From Building Design, 19 November 2010:
The controversial plan to tear down the Robin Hood Gardens estate will move a step closer in the next few days when a winner for its replacement is named. Proposals by Tower Hamlets Council to take the wrecking ball to the housing estate, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson, caused outrage among the profession, with more than 2,000 people, including Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid, backing a BD campaign to have it listed. This week Simon Smithson, architect son of Alison and Peter, again condemned the decision to knock the estate down. “If it’s pulled down I think history will view it as a real act of vandalism,” he said.
In the wake of our recent pieces on Balfron Tower, we present another feature on a controversial, maligned and generally unloved piece of 1960s architecture. Robin Hood Gardens, a mere stone’s throw away from its Goldfinger-designed neighbour, was designed by Peter and Alison Smithson, Brutalism’s golden couple, theorists-cum-architects, ‘the leading architectural thinkers of their generation in the UK’ (it says here). Unfortunately, the location could not be less promising: Robin Hood Gardens teeters like a cliff above the northbound carriageway of the A12 exiting the Blackwall Tunnel, although motorists on the southbound lanes get a clearer view of its looming bulk. As a motorist who has used the Blackwall Tunnel for over a quarter of a century, this view of RHG has always reminded me of a discarded set from Alien or Space 1999 that has been inexplicably dumped in Poplar. Regardless of all other considerations, its fabulously disadvantaged position alone mitigates against 21st century rehabilitation. Not for Robin Hood Gardens the executive-friendly make-over of Balfron Tower; discussions of RHG’s qualities invariably involve a stand-off between those calling for demolition (past and present residents, Tower Hamlets council) arrayed against those who want it listed and thus preserved (Brutalist apologists, mid-century modern aficionados).
A great deal has been written on the failure of Robin Hood Gardens. Those who defend the building speak of the spaciousness of the flats themselves, of the noble attempt to create a space of ‘central greenery’ in the site’s layout, and the Smithsons’ genuine feeling for the humanity that would eventually inhabit their design: ‘Belonging is a basic emotional need … from it comes the enriching sense of neighbourliness. The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where spacious redevelopment frequently fails.’ Robin Hood Gardens has heavyweight admirers; thus sprach Lord (Richard) Rogers of Riverside: ‘It has heroic scale with beautiful human proportions and has a magical quality. It practically hugs the ground, yet it has also a majestic sense of scale, reminiscent of a Nash terrace’.
Its fans have something of a hard sell. Even the most ardent Smithson admirer has to admit that the site is hideous. A friend of mine, an architect from the Caribbean, spoke of her numbed disappointment on seeing RHG for the first time; in her eyes what had seemed eloquent and rational as a plan failed hopelessly as an actual environment. (In researching this piece, I stumbled across a fascinating item comparing RHG’s central green space to WW1’s battlefield of Ypres.) In 2009 RHG was denied the protection of ‘listed’ status (with English Heritage voting firmly against listing) and in 2012 Tower Hamlets Council announced demolition of the estate as part of a wider ‘regeneration’ scheme for the area. There isn’t room here to excavate the arguments and sheer heat of the ensuing debate, which is taking place even as RHG is being dismantled; but whilst nostalgia for the legacy of Brutalism might be compared to a fondness for discredited utopian certainties, the current complexion of London’s skyline makes one shudder at what is likely to be erected in RHG’s place.
These photographs by Craig Atkinson (from a fine new edition published by the ever-admirable Cafe Royal Books) give an indication of RHG’s imposing mass as well as its shortcomings as an urban environment. But it is the last picture in this sequence that is so telling; the view across to the 21st Century Isle of Dogs and Greenwich Peninsula. There’s the new money, and what all of London will, most likely, soon resemble. There goes the neighbourhood. DS
Further reading: the invaluable site Municipal Dreams published two articles on Robin Hood Gardens in April this year, and they are mandatory reading on this topic.
From Urbanism and Spatial Order by Erno Goldfinger, 1931:
From the point of view of the town, the individual is a mere brick in the spatial order of the street or square.
Thus sprach Erno Goldfinger, doyen of the Modern Movement, Brutalist visionary, Marxist voluptuary, and namesake of James Bond’s most memorable antagonist. (The story goes that Ian Fleming was unimpressed by the house Goldfinger built for himself in Hampstead, whose construction required the demolition of some pretty Victorian cottages. In revenge, Fleming appropriated the architect’s name for 007’s next outing; Goldfinger is supposed to have considered legal action.)
Goldfinger’s most conspicuous buildings in London are Elephant and Castle’s Metro Central Heights (formerly Alexander Fleming House, no relation), West Kensington’s Trellick Tower, and Trellick’s almost-identical East End counterpart Balfron Tower in Poplar. Trellick and Balfron are often cited as inspirations for J.G. Ballard’s dystopian classic High Rise, wherein the denizens of an exclusive tower block turn feral.
To some extent, Trellick Tower saw this narrative played out in reverse. Commissioned in 1967 as social housing for the London County Council, upon completion in 1972 Trellick quickly became a ‘problem’ estate. There was talk of demolition, it became a byword for urban grit (name-checked in The Sweeney no less) – but, facilitated by the gentrification of seedy/glamorous West London and an increased appreciation of the charms of ‘mid-century modern’, the tower gradually became a suitable address for aspirational professionals, and was Grade II listed in 1998 – two years after Balfron was.
Now it is east London’s turn. Balfron appeared first, topped-out in 1967 in an environment even more forbidding than old West Kensington. The location is still uncompromising: Balfron abuts the churning A12, feeding the Blackwall Tunnel just two hundred yards to the south. This piece of civic engineering affords majestic views of Balfron from the east and south but blights the lower floors facing the motorway. Balfron’s unprecedented height, hammered concrete finish, and stand-alone service tower with flying corridors and arrow-slit windows combine to give it a distinctly pugnacious aspect. The overall impression is of an urban fortress – a building fit to shelter the last bastions of humanity against marauding zombies (a role it plays in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later).
Balfron and its sister block, low-rise Carradale House (also by Goldfinger), are relics of a lost civic culture. There was a time not that long ago when modernity was a form of social utopianism. The East End had been blitzed, the residual housing stock was seen as Dickensian, and a clean, futuristic solution (Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Docklands) was an irresistible prospect for the ambitious bods at the LCC.
Balfron Tower was a brave project, and it took a fearless architect to see it through. It was intended to herald a dawn of new, better housing. Its flats meander up and down different levels, and the interiors are full of sensitive detailing. Goldfinger himself spent two months living in one of its penthouse flats, to evaluate the building; this led to important technical variations at Trellick when it was built a few years later. Amongst other things, he made sure Trellick had three lists instead of just two, after finding himself waiting twenty minutes for a lift to Balfron’s 27th floor.
Faced with accusations that his building constituted social engineering, he was robust: ‘I have created nine separate streets, on nine different levels, all with their own rows of front doors. The people living here can sit on their doorsteps and chat to the people next door if they want to. A community spirit is still possible even in these tall blocks, and any criticism that it isn’t is just rubbish.’
For all its elegance, sincerity, attention to detail, and integrity of construction, Balfron suffers from design flaws which mitigate the modernist dream: the lifts don’t serve every floor, concrete decay is an issue, and the uninsulated solid walls suffer from heat loss. However, the East End is being relentlessly gentrified, and Balfron is about to be transformed into a block fit for the well-heeled and design-conscious (let us call them hipsters). The old tenants have been decanted elsewhere for the works to begin, and before the tower gets its upscale makeover, Balfron has become a sort of temporary sink estate for artists – this in response to special cheap deals on the rent – who are softening the place up for a bourgeois and executive future.
The accepted rubric is that the artists ‘inject new life into communities’; and in recent times Balfron has itself become something of an installation. In 2010 it hosted an ’empowering’ photographic project, and this year has seen, amongst other things, a site-specific production of Macbeth, not to mention a bid by a Turner-prize nominated artist to throw a piano off its roof (abandoned after protests from residents that someone could get killed).
All this corporately-licensed conceptual ‘playfulness’ masks the fact that an important piece of public housing is being very deliberately annexed by the private sector. No longer a vision of better housing for a better future, Balfron is now the deadest of things: a design icon, a beacon for those who crave tokens of retro-urbanism. Owen Hatherley has coined the term ‘Gormleyism’ to describe the use of Antony Gormley’s solitary figures as cultural embroidery in bland civic developments; perhaps ‘Balfronism’ will become shorthand for the use of artists en masse as a form of social cleansing.
The patina of time makes quaint what was once brave, difficult, or merely awful. It won’t be long before ‘Ballardian’ is a term used by estate agents. D.S.