Monday, 21 April 2014

Robin Hood should be saved

Robin Hood Gardens, to some brutalist architectural masterpiece, to others, failed modernist social experiment and East End eyesore, is slated to take the wrecking ball.

English Heritage, despite cries of protest from top dog architects and academics, will not list a structure it deems unable to work ‘on human terms’.

Margaret Hodge, not renowned for her ‘human terms’ empathy, has wheeled out the government’s stock phrase and slammed the estate as ‘not fit for purpose’.

Government advisor English Heritage has compiled a defence of its decision.

‘Indefensibly narrow, twisting stairwells… their tightness is uncomfortable and quite threatening.’

Who to? The ‘quite threatening’ stairwells smelt of daisies when I visited, were surprisingly devoid of graffiti and were decorated with a level of textural detail rare in social housing today. Who now teases the cumbersome social tenant with playful architectural flourishes such as random viewing balconies?  Peps up the walls with stripes of texture, layers glass bricking at surprise intervals?

English Heritage also says that the Smithsons ‘were forced to amend their designs for structural reasons late in the day, and the resulting compromise is really apparent’. A reported 80 per cent of tenants voted for its demolition. But one tenant told me he was forced to vote after enduring countless leaks and endless water damage from its faulty plumbing system. Why spend all this money to rebuild when all it takes is some repair and refurbishment, he asks.

The decks, says English Heritage, ‘are not particularly generous and overlook constant traffic,’ – perhaps they are not as wide as a Richmond boulevard but I was surprised at their width and stunned by the view which spanned Canary Wharf Tower, a peek of the Thames, the Dome, the DLR, cars flowing this way, cars flowing that way – not as tranquil as a babbling brook but pure London in all its complexity.

Whoever heard of upkeeping a building so the social tenants could appreciate its aesthetic qualities? Surely they should just be grateful at being homed?

And the ‘bleak entrance lobbies’? I was delighted the second I walked in to see clean, ungraffitied walls – decorated - no less. To smell no urine. To face floor signs cheekily painted into hexagonal mouldings, to walk under high ceilings and into space.

It is true the neglect is tragic from the exterior. Stained concrete, smashed windows.

Some tenants may find Robin Hood Gardens ugly, some may not notice the Smithsons’ surprises and some may adore the detail. If it had been maintained rather than allowed to degenerate, perhaps those features would have been more obvious.  But whoever heard of upkeeping a building so the social tenants could appreciate its aesthetic qualities? Surely they should just be grateful at being homed?

As one who has lived in a council block for over a decade, I had no idealistic fantasies when I visited. My block is riddled with grafitti, the grey stairwells stink and are littered with broken bottles and worse. The lifts are urine saturated, every trip a triumph to yoga where I balance on one leg, holding my breath to avoid the yellow lake. But the communal areas here were pristine. The maisonettes are spacious, the four-bedroomed units have two toilets, and vast windows offer long city views.

So the tenants I spoke to agreed it could do with a facelift. But nobody really wanted to move. This, they said, was a rare, long-standing community where crime was low, residents tended the beautifully-kept gardens and the neighbourhood spirit seemed high. However, its vicinity to the Olympic grounds and Canary Wharf also make it a treasure for developers willing to turf out an old community in the name of high-density progress. It’s an age-old situation.

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