A capital despoiled by monumental egos, Financial Times, 2 June 2008 (login required)
(4) Modern architects try to dodge the wrecking ball, The Times, 7 June 2008
(5) See the ManTowNHuman website.