It’s wrong to be beastly to Brutalism, says Paul Finch
Hellman’s mordant wit was much in evidence in his AJ cartoon, marking the beginning of the end of the Robin Hood Gardens estate in East London. Demolition is finally removing Alison and Peter Smithson’s attempt to reconcile Brutalism with social housing – just as Brutalism itself is being given a new lease of life, thanks to an increasing interest in it on the part of the young.
Aj robin hood demolition
By chance I have been reading Simon Henley’s book on this vexed architectural style, if that is what it is (Brutalism Redefined, RIBA Publications), which provides an admirable account of the background, evolution and consequences of a complex history. His credentials, as an architect with good buildings to his name, give you confidence in his judgements, as seen from the perspective of a practising designer rather than an academic historian or theorist. The illustrations are well chosen, and provide a compelling case for why it is wrong to be beastly to Brutalism.
Beastly is an appropriate way to describe the behaviour, in respect of Robin Hood Gardens, of the statutory heritage authority (English Heritage as was, now Historic England), Tower Hamlets Council, and former architecture minister Margaret Hodge.
English Heritage rejected utterly the unanimous recommendation of a special advisory committee on post-war architecture that Robin Hood Gardens was worthy of listing. Instead, it kow-towed to Minister Hodge, who told the press that her electorate did not like concrete.
It seemed to have escaped her attention that her ministerial responsibilities were what mattered, not the aesthetic prejudices of the sort of people who tried to knock down Denys Lasdun’s Bethnal Green housing, on the grounds that it was beyond redemption.
It wasn’t, of course, which became only too clear once Tower Hamlets council ceased to control it, and it was retrofitted to great beneficial effect, standing today as proof positive that Lasdun’s East End housing can be as well considered as its equivalent at Green Park.
Tower Hamlets had the knife out for Robin Hood Gardens, partly, no doubt, because of its lamentable record in respect of repair and maintenance. Add a mealy-mouthed set of excuses for non-listing, plus the prejudices of Mrs Hodge and her voters, and there you have it: the complete justification for demolition of a unique element in the history of post-war architecture by important architects whose reputation is increasing, rather than diminishing with time.
Tower Hamlets had the knife out for Robin Hood Gardens, partly, no doubt, because of its lamentable record in respect of repair and maintenance
Just as the gang who wanted to demolish the South Bank arts building had to be resisted, so too did the wielders of the metaphorical wrecker’s ball further east. However, the lure of easy money, more units, and the kudos of being applauded by people who find Robin Hood Gardens ‘ugly’ has been too powerful a combination to resist.
Forget the embodied energy and the carbon disaster the redevelopment involves; forget the 20 per cent of residents who enjoyed their unique environment; forget the soft loans from the Public Sector Loan Board, which will have to repaid for years to come even though the homes no longer exist. No doubt some genius will ‘write them off’ as though they don’t count.
On the Guardian website after the Hodge decision was announced, someone sarcastically suggested that Robin Hood Gardens should be saved, but only if the apartments were to be occupied by architects. This sort of ghastly troll was uninterested in those residents who liked it; moreover, the assumption that architects would not wish to live there was and always will be an untested proposition.
However, judging by the popularity of Goldfinger’s Trellick and Balfron Towers with designer types, had the Smithsons’ estate been offered, there would have been queues to buy stretching to the Blackwall Tunnel.