The tussle over the fate of an east end council block stepped up a gear over the weekend, as a heavyweight “starchitect” and a respected art critic both sided with a campaign to save the building.
Robin Hood Gardens, a 1972-built concrete block in Poplar, was recently singled out as a failed estate by local MP and culture minister Margaret Hodge, who wants it demolished. However, it has been defended by Richard Rogers and Jonathan Glancey, who claim it is a modernist masterpiece in urgent need of preservation – a viewpoint not shared by the block’s 400 residents, most of whom are clamouring for it to be torn down.
In a letter to Culture Secretary Andy Burnham, Rogers offered his opinion that the block, built by husband-and-wife team Peter and Alison Smithson, is a unique artefact, reminiscent of Bath’s Georgian era Royal Crescent. Which it sort of is, if you squint a bit, and mentally superimpose some greenery over the grime and graffiti. The residents’ association, however, disagrees, accusing the campaign of proffering a high-minded opinion that ignores the endemic crime and social strife.
This may be so, but is the building’s architecture really to blame? London’s Brutalist icons often suffer less from flaws in the original design than from subsequent neglect by penny-pinching councils. While the Gardens may have rotted, Erno Goldfinger‘s nearby Balfron Tower, and the Trellick Tower in Notting Hill, have benefited from subtle yet significant refurbishments. The once-loathed buildings are now des-res magnets for design minded folk who fall over themselves to get on the waiting list. Who’s to say that a tasteful renewal of Robin Hood, putting it back in touch with the egalitarian context in which it was built, wouldn’t have the same effect?
The cost of refurbishing Robin Hood Gardens has been estimated at £70,000 per unit, which is certainly affordable, but given the lack of enthusiasm from both government and residents, seems unlikely to happen. However, the matter may be taken out of their hands: English Heritage is to decide whether or not the building should be listed, and will present their findings to the government in the next two months.
Image courtesy of joseph beuys hat’s Flickrstream