Last month I cycled the four miles between two of London’s most iconic brutalist housing estates, the Barbican and Robin Hood Gardens. Both were designed by eminent architects around 40 years ago. Both have been praised and condemned in equal measure. One is a private estate and one is social housing. One is thriving, the other facing demolition.I doubt it’ll take a genius to guess which.
Their contrasting fortunes say a great deal about British housing policy over the past 40 years.Really?
The Barbican, with more than 2,000 homes, is a frequent winner of London’s ugliest building award. Yet its homes are very desirable, with penthouses going for more than £4m. Designed by Le Corbusier devotees Chamberlin, Powell and Bon it features raised walkways, gardens and lush greenery. The estate has an army of caretakers and porters, and service charges range from £1,700 to £16,000 a year. Robin Hood Gardens, a stone’s throw from Canary Wharf, was designed by Alison and Peter Smithson for the Greater London Council (GLC). There is a wonderful film online made by cult novelist BS Johnson which catches their rather snooty attitude. Two massive slab blocks enclose a large open space and a two-storey high hill. It was modelled on the “little pool of calm” at Gray’s Inn and it is astonishingly peaceful, given that the site is surrounded by major roads. The estate is innovative, with deflecting acoustic walls, “streets in the sky” and innovative internal layouts.Right, so clearly, the failing estate isn’t down to poor design, poor location, or anything else.
Can we get a clue about what might be the cause?
I visited on a bleak December day with London-based British artist Jessie Brennan. She has worked on the estate for the past two years and has published a book, Regeneration!, about the experience. Her drawings depicting the metaphorical crumpling of the estate were commissioned by the Foundling Museum for Progress in 2014. We met on the hill in between the two blocks, like spies in a cold war film.The windows and concrete mullions are crumbling and the blocks have none of the greenery that softens the concrete facades of the Barbican. Many residents have fitted security grilles to their flats, suggesting a fear of other residents or outsiders, or both.Aha! There’s a clue!
Abdul Kalam, a former resident who participated in Brennan’s project, summarised how many resident feel: “They are basically driving the poor people out”.Yes. Because for most of these places, it’s the people inside them that are the problem.
Not all of them, of course, but once the percentage of bad apples gets above 5%, the place is doomed.