The Smithsons on Housing, 1970
Robin Hood Gardens is being demolished, which is perhaps what spurred the posting of this 1970 BBC documentary of Peter and Alison Smithson talking about the design of Robin Hood Gardens, the conditions they found in Britain after the war, the lack of intelligent housing. It is filmed in classic Grierson style by B S Johnson with long slow pans of the project in construction interspersed with Alison and Peter talking about it: Alison with a strangely constructed accent — Alison from Doncaster in north-east England, who studied architecture in an era when no women studied architecture without a lot of trouble and yet, with the earnest Peter in a sparkly silver tie, can speak so passionately about the hopes and expectations of architecture while wearing a silver leather jacket. I don't think we have any idea what her back story was.
The documentary style with the slow pans: compared to today when no image is allowed to be seen for more than a second, preferably shorter, this was typical of the still, contemplative, postwar mise-en-scène of longueurs, of silences, of the populating of landscapes with people just outside the frame. It is a style revisited by Patrick Keiller in London, 1994 – the same slow suppressed anger. The Smithsons On Housing is strangely elegiac considering it was made before Robin Hood Gardens was even finished.
Why did Robin Hood Gardens become redundant? Society changed, moved on. The housing Robin Hood Gardens replaced was a Victorian fabric of terraces: no front or back yards, back-to-back brick rows and shared privies, incapable of expansion or change, interspersed with temporary wartime housing and outmoded dockland infrastructure. Robin Hood Gardens replaced fabric with an exceptional model: expandable, collective, much open space for children, all on the CIAM derivée: one lives up in the light and air and frees the ground plane for play. This isn't fabric, although the people destined to live in it were the fabric of the working class. By the late 1960s when the project was designed, that class was in violent transition; when Mrs Thatcher declared there was no such thing as society and arranged for the privatisation of council housing, projects such as Robin Hood Gardens – which relied on social solidarity, a shared understanding of values and one's place in life – became not only redundant, but an active hindrance to individualistic striving.
Somehow Robin Hood Gardens and the Smithson's earnest, thoughtful, intelligent analysis of what was needed in housing completely misinterpreted the times. Typically it is architects who wanted the buildings listed and protected rather than condemned: a handsome place to live with all its trailing social idealism and visions of a collective understanding of deep history and place, of London's industrial past, of – above all – solidarity, a now deeply outmoded concept.
The 5 acre site that had carried Robin Hood Gardens's 252 units in what had been the Poplar district, will be part of a larger 7.7ha (19 acre) Blackwall Reach development of 1575 units, double the density. The demographic has changed, the regeneration of East London is in full flow: how many new reports did we see in the run-up to the Olympics from that extremely glitzy, high-end shopping mall with reporters saying 'this isn't the old east end' ? – dozens. However the new schemes still show tower blocks, slab bars of housing, green parks between; the buildings will still be concrete, but now they look white, rather than concrete-coloured. There is a homeowners association, thus there is a financial commitment by future occupants to Blackwall Reach: it will be a 30-year mortgage rather than a weekly rent. Is this the significant difference? Participation in a financial structure which has shown in the past few years to be so unsteady and insecure?
Robin Hood Gardens could have been renovated, restored, divided into separate titles even, but its form is so embedded with a belief in the essential good of government and people, betrayed as soon as the building opened in 1972, that it has become a tragic glyph in a rather tougher economic text.