Demolition came for Robin Hood Gardens in December 2017. It was a slow, drawn-out process as the estate’s west block was torn down along its length, but no less violent for it. As images of the initial deep breach in the building circulated in the press and social media, the Twentieth Century Society encapsulated the mood of many: “Feels like seeing an old friend having their teeth knocked out.”
Demolition and Afterlife
The attempt to demolish the estate reached back some ten years, prompting the Twentieth Century Society to propose it for listing for special architectural interest, in November 2007, with the journal Building Design mounting a campaign and petition to save it in the following February. But in July 2008, Margaret Hodge, Minister at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, ruled against listing, declaring the estate “not fit for purpose,” and the following year Andy Burnham, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, granted a five-year Certificate of Immunity from Listing. The Twentieth Century Society’s second attempt to have the building listed, though high-profile, was soon rejected by Historic England, in August 2015. After that it was only a matter of time before demolition commenced.
Robin Hood Gardens, as many other post-war estates, was long characterised as a “sink estate” and a “concrete monstrosity.” These symbolic frameworks have formidable stigmatising effects, readying council estates for demolition and thus serving the global market in real estate.
In liberal democracies across the world the state is in retreat from the provision of public housing, while capital shifts from the circuit of production, with its declining profitability, to finance, insurance, and real estate. Here housing is an investment asset with which to speculate, extract rents, park surpluses, launder money, and facilitate new financial instruments. It results in soaring house prices and the demolition of buildings that drag on the prized “value uplift” – in the UK, council estates foremost among them.
In addition to the thousands of council units razed to date, a recent estimate has 31,000 Londoners facing the loss of their homes due to estate demolition and regeneration, and the Estate Watch project identifies over 100 London estates under threat. In consequence, as Josephine Berry encapsulates the stakes, “housing – an essential structure of care – has become the site of bitter social conflict and class cleansing.”
In this photograph, Robin Hood Gardens is being demolished while Balfron Tower, designed by Ernő Goldfinger, awaits refurbishment for private sale. For decades Balfron Tower suffered the same intensity of symbolic violence as Robin Hood Gardens. Here is journalist Simon Jenkins, for example, writing in The Times in 2000: “Balfron Tower … gives Poplar a final mugging. Its footings are a no-go area for humanity. Trash, chicken-wire and graffiti abound. The tower is without charm or visual diversion. It makes Wormwood Scrubs seem like the Petit Trianon.”
However, at a certain point the fates and representations of the two estates markedly diverged. Robin Hood Gardens continued to be described as a “failure,” a “sink estate,” and a “concrete monstrosity” – for English Heritage, in 2008, it “fails as a place for human beings to live – and did so from the start.” Yet at Balfron Tower, these stigmatising frames were nudged aside, to be replaced by a newfound appreciation for the “monumentality” and “beauty” of Brutalism – a symbolic framework we can call “beautiful Brutalism.”
It is a framework indexed to the move of middle-class homebuyers into ex-council properties, a market resultant of the resale of Right to Buy purchases and the ballooning property prices that have put traditional middle-class housing stock increasingly out of reach. For this class, fearful of council estates and anxious about downward social mobility, beautiful Brutalism serves to cleanse the architecture of its working-class associations, and thus eases transition into the new market. Indeed, in some instances it stridently drives the transition, as in the private redevelopment of Balfron Tower.
In 2007, ownership of Balfron Tower was transferred from Tower Hamlets council to Poplar HARCA (Housing and Regeneration Community Association) at the cost of £1, on the condition of refurbishment. Yet in February 2015, having initially decanted residents with the promise of a right to return, Poplar HARCA revealed a plan that residents and critics had long suspected: to sell all the apartments into the private sector. This is the point at which beautiful Brutalism stepped in, in the form of cultural institutions, design studios, and private developers. Their role, to draw from Bev Skeggs’ research on class appropriation, was to translate, legitimise, modify, and codify the former council estate for middle-class self-making – first as an alienable artefact of cultural consumption and then as purchasable property.
No sooner had the stigmatising trope of the “concrete monstrosity” fulfilled its promise in demolition, it ceded its hold on Robin Hood Gardens to the symbolism of beautiful Brutalism, under the agency, no less, of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Announced with much fanfare, the V&A salvaged from the destruction a three-storey section of the estate for permanent display, the building now described as “a New Brutalist masterwork,” the fragment a “small segment of a masterpiece.”
It is an unprecedented acquisition, where front and back façades of two apartments, each measuring 8.8 metres high and 5.5 metres wide, are to be reconstructed, potentially as one whole apartment, complete with a portion of the scheme’s streets in the sky and interior fittings. The fragment is destined for the V&A East on the former Olympic site in Stratford, east London, part of a vast state- and culture-led regeneration. In the meantime, a scaled-down version was exhibited at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, the showpiece of an exhibition titled Robin Hood Gardens: A Ruin in Reverse.
It is hard not to see the V&A’s fragment as an indictment of today’s social priorities and economic agendas. Here Robin Hood Gardens, or a broken chunk of it, is celebrated, preserved, and lavished with funds as a design artefact for middle-class cultural consumption in the very same moment that it is vilified and destroyed as working-class housing. This appropriation of working-class housing for middle-class self-making is all the more sickening in that it occurs amidst a desperate crisis of housing affordability, a crisis that regeneration schemes, like that of the Olympic legacy, only make worse.
The V&A’s fragment will no doubt contribute to the aesthetic elevation and stabilisation of ex-council housing in the market for middle-class private purchase, but its most direct impact on working-class housing is in estate demolition, counterintuitive though that sounds. Rather than inviting the social violence of estate demolition, as does the trope of the concrete monstrosity, this artefact obscures demolition and contains opposition. For it lifts Robin Hood Gardens – and with it, the social form of the post-war council estate – out of the conflictual terrain of housing in the present and into the sealed and sanitised past of a museum artefact, a nostalgic work of welfare-state heritage.
It seems unlikely that the V&A salvaged from such a large stretch of the building as this, but the demolition which began in earnest by tearing down the structure now slowed considerably to a painstaking removal of façade elements.
It is telling of the delivery of Robin Hood Gardens to middle-class consumption that the first public outing of the V&A’s work of salvage was a major stop on the global circuit of art and culture. The V&A had declined a request in 2008 from the journal Building Design to support its petition against demolition. But now, with the estate half demolished, the V&A championed this “small segment of a masterpiece.”
Considerably reduced in scale to that proposed for the V&A East, the Venice exhibit comprised a section of street deck and balustrade, supported by a façade fashioned from eight of the scheme’s protruding mullions, all assembled together with scaffolding and plywood. Removed from Poplar to Venice, it allowed well-heeled visitors “to stand on an original section of a ‘street in the sky’ – the elevated access deck designed by the Smithsons to foster interaction between neighbours and promote community.”
The V&A claimed that the fragment in Venice took “the vantage point of a ‘street in the sky,’ to look to the future of social housing.” One might ask, if this fragment of Robin Hood Gardens serves to obscure and contain the crisis of social housing, as I contend, why is it positively associated with social housing in this way? In part, this association is a palliative, a virtuous gesture with which visitors can identify, should the reality of estate demolition disturb their pleasure in this fragment of Brutalism. But there is more to it, involving the museum’s prized value of civic exchange.
This value is encapsulated by a remark from the V&A’s Director, Tristram Hunt, when writing against the fragment’s critics. “I see the role of the museum not as a political force,” he writes, “but as a civic exchange: curating shared space for unsafe ideas.” In this way, in the fragment’s curated space of civic exchange, conflict is rendered into conversation. Estate demolition and the crisis of housing affordability is overlaid with a veneer of polite debate – debate fixed on a nebulous future and unhurried by, without impact upon, the desperate realities of the present.
By April 2018, the west block had been ground to fine rubble, while the remaining building, inhabited increasingly by residents on temporary tenancies, awaited the same fate. Demolition, says the architect Anne Lacaton, “is a waste of many things – a waste of energy, a waste of material, and a waste of history. Moreover, it has a very negative social impact. For us, it is an act of violence.” This is the violence of class society, the violence of housing dispossession and displacement, and it includes appalling ecological consequences.
Though government and the development industry champion regeneration on grounds of its supposed green credentials – thermal-performance cladding, green roofs, photovoltaic panels – the reality is that demolition is a massive waste of the embodied carbon from a building’s construction, and that demolition, removal, and disposal are themselves carbon-intensive processes. Then there are the huge carbon costs of manufacturing and transporting the concrete, steel, bricks, and other materials for rebuild, and of the construction process itself, such that 51% of the lifecycle carbon from a typical residential development is emitted before the building is even opened.
As Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal show us, winners of the 2021 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the solution is to choose renovation over demolition, accompanied by a design ethics of sensitivity and care for the residents and concrete structures of existent working-class housing. Their motto: “Never demolish, never remove or replace, always add, transform, and reuse!”
“Housing crisis is not a result of the system breaking down but of the system working as it is intended,” write David Madden and Peter Marcuse. It “stems from [and reproduces] the inequalities and antagonisms of class society,” of housing as a commodity and vehicle of accumulation against housing as a need. Here, the desperate crisis of housing affordability, disgraceful numbers of families housed in temporary accommodation, and ballooning street homelessness exist amidst, and are produced by, vast surpluses of property and wealth.
This crisis is legislated for and enforced by a plethora of actors – national and local governments, institutional and individual speculative investors, construction and maintenance firms, housing developers, estate agencies and consultancies, global accountancy companies, mortgage lenders, housing associations, private and corporate landlords – who reap vast rewards from what is a booming housing economy, worth in London £2.4 trillion.
No surprise, then, that the solutions proposed by these parties make matters worse. Successive governments and the “finance-housebuilding complex,” as Bob Colenutt calls the nexus of property actors, have constructed the housing crisis “quite deliberately as a crisis of numbers,” for which private housebuilding is the vaunted solution. This empowers the causes of the problem it claims to name, for the crisis is not one of supply but of housing affordability, security, and safety, a crisis made worse by private development, with its estate demolitions and land-value uplift.
We shot some photographs of Robin Hood Gardens at a distance in its Poplar locale, often as the regeneration rose around it. In this image, to the right of the estate is Camellia House, part of phase 1 of Blackwall Reach, now home to many of the former residents of the west block
From phase 1b onwards, the façades of Blackwall Reach look like a flimsy stage set, comprised of bolted-on panels of inch-thick slices of brick. This is the surface dictated by the so-called “new London vernacular” that was dreamt up under Boris Johnson’s mayoralty and has since proliferated across London’s new-build skyline.
Johnson’s aim was to disguise the flood of speculative property development with an aesthetic that is improbably claimed to bear Georgian stylistic preferences. It is said to be tenure-blind, and thus reduce the stigmatisation of social housing. In reality, though, any tenure-blindness that is achieved is the aesthetic correlate of the demolition and privatisation of council housing, rendering social housing invisible to the eye all the better to render it absent in actuality.
Fake-brick cladding – there could not be a greater revenge on the expressive materiality of Robin Hood Gardens, nor a more appropriate aesthetic, dull and mendacious, for London’s property industry.