Housing

A new photo exhibition is telling the stories of the people who lived at iconic Brutalist estate Robin Hood Gardens

The spotlight is on social housing, and hearing more residents’ voices – now a new exhibition is bringing out the views of the people who lived at a demolished Brutalist London estate

Robin Hood Gardens social housing

Azezzun Zahraah, one of the few leaseholders at Robin Hood Gardens, on her maisonette’s escape balcony in the east block in September 2014. Image: Kois Miah

Depending on who you ask, Robin Hood Gardens was either a modern masterpiece of Brutalist design or a concrete monstrosity, but when the London estate was demolished, it was the voices of the people who lived there that were missing.

A new online exhibition – called Brutalism as Found – is hoping to right that wrong, showcasing the stories of residents through powerful images and their own words.

The exhibition comes at a time when the spotlight is on social housing – driven by the campaigning of Kwajo Tweneboa and the death of Rochdale toddler Awaab Ishak – and giving tenants more of a voice to speak up about problems with their homes. 

“Robin Hood Gardens has been one of the most talked about housing estates in the UK, but whether it was celebrated as a modernist masterpiece or demonised as a concrete monstrosity, the views of the people who actually lived there were almost entirely absent from the debate,” said Nick Thoburn, a lecturer at the University of Manchester who covered the last years of Robin Hood Gardens with photographer Kois Miah.

Robin Hood Gardens social housing
Modernist marvel? Brutalist brilliance? Concrete monstrosity? Robin Hood Gardens divided opinion before it was demolished. Image: Kois Miah
Robin Hood Gardens
The ‘streets in the sky’ approach set Robin Hood Gardens apart. Image: Kois Miah
Robin Hood Gardens
Touris Miah, pictured in a lift lobby of the west block, said: “The building is one of a kind. Have you seen anything like this around here? There’s nothing like its scale.” Image: Kois Miah

He added: “I think it’s very timely. There’s a sense that Robin Hood Gardens has been lost but some of the interventions we’re making with the images are much broader in context and potential impact.”

Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, east London, was designed by pioneering British architects Alison and Peter Smithson and was notable for its experimental ‘streets in the sky’ approach when it opened in 1972.

The indoor-outdoor yard gardens and the large light-filled rooms overlooking landscaped public spaces retained their charm, but by the time it was partially demolished in 2017, the estate had suffered from local-authority under-funding and neglect.

social housing Robin Hood Gardens
The exhibition follows Nicholas Ruddock as he leaves Robin Hood Gardens for the last time. Image: Kois Miah
social housing Robin Hood Gardens
These friends lived on the estate since the mid-1980s. When asked if they had used the green as children, one of the five, Musa, told Thoburn: “Oh my gosh, Nick, we lived there!” Image: Kois Miah
social housing Robin Hood Gardens
The estate’s football pitch is the home of Robin Hood Tigers FC. with whom the estate’s name lives on after demolition. Image: Kois Miah

Still, Robin Hood Gardens’ demolition proved a contentious move with architects calling for the buildings to be preserved. The V&A Museum took note and maintained a three-storey section of the building to keep its heritage alive.

As the bulldozers moved closer, Thoburn and Miah, alongside researchers Aklima Begum and Runa Khalique, set out to find out what residents thought about life on the estate.

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The result is 140 striking images and interviews with residents alongside the original architectural drawings and photographs by the Smithsons packaged in the online exhibition.

The exhibition tells the story of people like the Fakamus family.

Miah captured the family as they prepared to visit church on a Sunday morning in November 2016.

The Fakamus family, pictured on their way to church, believed the communal balconies were a bonus. Image: Kois Miah
Robin Hood Gardens social housing
Academic Nick Thoburn argued that it wasn’t the Brutalist design frustrated Robin Hood Gardens residents, it was the neglect and lack of investment. Image: Kois Miah

William and Laetitia Fakamus spoke about their love of the social, spatial and sensory qualities of the ‘streets in the sky’ approach which meant shared balconies rather than private ones.

“Here we all know each other,” said William. “but if you go into a private balcony you will know nothing or nobody.”

Meanwhile, Laetitia spoke of using the balconies as a catwalk, imagining she was a fashion model when she was younger.

social housing Robin Hood Gardens
Green spaces were included in Robin Hood Gardens’ design, allowing Abdul Rahim to grow plants. Image: Kois Miah

Abdul Rahim, who has now passed away, told Thoburn and Miah of his ability to grow seeds and plants in the estate’s open green spaces.

Meanwhile, Motiur Rahman shared his first memories of seeing Robin Hood Gardens as a nine year old. “You know, it has its gritty side, but I didn’t sense that when I first saw it – I was just wowed by the vastness.” 

He added: “It is imposing, it is also ugly, and in a weird way that is the beauty of it, the attraction of it. You look at the buildings springing up, they are so ‘plasticky’ or ‘glassy’ or just all the ‘samey,’ but Robin Hood Gardens was unique.”

social housing Robin Hood Gardens
Architects, scholars and locals debated the value of Robin Hood Gardens before it was demolished but the V&A Museum saw it fit to preserve a three-storey section. Image: Kois Miah
social housing Robin Hood Gardens
Robin Hood Gardens has now been demolished to be replaced with a new development. Image: Kois Miah

Thoburn and Miah hope the exhibition will shift the narrative about the value of social housing and Brutalism and change views on demolition and regeneration.

They found residents generally enjoyed living on the estate and were angered by the neglect and disinvestment in maintaining it, not the architecture.

Today, a new development is being built on the site but Thoburn believes the story of Robin Hood Gardens’ tenants could have plenty to say on the present-day battles against climate and housing crises

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“Tens of thousands of council homes have been demolished in recent decades, and around 100 London estates are currently under threat of destruction,” said Thoburn. “Estate demolition is a tremendously damaging process – both socially for the displaced communities, and environmentally due to the carbon emissions created by demolition and rebuilding.

“It is driven not by need – as is often claimed – but simply by a booming construction and housing industry that reaps vast rewards from soaring land values and house prices.”

To view the online exhibition at Brutalism as Found’s website or check out Nick Thoburn’s book. Testimony from other residents and further social and architectural analysis of Robin Hood Gardens can be found in Thoburn’s book by the same title.

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