Utopian about the Present

Christopher Turner

  • Alison and Peter Smithson by Mark Crinson
    Historic England, 150 pp, £30.00, June 2018, ISBN 978 1 84802 352 9
  • Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing by John Boughton
    Verso, 330 pp, £9.99, April, ISBN 978 1 78478 740 0

In 1972, the architects Alison and Peter Smithson completed Robin Hood Gardens, their only council estate. The couple were famous for projects such as the Mies van der Rohe-inspired Hunstanton School (1954) in Norfolk; the three chamfered, stone-clad towers of the Economist Building (1959-65) in Piccadilly; and the timber-screened Garden Building (1967-70) at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. They were, in Mark Crinson’s description, ‘writerly, artistic-minded, avant-garde and unabashedly intellectual’, known for their many books as much as for their relatively few buildings (a third, posthumously published volume of their collected works, Alison and Peter Smithson: The Space Between, came out in 2016). The Smithsons’ vision – functional, rugged, authentic – focused on the public ‘space between’ buildings as well as the structures themselves. Brutalism, the term they adopted to describe their outlook, was an ethic as well as an aesthetic. It became the architectural style most closely identified with the hospitals, schools, universities and mass housing of the postwar welfare state.

Robin Hood Gardens was commissioned by the Greater London Council in 1967 to replace seven tenement blocks in Poplar which had been demolished two years earlier. It was the culmination of twenty years of the Smithsons’ thinking about social housing. Made of rough, exposed concrete, it had a confident solidity, interrupted by a series of slender fins or mullions that were designed to reduce the din from the surrounding roads. The two blocks of seven and ten storeys were ‘split like a kipper’, Peter Smithson said, to bracket a small park: a ‘stress-free zone’ modelled on Central London’s Georgian squares. The park was dominated by a grass hill, built from the rubble of the tenements and intended to discourage ball games. It recalled Boundary Estate (1900) in Bethnal Green, Britain’s first council estate, with its central green mound fashioned from the miasmic mud and mortar of the rookeries it replaced. The kitchens faced onto the hill so that parents could watch their children playing on its slopes or in the four circular playgrounds around the base. On the sides of the building that faced outwards to the city, the external walkways on every third floor were designed to be ‘streets in the sky’, offering uninterrupted views over the Thames to the Greenwich Peninsula and the Isle of Dogs.

Robin Hood Gardens in 1972.
Robin Hood Gardens in 1972.

The Smithsons intended Robin Hood Gardens to be a bold reimagining of the modernist tower block. Its two slabs owe a debt to Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation (1952) in Marseille, which they thought ‘heroic’ and ‘the most significant building of our time’ (the term Brutalism derives from béton brut, the raw concrete Le Corbusier used there). But the homage was not straightforward. In 1953 the Smithsons had assembled Team 10, a splinter movement of younger architects from Le Corbusier’s Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), which dismissed modernist masterplans, with their towers dotted like sculptures in parks, as ‘dreary and socially obsolete’. They wanted to find local rather than universal solutions to urban problems. The young faction was, as Alison Smithson wrote in the Team 10 Primer (1964), ‘utopian about the present … Their aim is not to theorise but to build, for only through construction can a Utopia of the present be realised.’ Robin Hood Gardens was a ‘pessimist utopia’, the architect Theo Crosby said, built not in accordance with grand, abstract ideologies but from the particularities of the East End. Alison Smithson identified, and made romantic, ‘the children overturning wrecked cars, the smell of curry on the stairs of rejected tenements, oddments of past character’. The architect wanted, in her words, ‘to knit together what is good in the surroundings by the insertion of a new building. To inject, thereby, new life even into buildings that are old and tired.’ The Smithsons broadcast their ideas in B.S. Johnson’s BBC documentary The Smithsons on Housing (1970), which shows Robin Hood Gardens under construction. In the film Alison wears a glam rock silver jacket, while Peter wears a matching silver tie, as if they were architects sent from the future to resolve the housing crisis. ‘It is a demonstration of a more enjoyable way of living,’ Peter Smithson said of the estate. ‘A model, an exemplar, of a new mode of urban organisation.’

The Smithsons knew the East End well, having explored the area with fellow members of the Independent Group. There is a famous photograph of them sitting on chairs in the middle of a street with the photographer Nigel Henderson and sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. Henderson was known for his street photographs of 1950s Bethnal Green that depicted what he called ‘the humour and fatalism of those trapped, possibly by choice, in the small tribal liaisons of the back and side streets’. His wife, the anthropologist Judith Henderson, a student of Margaret Mead, was conducting a Mass Observation study of the Samuels, the working-class family who lived next door, carefully recording their cockney stoicism (the Samuels didn’t discover they were being observed until 1978, when Judith’s diary extracts were used to accompany an exhibition of her husband’s photographs). The couple took the Smithsons and Paolozzi on ethnographic tours around the impoverished, bomb-damaged streets, where they were tutored in what the Hendersons saw as the vibrant theatre of working-class life.

The Smithsons said that these ‘compulsive walks’ were ‘the trigger that set off the idea that the invention of a new house is the invention of a new kind of street’. The street was seen as an extension of the house, a place in which ‘children learn for the first time of the world outside.’ Their ‘Urban Re-identification’ grid, shown at the CIAM conference in 1953, featured several of Henderson’s photographs, depicting happily dishevelled children playing games such as hopscotch, to show the importance of the street in forging social bonds. This was confirmed by Peter Willmott and Michael Young in their sociological study Family and Kinship in East London (1957), which looked at a close-knit working-class community against the backdrop of town planner Patrick Abercrombie’s scheme to clear slums and rehouse residents in ‘overspill’ estates in London’s outskirts (Poplar was intended to be emptied by two-thirds). Willmott and Young painted a sentimental portrait of working-class resilience rooted in family and place, contrasting the ‘sociable squash’ of Bethnal Green with the suburban alienation of remote, low-density estates.

The Smithsons hoped their ‘streets in the sky’ would introduce some of the East End’s rich street life into the building. They were designed to be wide enough to allow two parents pushing prams to pass each other or stop for a conversation. The recesses or ‘eddy places’ around each front door would be spaces for makeshift gardens and other manifestations of civic pride. Some of this, as Crinson shows, was rather forced: the Smithsons imagined residents congregating around the rubbish chutes as if around a village water pump. They hoped Robin Hood Gardens would be the first of a series of massive ‘landcastles’ that would revive the East End. But from the start the estate was isolated by its geography. It was surrounded on all sides by major roads, from which it was protected, in the words of the Smithsons’ assistant Christopher Woodward, by an ‘almost manic system of walls and moats’. The perimeter of the estate was marked by a high wall designed to bounce back traffic noise, and to allow for oblique views through it, but which made the site seem heavily fortified. Garages were sunk into a ‘moat’, giving the building the appearance of a medieval keep, a besieged island successfully insulated from the motor car. The streets in the sky didn’t link the two blocks or connect with the ground, and therefore didn’t integrate the buildings into the street life the Smithsons so celebrated.

In the late 1960s, during the construction of Robin Hood Gardens, East London’s dock operations were moved downriver to the Port of Tilbury. Poplar, already a depressed area, became a post-industrial wasteland with high unemployment. On the nearby estate, which had been built as a ‘live architecture exhibition’ for the Festival of Britain in 1951 (the Smithsons dismissed the folksy Scandinavian-influenced Lansbury Estate as timid and dreary), a third of family breadwinners had worked on the docks. The Smithsons tried to see the deprivation and depopulation of East London as an opportunity, imagining a huge leisure park on the Docklands waterfront: ‘We could have a new Venice in London.’ Instead, in 1982 East London got an Enterprise Zone – with tax breaks to attract businesses and developers – which launched the financial district of Canary Wharf. By the end of its first decade Robin Hood Gardens had a reputation as a poorly maintained, dangerous, racially divided ‘sink estate’. Even before it was finished, Alison Smithson complained of vandalism and lamented that tenants would probably be unwilling to safeguard ‘their rented bit of the socialist/democratic dream’.

In 1972, the same year that Robin Hood Gardens was completed, the high-rise Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St Louis, Missouri, which had been beset by vandalism and violence since it opened in 1954, was demolished. The American architectural historian Charles Jencks declared that its dynamiting was the moment ‘modern architecture died’. Modernist architects, he thought, were flawed in their attempts at social engineering, which spectacularly backfired. Jencks visited Robin Hood Gardens in the late 1970s and had himself photographed standing by a lift shaft, his hands above his head as though he was being mugged. He claimed that ‘the street decks are underused; the collective entries are paltry, and a few have been vandalised. Indeed, they are dark, smelly, dank passageways where, as Oscar Newman … argued, “crime may occur more frequently than elsewhere.”’

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Robin Hood Gardens coincided with what John Boughton describes as a ‘golden age of council house building’, but in Municipal Dreams he doesn’t include it in his ‘pantheon’, ‘despite the affection in which it is held by the architectural great and good’. Richard Rogers compared Robin Hood Gardens to a Nash terrace and claimed it was ‘one of the most outstanding social housing buildings in Britain’. Zaha Hadid said it was her favourite piece of architecture in London. Boughton prefers Kate Mackintosh’s Dawson’s Heights in East Dulwich, completed the same year as Robin Hood Gardens, with its ziggurat-style blocks modelled on an Italian hill village, and Neave Brown’s Alexandra Road (1978) in Camden, a series of stepped terraces facing a pedestrian thoroughfare that was conceived as a response to the Smithsons’ streets in the sky. Arguments about the link between these estates’ modernist design and their high levels of anti-social behaviour and crime, preceded – and were used to justify – Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy scheme, which ended the great programme of social housing that had begun in 1919 with the promise of ‘homes fit for heroes’. Robin Hood Gardens failed almost all of the ‘design disadvantagement’ tests that Thatcher’s housing tsar, Alice Coleman, set in her study Utopia on Trial (1985): ‘Living in a high-rise block does not force all its inhabitants to become criminals,’ she wrote, ‘but, by creating anonymity, lack of surveillance and escape routes, it puts temptation in their way and makes it probable that some of the weaker brethren will succumb.’ (Her solution was to build more two-storey, single family houses with gardens instead.) After Robin Hood Gardens, the Smithsons built little else of similar scale or importance. Crinson attributes this to the retreat from modernism and the economic downturn; his excellent introduction to their work struggles to engineer a dramatic third act to their otherwise distinguished careers.

In his even-handed account of the ‘rise and fall of council housing’, brought into sharp focus by the Grenfell fire, Boughton points out that Right to Buy was stolen from the 1959 Labour Party election manifesto: by 2014, more than 50 per cent of all council housing stock had been sold to private owners, without being replaced. Boughton reminds us that council houses were, for a long time, places where people were proud to live. Nye Bevan wanted postwar estates to contain ‘the living tapestry of a mixed community’, not to be ‘ghettos of the poor’, but over time this is precisely what they did become, and the architecture was blamed for the problems that followed. Though in the 1920s and 1930s both Conservative and Labour governments had vied with each other to build the most council homes, in the 1960s and 1970s renting from the state was increasingly seen only as a safety net for the most vulnerable in society. Labour’s well-meaning 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act, which made it the duty of local authorities to prioritise the most desperate cases, reinforced this view. After 1980, with the rise of owner occupancy, poorer residents were concentrated on estates such as Robin Hood Gardens.

In 1997, New Labour’s Social Exclusion Unit began to inject millions of pounds into the worst ‘problem estates’. Tony Blair pioneered the public-private partnerships that operate today, whereby estates are demolished and council tenants rehoused in ‘social rented’ properties administered by housing associations, while developers plug the funding gap for new houses by building private homes for sale in their place. It was believed that the arrival of the middle classes would ‘uplift’ these estates. Boughton, while avoiding the emotive term ‘social cleansing’, shows that the attempt to reverse-engineer mixed communities, to bowdlerise Bevan’s vision, was deeply flawed, especially in London, where regeneration has displaced existing communities. In 2007, for example, residents of Ernö Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower (1967) were offered much needed upgrades if they voted to transfer the administration of their estate from the council to Poplar HARCA (Housing and Regeneration Community Association) and move out to allow for a refurbishment. The cost of this was to be covered by the sale of flats vacated by those who chose not to return. But after they had moved out, the council tenants were told they had no ‘right of return’ and eventually all the flats were sold off.

At Robin Hood Gardens, the council justified their regeneration scheme by pointing to an official survey from 2008, in which 80 per cent of the 94 residents asked favoured demolition. A subsequent self-conducted poll of 140 tenants found that 90 per cent favoured refurbishment. The council asserted that restoration was economically infeasible, and that with only 252 flats, the site was too valuable to justify such low population density. Refurbishment would have cost £77,000 per flat, and it was better to transfer the site to a developer, who would build a greater volume of new homes in its place (and who would not have to pay VAT, which was due on refurbishments but not new builds). Building Design magazine and the Twentieth Century Society conducted a campaign to save the estate by having it listed. In 2008 Margaret Hodge, then minister for culture, refused the application, declaring Robin Hood Gardens ‘not fit for purpose’. English Heritage’s advice to the government concluded that the site ‘failed … to create a housing development which worked on human terms’. Having been poorly maintained, it was dismissed as a final, conflicted expression of the optimism of the postwar welfare state. After only 45 years, and amid much controversy, demolition of Robin Hood Gardens began.

In November 2017, with the wrecking ball overhead, the V&A announced its intention to collect a three-storey section of Robin Hood Gardens, including back and front façades, and the fittings of two maisonette apartments, as an important example of New Brutalism. It will join other pieces of East End architecture the museum has preserved, including the jettied wooden façade of Sir Paul Pindar’s house, built in 1599, which survived the Great Fire of London but not the extension of Liverpool Street Station in 1890, and the State Room from James I’s Old Palace at Bromley-by-Bow, demolished a few years later, which inaugurated the first organised campaign to preserve London’s architectural history. A tour of Robin Hood Gardens after the western block had been evacuated (the eastern one is still inhabited and slated for demolition later this year) revealed interiors that were designed according to the 1961 Parker Morris space standards, and were of relatively generous scale. They were kitted out with plywood cupboards and units, all designed by the Smithsons. The flats looked hurriedly abandoned, as if the residents had fled impending disaster, and they were full of clues about the lives lived there: piles of furniture, utility bills, forgotten DVDs and children’s toys, kitchen cupboards full of curry powder and half-used sauces. Several flats contained well-worn cricket bats, evidence of the large Bengali community whose children made the walkways their wickets. Perhaps street life did eventually make it into the Smithsons’ building.

Blackwall Reach, designed by Haworth Tompkins and Metropolitan Workshop, will replace the 252 flats of Robin Hood Gardens with 1500 new homes, a £300 million mix of social and private housing, half of which will be ‘affordable’ (up to 80 per cent of market rates). The council assures critics that there will be 561 homes to rent for those on low incomes. Numerous other postwar London estates have been earmarked for similar regeneration schemes, without such generous provision of social housing. Some argue that the loss of Robin Hood Gardens is a sacrifice worth making for urgently needed new homes (there are 18,000 families on the housing waiting list in Tower Hamlets). But it’s also clear that the architectural heritage of the welfare state is being obliterated rapidly, communities are being scattered and most new property is acquired by foreign investors. According to a London Assembly report, over the last decade around fifty estates containing more than thirty thousand homes have been redeveloped. The number of privately owned flats has increased tenfold, but there has been a net loss of eight thousand council homes. Meanwhile, the government is paying £9.3 billion a year to private landlords in housing benefit. Boughton argues that public money would be better invested in new homes for social rent that would also be income-generating. A report published by Shelter in January came to a similar conclusion and called for the creation of 3.1 million new social homes in a twenty-year housebuilding programme that would eventually pay for itself. Only if social housing is treated as essential infrastructure can we revive what the Smithsons saw as the social project of architecture, and the dream of a decent home for all.