The photography and research for this exhibition was a collaboration between Kois Miah, Runa Khalique, Aklima Begum, and myself, Nick Thoburn. Kois and I established the project in dismay that residents of Robin Hood Gardens were almost entirely absent from the prominent public debate about its merits, failings, and impending demolition. Whether celebrated as a masterpiece of modernist social housing or reviled as a concrete monstrosity, residents’ presence here was at best occasional and tokenistic, where clichés and stigmatising portrayals abound.
With Kois’ photographic portraits of residents and interviews conducted by Aklima, Runa, and myself, in Bengali and English, we sought to challenge this situation and place residents’ experiences and narratives at the centre of the living architecture of Robin Hood Gardens.
We interviewed 38 residents and two of the estate’s caretakers, in qualitative interviews lasting between ten minutes and two and a half hours, and photographed approximately 30 families or individuals. Semi-structured and often wide-ranging, the interviews focused on residents’ social, emotional, and sensory experiences of living on the estate, and their views about its demolition and regeneration, its representations in media and by government, and council housing.
The project was conducted between August 2014 and July 2017, with two late interviews and some photography between October 2020 and April 2022. Six interviews were held wholly or in part while walking around the estate, in conversations attentive to the architectural spaces we walked through and the dynamic qualities of the architecture apprehended through movement. One interview was held at an open-air café at nearby Chrisp Street Market, another at a community centre, and two online due to the Covid-19 pandemic, though most were conducted in residents’ homes. The photography and interviews often took place on the same visits.
We partnered with two local charities, South Poplar and Limehouse Action for Secure Housing (SPLASH) and Docklands Outreach. The directors of these charities, Sister Christine Frost and Runa Khalique, respectively, facilitated our first introductions, and Runa conducted interviews. We met and recruited other participants through word of mouth, striking up conversation while taking photographs and passing time on the estate, leafletting each apartment, and door knocking. Some residents preferred to be interviewed but not photographed, for others it was the reverse. Most chose to have their words identified by their first or full names, while some opted to use a pseudonym chosen by themselves.
Kois’ photographs from the project have twice been exhibited in physical space, under the title Lived Brutalism: Portraits at Robin Hood Gardens. The first exhibition, in 2016, was hosted close to the estate at St Matthias Community Centre. The second, in 2019, was held at Four Corners, a gallery with a history of community-focused film and photography in London’s Bethnal Green.
We are tremendously grateful to all the estate’s residents who took part in the project, who welcomed us into their homes, and who generously gave their time to teach us about life at Robin Hood Gardens. This exhibition is dedicated to them, and to the struggle for affordable, safe, and secure social housing in London and across the world.
One glorious summer’s day we filmed a continuous walk of all the estate’s streets in the sky, walking in sequence from top to bottom of each block, starting at the mound in the green. Though our steadicam was not as steady as it might have been, the film conveys the space of the street decks and the role of movement in apprehending the estate’s architecture. For us this walk and the film was also an act of homage and memorial. Stitched together, the clips make a 45-minute film of the route, which we projected on the gallery walls at the project’s exhibitions. In this online exhibition we include three short clips from the film, followed by a few clips that seek to convey a sense of the estate in its environment.