Seven years ago Historic England’s predecessor took a populist rather than an expert line over the listing of the east London estate, argues Will Hurst
Earlier this month, Historic England’s (HE) planning and conservation director Nigel Barker wrote a rather startling letter to The Times.
Explaining the organisation’s U-turn on Hall McKnight’s £50million proposed redevelopment of King’s College Londons Strand campus, Barker said HE had been mistaken in its initial asssessement that the scheme would not cause substantial harm.
‘Part of getting it right is being confident and able to say when you have got it wrong,’ he wrote.
These are fine words and we should encourage Barker to finish what he’s started because Historic England is about to reassess a case which its predecessor English Heritage got badly wrong seven years ago: Robin Hood Gardens.
Back in 2008 the east London estate had become a cause célèbre and English Heritage went against the views of the vast majority of architects, Cabe and even its own advisory committee on post-war buildings in arguing that the Smithsons-designed housing was unworthy of protection. It was a decision which almost certainly led then Culture Secretary Andy Burnham to follow suit and rule against listing.
But as the Twentieth Century Society recently argued, the argument put foward by EH was unconvincing and poorly evidenced against the only criteria that should matter - the listing criteria. So keen was EH to bolster its case in its report to government that it even chucked in irrelevant details such as its assertion that the estate was suffering from spalling and concrete decay - as if this had anything to do with its architectural merit or could not be rectified.
At the time there was a strong sense among observers that in considering Robin Hood Gardens, EH was thinking mainly about political expediency. In other words, its primary consideration seemed to be its own position and the potential fallout were it to back this most high-profile example of unpopular Brutalism.
Indeed looking back at the report this year, Dirk van den Heuvel, a professor at Delft School of Architecture and an authority on Alison and Peter Smithson, attacked EH’s report as selective and biased and said he believed the organization was ‘looking for an excuse not to list it’.
Seven years ago, I was news editor at Building Design and became consumed by the magazine’s campaign to save Robin Hood Gardens. I gathered petition signatures, wrote articles to expose the sham consultation with residents which purported to show they were in favour of demolition and appeared on ITV London Tonight and BBC London News to defend the Smithsons’ architecture.
I well remember interviewers marvelling at the fact that I was prepared to defend these outmoded hunks of concrete; this sink estate. ‘Are you serious?’ they seemed to be asking.
They would often end with what they no doubt believed was a killer question - the very same question that the Daily Mail sneeringly put to Richard Rogers last week - would I live there?
This question, designed to expose middle-class hypocrisy, is based on the ludicrous premise that the campaigners trying to save Robin Hood Gardens must naturally also be in favour of allowing it to continue to rot – something that Tower Hamlets council had up until then most certainly allowed.
I remember replying that of course I’d live there as long as it was sensitively and comprehensively refurbished in the way that many thoughtful architects were suggesting.
The line English Heritage chose to take in 2008 reflected the popular view of Robin Hood Gardens rather than the expert view. It now has the chance to put this right.