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Robin Hood Gardens: How the housing of the future became a relic of the past

Robin Hood Gardens in east London was an experiment in communal living but less than 50 years later a slice of it is now a museum piece. Architect Sam Jacob tells The Big Issue what this says about how we want to live

The Big Issue: An eight-tonne section of Robin Hood Gardens is being preserved by the V&A and transported to Venice for the Architecture Biennale. You have been in charge of the British Pavilion at the event – what do you make of this?

Sam Jacobs: When I did the British Pavilion it was to tell the story of British modernism leading up to the post-war New Towns – how people reimagined better cities, ways of living and ideas of what it is to be a citizen. This was eventually articulated in urban planning projects like Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities, which took the best of the city and the best of the country to produce what turned out to be Welwyn Garden City and Letchworth.

That model was important in the post-war period of reconstruction alongside a drive to build a better, fairer Britain – certainly in the New Town projects that ran from 1946 until the mid-Seventies.

Each was an experiment in how to make a better, more equal and more pleasant world to live in.

And Robin Hood Gardens is part of a certain idea of social housing. In terms of who it is for, but also in the generosity of the design. The big space between the blocks is not the most efficient way of using land, but was offered to the community and residents in a way we don’t see now.

So there are two sides to its demolition. One is that it is an important piece of architecture by important architects. But it is also a demolition of a certain idea about society, which seems a terrible shame. The idea of taking a section of it to Venice is about raising these issues. How should we try to create new housing, how do we make it affordable, who should it be for – can we find a way to address the urgent concerns about affordability?

This feels like a monument, a requiem and a challenge – a moment in the past that will never exist again. We will never fund public housing in the same way. But we need to figure ways to create a different approach to providing these kinds of facilities.

English Heritage said it failed as a place for humans to live…

The idea of buildings failing is interesting. Because in the long term, buildings reinvent themselves. Think of all the Georgian houses that were not considered fit for human habitation. So many were pulled down. Now, those that survived are some of the most desirable places in London. Buildings are connected to society and the lives that are lived in them. That changes over time. So a snap judgment is often short-sighted. This idea you demolish things you think have failed is not a sustainable way to think about buildings.

RobinHood_embed
The section that will be shown by the V&A at the Venice Architecture Biennale

Will it provoke debate about the future of social housing and how we design for now?

It is already a big issue. Local authorities are now thinking about how, given their continuing funding issues, they can build more affordable, social or even council housing. The GLA [Greater London Authority]  are providing loans for local authorities to begin to build again – and different authorities are trying different methods, some becoming developers, others doing deals with developers.

It feels like nothing happened for 30 years, between Right To Buy and now this was an ignored policy area.

Councils were unable to do anything, architects were unable to do anything because they need a client. The statement of Robin Hood Gardens is a challenge: we have to learn from the past and deal with the present. It is important to look back but not be too nostalgic about that post-war period. We need that urgency now – the things beginning to happen might not be perfect, but they might be better than waiting before doing anything.

What is the architects’ job from here?

The solution is to do with sharing expertise and knowledge. For too long the template was to hand over responsibility to the private sector, whose first responsibilities are to shareholders, not the community or the citizens.

Now there is no template. So figuring out how to make public spaces that benefit the public good and include housing is really important. We need to get together, try new ways, but we also have to operate within the economic circumstances we find ourselves in.

We need to regain the confidence to experiment. We don’t know exactly how people want to live these days

Is the temptation to just build smaller homes?

Some argue that is a good thing. We can build more homes, and our ways of living now are different to the 1950s, 1930s or 1870s. Others say you need proper space standards.

But maybe there is room for both – we need to be more open to different solutions, to different ways of living – because if you are single in your early 20s you have different needs to if you are older with a large extended family. Allowing both approaches to co-exist could be really good.

We’ve seen with anti-homeless spikes and modified benches a tendency towards making public space a hostile environment for
some people.

There are developments where large parts of what was once public space have become privatised. Then developers essentially present part of it as a gift to the community, when it is exactly the opposite way around. Think of Elephant Park that Lendlease are building in Elephant and Castle.

It is presented as a beautiful oasis of nature where children can play, wrapped up as some kind of incredible gift when actually it belonged to us in the first place. That sleight of hand is very disturbing.

LetchworthGardenCity1912
Letchworth Garden City – 1912. Designed by Ebenzer Howard

Would The Garden Bridge have been another example?

Absolutely. All those spaces, the new King’s Cross, St Martins by the canal, Paternoster Square by St Paul’s – which famously closed during the Occupy movement – they present themselves as parts of the city open to all. But they are not. There are rules, by-laws, and security guards maintaining one way of being in the city. And if you don’t belong to that, you are not welcome.

It is duplicitous. It looks like it belongs to us but doesn’t. And it is a dangerous development, because it is difficult to take it back once it has gone into private control. How do we make it part of the city again? So a space might look open, you might be able to walk through it, but there are invisible barriers and walls. It is so different to the idea of parks and public spaces as democratic places where we can all participate. It is to do with the editing, closing, controlling, cleansing and shrinking the possibilities of what you might do or who you might be.

If you were housing minister, what would you do on day one in office?

There are two key things: make land available for the right kind of projects, providing forms of social housing, and make funding available to build them. It is really easy! The arguments about the economics are often short-sighted. In those post-war New Towns, the investment was recouped many times over.

Derek Walker, who was chief architect of Milton Keynes, told me when Margaret Thatcher opened the shopping centre there she said to him: ‘Isn’t it amazing what the private sector can do?’ A complete misunderstanding. It had been built by the public sector. A brand-new kind of shopping centre, all about making really good public spaces. It was a big public-sector investment.

ThatcherMKSC
Thatcher meets her public when opening the Central Milton Keynes Shopping Centre in 1979

Coming to social housing – what is required for the way we live now and where we live now?

First of all we need to make land and money available. Secondly we need to regain the confidence to experiment. We don’t know exactly how people want to live these days. One of the amazing things about looking back at places like Robin Hood Gardens – they might not always have been right, but they were trying their best to be right. They were really thinking hard about what it meant to make a community, to make somewhere great to live. Nobody knows exactly what will work. But trying to make people live as though they are still in the 1930s is a surefire way to build bad housing which won’t last.

How has Grenfell Tower impacted on the conversations?

It demands a serious response. We need to think about the technical stuff, fire ratings and building regulations, but a wider issue is the corners that have been cut, the lack of investment, the lack of proper maintenance. If that is not a wake-up call, I don’t know what will ever wake us up.

samjacob.com

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