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Architecture Comment

London can’t make up its mind about its Brutalist past

7 August 2015

Robin Hood Gardens, a post-war housing estate in east London, looks set for demolition despite a vocal public campaign to save it. Heritage minister Tracey Crouch confirmed on Tuesday – in line with Historic England’s recommendations – that the building would not be listed. She also granted a certificate of immunity that prevents it being considered for government protection again until at least 2020. By that point, it seems likely that somebody will have knocked it down. Tower Hamlets, the council in charge of it, seems keen to see the back of it, and Swan Housing Group has major designs on the site.

The architects Alison and Peter Smithson envisaged the residential block, which was completed in 1972, as a series of ‘streets in the sky’ that could foster community within its own concrete walls. It’s safe to say that utopian vision was never realised, with inherent flaws to the building’s design (such as its narrow street decks) arguably worsened by chronic underinvestment. In 2009, English Heritage (now Historic England) advised that the building ‘fails as a place for human beings to live’. And yet a campaign to save it, spearheaded by the Twentieth Century Society, has won the support of such influential figures as Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid. The society argued the historic significance and rarity of the Smithsons’ design, (the influential duo worked on only a few projects in the UK), and suggested it be sympathetically refurbished rather than destroyed.

Brutalism (or more accurately, the concrete architecture of the 1960s and 70s: the term has expanded to encompass a variety of related styles), has been a headache for those in charge of urban planning for years. It attracts as many ardent advocates as it does vociferous critics. Just look at the confusion of ways in which London’s iconic examples have been treated in recent years. While Robin Hood Gardens is threatened with demolition, Ernő Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower in Poplar is being refurbished to attract a new and wealthier set of residents. On London’s Southbank the National Theatre and the Royal Festival Hall enjoy listed status, but the intervening parts of the same complex (including the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall) do not – and will not until at least 2017 when the latest certificate of immunity expires. Despite this, the Southbank Centre’s plans to redevelop the site were derailed in 2014 in light of a growing opposition to them. Is it any wonder that London can’t seem to decide how it feels about the latest landmark decision?

Whatever people think of these projects, the sad fact remains that there seems little to recommend the newer complexes springing up in their place. London’s housing crisis rarely escapes the news, but the glut of expensive yet architecturally forgettable developments in the city – which promise ‘affordable homes’ but often fail to deliver them – are frequently cited as part of the problem rather than its solution. From Vauxhall to the Olympic Park, glassy fronts are being raised within the city’s communities. In 40 years time will we think any better of them than the concrete blocks they replaced?

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