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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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