At Robin Hood Gardens
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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