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At Robin Hood Gardens

August 19, 2016
by Delwar Hussain

Today’s story is the fifth of seven features by Contributing Writer Delwar Hussain and the first in a series of three related stories exploring the fate of Robin Hood Gardens housing estate in Poplar

Like many superheroes, Robin Hood had a thing for coloured tights and strange headgear. In common with other fantasy figures, Robin also had a favourite colour – in his case green – and spent his time opposing the tyranny of the powerful elites. Yet unlike some of his fictional colleagues, he did not have special powers, no flying or ability to become invisible. Instead, he had a merry band who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. The theme of his ‘Adventures of Robin Hood’ series has these lyrics:

“He came to Sherwood Forest with a feather in his cap
A fighter never looking for a fight
His bow was always ready, and he kept his arrows sharp
He used them to fight for what was right.”
.

I would like to imagine that Alison & Peter Smithson might have hummed along to these lines if the show came on their grainy black and white television set in their architecture studio in the sixties. The pair had been charged with designing a public housing estate in a neighbourhood of Poplar that would become ‘Robin Hood Gardens’ and it was a highly appropriate name for their project.

The tale of Robin Hood proposes an allegory of the Welfare State and the redistribution of wealth of the few throughout the whole of society, based upon the belief that everyone, regardless of how much or how little they have, should have free access to the basics of healthcare, education and a home. More than an ambitious idea, it was a revolutionary endeavour.

Yet, less than fifty years after the first families moved into Robin Hood Gardens, it is to be torn down as part of the £500 million Blackwall Reach Regeneration Project, which might equally be described as a redevelopment, a land grab or an act of social cleansing – depending upon your point of view.

The undertaking is a joint venture between Tower Hamlets Council and Swan Housing Group that will see 1,575 new homes built over ten years. When Swan’s bid was accepted by the Council in 2011, it was on the basis that half the homes would be ‘affordable,’ yet Swan’s website now says the majority will be for the rich and just a third, only 560 homes, will be social housing.

Earlier this year, a group of architects failed in an attempt to get Robin Hood Gardens listed, protecting the buildings from demolition. Consecutive campaigns led by residents have been ignored by the Council and their calls for refurbishment of the buildings rejected.

It was a listless day when Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I visited Robin Hood Gardens. The sky was so low you could almost touch it, yet the pair of long concrete buildings that the Smithsons created were truly a sight to behold. Conceived in the ‘Brutalist’ style, they face each another across a garden with a mound in the centre. They are beasts of buildings, grotesque, petrifying even – but alluring and sublime at the same time – as if you were gazing up at a sheer rock face or the protective walls of a medieval fortress built to keep out marauders.

We walked around the periphery of the first of the edifices which houses flats 1 to 104. Deserted now, the residents have already been dispersed or – to use the official jargon – ‘decanted.’ The doors have been boarded up and numbered haphazardly with red paint like plague dwellings, while in the gardens roses, lavender and parsley continue to grow in spite of their abandonment.

Satellite dishes clung to the concrete walls like fungus. It made me wonder what the exodus looked like when the residents departed. Notices warning of ‘Potential Asbestos Hazard’ have been put up deter would-be intruders, even though the inhabitants lived alongside this implied threat for years

One motive for support of the ‘redevelopment’ among some residents was the Council’s lack of maintenance of Robin Hood Gardens. It was a comment I heard over and over again from residents and those who once lived there. I found old graffiti – Mick your mum – intermingled with more recent examples – ROTEN – with the second ‘T’ missing for lack of space and – TORN. Through the grimy windows, the accoutrements of everyday life were still visible where exposed light bulbs dangled like nooses, while the different styles, colours and textures of curtains and wallpapers echoed the former occupants, revealing their personal tastes and aspirations.

Pinned to a lamp post was a weathered notice dated 25th October 2015, stating that the Blackwall Reach Compulsory Purchase Order 2013 submitted by Tower Hamlets Council had been upheld by the Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government. The order gave the go-ahead for the Council’s compulsory purchase of flats. The purpose of the order, the notice said, is ‘for carrying out development, redevelopment and improvement of the area’ to ‘contribute to achieving the promotion or improvement of the economic, social or environmental well-being of the area.’ Yet this ominous notice failed to mention who the eventual beneficiaries of the improvement will be.

Standing in the shadow of the building, I noticed a strange silence, existing in spite of the constant traffic entering and leaving the nearby Blackwall Tunnel which gushes around the estate like a river. The Smithsons’ original design included concrete sound buffers but they could never have envisaged how the area would be transformed by the Canary Wharf development that surrounds Robin Hood Gardens today.

Outside the estate playground there was another notice, warning children to be wary of strangers. A boy in a baseball cap walked past. The boy and this stranger looked at one another. Taking no notice of the sign, he talked to me. His name was Adil. He appeared to be about thirteen years old. His grandmother lived in the now-deserted building before she was re-housed in autumn of 2015, he told me.

He pointed to the shiny, pre-fabricated flats just over the road where she now lived. This is part of what Swan call ‘Phase 1a’ of the project, where two andoyne new blocks housing some of the decanted residents from Robin Hood Gardens. Phase 1a also includes the construction of a new mosque, playground and a community centre.

‘Is your grandmother happy in the new place?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know,’ Adil replied, ‘She can see her old flat through her new windows and she keeps saying how the old building is full of her memories.’

‘What sort of memories?’ I queried.

‘You know. Of living here, raising my mum and my aunt, that sort of thing.’

‘Do you know when these buildings will to be knocked down?’ I enquired.

“I don’t. I don’t think anyone does, but my grandmother said that the football pitch and the park in the middle will stay.”

‘You must be happy about that?’ I suggested.

‘Maybe? Depends if we’re allowed to still use them,’ he replied.

I told Adil I would like to speak to his grandmother about her memories and wrote my phone number on a piece of paper for him. No sooner did he leave than the strange silence descended again yet I picked up another sound. It was faint but I was sure I heard it. I strained my ear to listen for it again. There it was – a beep – every minute or so, coming from the belly of the building and echoing around the empty carcass. It was a smoke detector in one of the flats, waiting to have its battery replaced. Like a pulse, a heartbeat, it was calling out to tell anyone passing that the building was alive. It was still living.

The second of the two buildings is taller than the first and houses flats 105 – 214. Most of this is still inhabited and the smell of warm spices pervades, but there is something about it that gives off the sense that it has been condemned. When Secretaries of State and Members of Parliament have written you off and global capital investment is circling, you do not have too many options left, other than a miracle or a superhero, perhaps.

From here too, the sounds of life continued to reverberate, refusing to be quietened. I heard the voices of London in Sylheti, Polish, Somali and English. ‘Kelly you’re getting on my nerves,’ someone shouted. Someone else was doing DIY, hammering into a concrete wall, unperturbed that the building was destined to be cleared and knocked down.

A man in a pair of sunglasses opened the main door and I asked whether he will allow us in.

‘You architects?’ he enquired in a thick cockney accent.

‘Do we look like architects?’ I smiled.

‘There have been loads coming and going recently.

‘No, we’re just curious about the community here and what they will do when these buildings are knocked down.’

‘I’m looking forward to it,’ he stated adamantly, ‘It’s about time. There are people here ‘chasing the dragon’ in broad daylight. I’ve been coming here for the last twenty years but have lived here for the past five and the problem has just got worse.’

‘Will knocking the building down solve the drug problem?’ I suggested.

‘Probably not, but I have neighbours who never use the staircase, they don’t know what they will find. Hopefully the new place won’t be like this…”

‘Aren’t you worried about being moved out of the area to somewhere you have no connection to?’

‘If we’re moved to Birmingham…?’ he queried.

‘Birmingham?’ I interrupted, ‘I was thinking of Stratford or someplace like that.’

‘I know some people who have been moved to Birmingham, that’s just the way it is.’ he assured me, ‘I have a full time job and need to live around here, but to them, it doesn’t really matter where they are – they don’t have jobs, they’re claiming benefits, they could do that from anywhere.’

Sarah & I took the lift to the top floor. On one side, we saw Canary Wharf, the Millennium Dome, the Emirates Cable Car, the Olympic Park and Balfron Tower (another Brutalist building in Poplar built as social housing, yet now being sold privately as luxury flats). From the other side, past the garden and the abandoned building, the views are telling. Ahead, in the City, grows a forest of gleaming towers including the Shard, the Grater, the Gherkin and the Natwest building. They loom over Robin Hood Gardens as if to assert, ‘Give it up, your time is up.’

All along the large, wide landing, not one door was the same as another – they had all been personalised. Stickers on windows proclaimed ‘Back the Bid – Olympics 2012′ -‘Burglars Beware’ and ‘I’m helping to save lives:lifeboats.‘ There were coconut trees growing in plastic pots, a chilli plant here and a lemon tree there, all healthy and thriving.

Back outside, we encountered an old lady in the gardens pulling clumps of a tall plant out of the ground. She wore a black hijab with strands of her grey hair concealed below a canary yellow scarf.  She explained that she had grown the mustard and come back to pick it. She lived on the second floor of this building, raising six children there before she was decanted across the road into the same new building as Adil’s grandmother, the boy I had met earlier.

‘At Robin Hood Gardens, we had space,’ she said, without stopping what she was doing, ‘We had a breeze, we had light, but now we are living in boxes, that’s what the new place is like. I’m on the ninth floor, can you believe, an old lady like me?’

‘What do you think of Robin Hood Gardens?’

‘Some people thought it ugly but I found it beautiful. They didn’t fix anything so that’s why it’s in the state that it’s in. I always said that if they spent the money to fix it and not knock it down, then that would be better, but who am I to be heard, nobody? These buildings were solid, built to last until the end of time. The new ones aren’t like this – in ten years time they will say that they too have gone bad and knock them down.’

‘So why did you leave?’

‘We had to. Unless we took the flat they offered, there was no guarantee – they said – that we could continue living in this area. But once the new buildings are completed, we will be allowed to come back. They showed us the paperwork. We are just temporary over there in those buildings, not legal. We will be back.’

I did not understand what she meant when she said she would be back once the new buildings were built. Much later, I discovered that all kinds of promises were made to residents to bring them on side, including a promise that they would be allowed to move back into the new flats that are to be built.

‘What will you do with the mustard plants?’ I asked.

‘I’ll keep some and I’ll give some to the people who now live in my flat in Robin Hood Gardens,’ she admitted, ‘They are a nice family. I tell them that I lived there for twenty-one years and no-one knows more about the flat than I do. They don’t mind me visiting. They give me tea and ask me how to fix things there.’

(This feature continues tomorrow)

Click to enlarge this panorama of Robin Hood Gardens

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

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14 Responses leave one →
  1. August 19, 2016

    I think we need Robin to come back and fight the powers that be that take away from the poor and give more to those who already have more than enough! Valerie

  2. Robert Green permalink
    August 19, 2016

    As far as Im concerned there has never been anything remotely ‘romantic’ about this development, I have watched it being built and now (assuming I don’t die before they do it ) I will enjoy the immense plesure of at last seeing it reduced to a pile of rubble, to me it’s never been anything more than a hideous eyesore and a representation of everything that was wrong with so called ‘modernist’ architecture, in fact ever since it was first built I have always HATED this place with a passion, just because it may be possible to find a few people who are still prepared to defend the merit of this pile of concrete proves nothing to justify its reprieve, there are still people who defend Jimmy Savile would you listen to them ? ? and as for the ‘social cleansing’ aspect, = cut the propaganda and stop wallowing in phoney class war it helps no one to promote that kind of attitude, least of all the very people who its claimed are being defended to constantly paint them as victims regardless of their own circumstances or personal responsibility, or more to the point LACK of, Robin Hood Gardens to be demolished = BRING IT ON.

  3. August 19, 2016

    The reason that the fictional Robin Hood television series of the 50s and 60s seemed so radical is that the script writers were blacklistesd communists who were victims of the McCarthyite witch hunts (the House Un-American Activities Committee HUAC). They wrote under pseudonyms.

  4. Alan Tucker permalink
    August 19, 2016

    I agree with Robert Green.
    This place is an eyesore. It wasn’t looked after or properly policed, attracted crime and wasn’t pleasant to walk round. It sits beside the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel and must be off the Richter Scale in terms of traffic pollution.
    The only advantage Brutalism has is it’s “too big to bulldoze”.
    The behaviour of the public sector and housing associations is a separate issue.

  5. Graham Moss permalink
    August 19, 2016

    When blocks of flats used to house regular working people are being demolished to make now places for the wealthy to live in, there is nothing ‘phony’ about calling it ‘class war’. In fact, I don’t know what else you could call it, except of course ‘social cleansing’, which is equally as true and honestly descriptive.

    Regardless of what anyone might think of the style of the buildings, take it or leave it myself, these were good homes to people who are being shunted about so the Council can work with property developers to make profit. Just doesn’t seem right, and the local councillors should be ashamed that they have fallen prey to the property companies.

    Robin Hood and his merry band had, and have, a good point.

  6. August 19, 2016

    decant
    dɪˈkant
    verb
    gradually pour (wine, port, or another liquid) from one container into another, typically in order to separate out sediment.
    “he decanted the rich red liquid into some glasses”
    synonyms: pour out, pour off, draw off, siphon off, drain, tap, tip, discharge, transfer
    “the wine was decanted into a clean flask”
    BRITISH
    temporarily transfer (people) to another place.
    “tour coaches decant eager customers directly into the store.”
    Google

    I have to admit, I have never come across this second usage before.

    A history of neglect, plus today’s austerity and a lack of commitment since the 1980s to local authority housing has probably left the council little option but to get in bed with developers – though there is probably profit in it for them too, easing their budget – but this makes it hard to condem them outright. Yet the use of the verb ‘decant’ as a synonym for forced eviction/rehousing, despite its documented use as a term for moving people from one place to another, reeks of Newspeak.

    Whilst some are moved happily or unhappily to nearby ‘boxes’, albeit in smaller scale less brutal developments, some are moved out of London together. For those with roots in London this must be very difficult. The decanting of those on benefits to other parts of the country saves on the housing benefits bill but at what cost?

    As the developers and council chiefs decant their fine wines and even the lowly housing officers pour out the Shiraz and let it breath, I wonder if any of them reflect on language use and the impact of the move on those they have ‘decanted’ on a permanent basis?

  7. August 19, 2016

    Good Morning, In the St Louis, MO-USA, there was a housing project called D’ARCE WEB HOUSING PROJECT -1975 . The project was built many years ago to give low or free housing to those who were declared disadvantaged. The children and young adult attended an aged school nearby where the front entrance to the administrator’s office, the floor was sloping where so many had walked through. The housing for these young people and their families was several stories high, the residents were-the Wrestling Micheal Spinks’ grandmother and often several of her grandchildren. The top floor looked sky high, not too different from this Robin Hood Gardens. The same social issues and governmental Fed. programs required that the US housing projects were not in livable shape, too many crammed together-so in 1979 or so our Government built 2-4 bedroom attachable housing (the FED Govt. forgot one issue that plagued all of the other social concepts) OCCUPENCY LAWS. WITHIN A few years this idea faltered-people still like large families and the whole concept of better living conditions was a disaster. Feds. moved everyone out, rebuilt the project, wrote the laws to keep the number of people down contract and rental agreements. THIS IS IN LAFAYETTE SQUARE.
    Our Countries, Britain and the USA have governments with big pocket and social cleansing on the bill. Our Dear USA is a big mess of a melting pot-I don’t mind-but the issues of sharing equally with others, lowers standards, does not stop the drug issue, and the people the governments redesign of housing, well, it is a disaster.

  8. Franco permalink
    August 19, 2016

    Robert Green (above) may “HATE” Robin Hood Gardens, but from what the writer says, people who live there now and in the past have other, more nuanced and complicated things to say about their lives there.

    It seems that the rich and powerful are socially cleansing the area to make the space available for themselves. It doesn’t matter what you call it, class war or otherwise.

  9. Leana Pooley permalink
    August 19, 2016

    The architects of Robin Hood Gardens, the Smithsons, lived in an attractive Victorian house with a garden in a leafy street and they also had their country place, a small glass and concrete cube set within an old walled garden in Wiltshire. When I look at these very good photos of Robin Hood Gardens I see barracks for worker-ants. I would find it hard to think of Home Sweet Home. I feel so angry that many people had no choice but to live there and the lack of maintenance would have meant that all the common parts – staircases, lifts, passages, the landscape outside – would have become run-down, litter-strewn, and places of danger. I hope that the inhabitants are moved to places where they can feel safe and comfortable, that they can be proud of and in pleasant, friendly neighbourhoods. The sorts of places, in fact, that the Smithsons lived in.

  10. pauline taylor permalink
    August 19, 2016

    I agree with comments made here, there is nothing but nothing that excuses the protection of Brutalism, but decent people will always try to make the best of a bad thing, and they will have happy memories of their lives here. Nevertheless the sooner this appalling architecture is destroyed the better in my view, it is responsible for many social problems so good riddance to it. Perhaps a lesson has been learnt as to how their surroundings can have a very negative on vulnerable people so that we will provide them with affordable pleasant homes in the future. We can but hope!!

  11. nick pollicott permalink
    August 19, 2016

    These hideous concrete blocks are yet another example of buildings designed by architects who never have to live in them.
    They should never have been built in the fist place.

  12. August 20, 2016

    This is a story about people, not architectural styles. And as such it’s illuminating: It shows (again) what what governments stand for and facilitate: Social cleansing.

  13. rosemary ind permalink
    August 22, 2016

    Call a building ‘Brutalist’ and demolish it. It is an ignorant style name that comes from the French, meaning reinforced concrete that is not faced with, eg brick (adds to the cost) or painted, which needs regular maintenance (adds to the cost) but is left ‘raw’- ‘brut’.
    Concrete is a sort of re-formed rock or stone. Those who don’t like it would probably not like stone buildings such as the Welsh stone-built terrace house that I live in.
    People whose idea of ‘beautiful’ is clean and well-kept will dislike any building that falls into disrepair.
    The woman who describes the good points of her flat ( that she still visits) so well recognised in it exactly the qualities that the Smithsons , and Christopher Woodward, worked with such good will to provide for her.

  14. Peter Bavington permalink
    September 21, 2016

    Well, I have visited Robin Hood Gardens several times and I had a chance to look around the interior during London Open House weekend. Clearly the architecture of Robin Hood Gardens has the power to stir strong emotions, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I am not crazy, but I actually loved the place, particularly the way the two curving arms of the buildings enclose a large and (once) beautiful garden, protecting it from the effect of traffic noise on both sides. The effect is like the quadrangle of one of the larger Oxford or Cambridge colleges. The ribs of varying length – defying any attempt to find a pattern in them – enliven the ‘inner’ facade, and even the blemishes in the concrete remind me of the time-worn surfaces found in an old country church. It is fair to say that the flats – though designed to Parker Morris standards of space, which are now thought to be too generous – do not appear spacious, and that an opportunity was lost to provide true balconies rather than narrow fire-escapes on the inner walls. The lifts are dismal: but no different from 100s of others fitted in local authority estates. The clue to encouraging people to respect the lifts is to make them less like narrow prison cells – as we have now learnt, with glass sided lifts. The true reason for the failure of RHG, I think, is lack of maintenance and security over many years.

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