What are we reaching for?
The right to a place to live should be a human right. The gradual demise of the housing estate in the UK, particularly in London but not exclusively, is astonishing. Since World War II, housing estates, usually affordable social housing, would be an achievable place to inhabit, whatever your circumstances as a more affluent population demanded larger, widely spaced places to live. The accommodation wouldn't necessarily be particularly desirable but the idea of somewhat communal living, as the Smithson's described it, 'a new mode of urban organisation' would be realistic for those living in it and for the powers that be who may have the privilege to maintain and own it. Many of these housing estates, particularly (as pictured) Robin Hood Gardens, were architecturally designed and built 'not for the occupying generation but for the generations that follow'. The concept of futureproofing the future of housing and those residents is definitely evident in the sharp rise in the building of housing estates immediately following World War II, as a simple solution to a housing crisis there and then.
I'd like to bring in the idea of 'reaching' as a concept, which is pertinent to the images which surround this book. Across the road from Robin Hood Gardens, we will soon have Blackwall Reach. Fancy.
I'd like to explore the wider concept of housing, in relation to what we are ultimately striving for in this world in relation to urban planning and living.
So, what were we reaching for back then? Was it successful?
Alison and Peter Smithson, the coiners of the term 'brutalism', influenced the ideas around housing for centuries to come. Robin Hood Gardens was one of the most ambitious housing projects of its time, completely supported by the state. It was a completely practical solution to a very current problem. At the time of the release of the now very pertinent film directed by Ken Loach Cathy Come Home in 1966, 1 in 10 households were overcrowded, house building was at an all time low and there were 200,000 more families in the area which the film documented than there was the homes to put them all into. The Smithson's architectural vision was forward thinking, revolutionary of the time and was future proofed for many years to come - describing their ethos as being to build a place to live with 'special character', and to be 'capable of being lived in generation after generation, perhaps at the time, too good for the people that were going to live in it'. Robin Hood Gardens provided 252 homes, a community where you knew everyone on your 'street in the sky', the rooms were large. Ultimately, the solution the Smithson's came up with was a decent fix to a problem which existed. What the Smithson's were reaching for (fixing a problem, providing a community, decent family living space, an affordable place to live) was completely achievable, at the time, but the gradual demise of the estate because of lack of responsibility taken by local stakeholders, the GLC, Tower Hamlets, others I have failed to mention, have left the people living there feeling 'driven out'.
And what are we striving for now? Is this achievable, maintainable and even worth doing?
The death of such a place like Robin Hood Gardens, and frankly any other housing estate is typical, shameful and extraordinary. The revitalisation, gentrification, redevelopment is summed up within Robin Hood Gardens. Robin Hood Gardens represents the gradual demise, neglect and falling apart of council housing across the UK. This is crucially because of a obvious lack of responsibility taken upon local decision makers, Tower Hamlets Council and the GLC amongst others, who have forced residents because of their non-committal attitude towards social housing projects.
However, building a culture in which housing in community orientated, affordable, maintenance and benefiting all, not just those who are fortunate enough to build and manage it, is achievable. Pembury Circus in Hackney has been described as the 'a model for London's housing future'. Pembury Circus is a mixed use development which houses 268 flats and in built in the mind of the local community, including a branch of the Co-op, a community space, a nursery and other amenities available to all. Crucially, nearly half of the flats, 114 of them in fact, are considered 'affordable'. Pembury Circus has managed to do all of the other things that other housing estates may aspire to do, be visually appealing somewhat, provide affordability, efficiency, make use of space creatively and houses a relatively high number of individuals.
Of course, I'm not arguing against the fact that housing needs to naturally be replaced, but an ounce of care towards the architecture which already exists wouldn't go a miss, the people that have established a lifestyle in that particular environment will find movement deeply unsettling. Moving people, like human cargo, is plainly not as easy as it sounds, memories are left behind, life's are severely disrupted and residents find it impossible to plan a future for themselves if they are constantly in limbo about their housing situation.
Considering the natural replacement of housing, which is replacing perfectly acceptable homes, if maintenance and long term future proofing was a concept considered by council, this natural replacement is building multiple pieces of architecture as well as a culture where it is perfectly acceptable to just build the housing of which the property developers, housing associations, even councils would like to build, not considering the cliental of which will be residing in these environments.
What those who have wealth, influence, decision making power, whatever you'd like to term it as, is not a realistic way forward for dealing with the 21st Century housing crisis we currently find ourselves in, it is maintainable for those at the top who have the ability this such housing stock however gradually we will see residents of housing estates, living a perfectly acceptable affordable life before these problems, on our streets, joining the thousands of others who find themselves residing on our streets.