How a council housing estate split families between the bulldozer or ‘saving it for the nation’
- Credit: Kois Miah
The lives of East End families living in a nine-year war between architects trying to preserve their massive concrete housing estate and the local authority itching to pull the whole lot down are chronicled in a poignant exhibition opening today.
Images by press photographer Kois Miah reveal what life was like in the last years before Poplar's hotly-contested Robin Hood Gardens estate was finally knocked down are being staged at Bethnal Green's Four Corners Gallery.
They reveal the lives, emotions, and routines that animate this 1970s council housing experiment, showing 'brutalism' as a living architecture.
His portraits show a vibrant community—not the melancholia for an outmoded social experiment as council estates are often portrayed.
Robin Hood Gardens was a product of the post-war 'brutalist architecture' period when all that was important was putting up quick concrete towers to house as many families as you could cram in from post-war slum clearances.
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Its broad walkways or "streets in the sky" aimed to lift the homes into the air to foster a sense of community.
Whole generations have grown up on the estate since it opened in 1972 next to the Blackwall Tunnel entrance, like Motiur Rahman who lived there 23 years.
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"The walkways were like being in Bangladesh," he recalls. "People did unbelievable things on them, riding bikes—often four bikes going past each other at a time.
"During Eid the doors would be open and you had swathes of people going up and down the walkways in their glitzy outfits, going into people's homes, eating samosas. It gave you the opportunity to live an outdoor life."
But the perceived "concrete monster" architecture soon attracted criticism of its inward-looking 'prison block' structure isolating the estate from the rest of Poplar.
That drew counter-fire from leading architects coming to its defence as an example of modernism in post-war town planning.
The doyen of the architecture world, Baron Rogers, wanted it saved for the nation and compared it to the great Georgian crescents of Royal Bath.
One tenant, Poplar-born Darren Pauling who had lived on the estate since 1999, wrote to the East London Advertiser in 2010 claiming "the whole propaganda machine" during consultations for the Blackwall Reach regeneration that was to replace Robin Hood Gardens had been "set on the families like a feral dog". The council's doorstep poll showing "80 per cent" wanting it demolished came from a response of just 94 households out of 250, we reported at the time, which he worked out should have read 30 per cent!
But in the end the propaganda got through and the estate's fate was sealed.
Sociology lecturer Nick Thoburn, who carried out a three-year study of the estate with photographer Kois, said: "Council estates are often stigmatised or described as belonging to the past, helping to justify demolition and rebuilding in what amounts to a massive land grab by property developers and speculators.
"These images stand against those negative accounts, celebrating a vibrant community and the experience of experimental social architecture which was cut short by so-called 'regeneration'."
A three-storey fragment of facades and interiors of a maisonette was strangely acquired in 2017 by the Victoria and Albert Museum during the demolition, as an example of 'brutalist' architecture and social housing. Robin Hood Gardens had an internationally-recognised structure by the protagonists of the 'brutalist' movement, the V&A's contemporary architecture curator Dr Neil Bingham noted.
'Brutalism' emerged in the 1950s with its exposed concrete facades in repeating geometrical forms. The late Smithsons husband-and-wife team coined the term 'brutalism' when they designed Robin Hood Gardens as their vision for social housing with its elevated 'streets in the sky'.
No other work of social housing in Britain had divided public opinion so much, prompting the largest-ever campaign in architectural preservation by the Twentieth Century Society.
But in the end it was a bold decision by Tower Hamlets Council in 2008 to let loose the bulldozers on the now leaking, drafty structures and start again from scratch.
The exhibition opening today at Bethnal Green's Four Corners Gallery, 121 Roman Road, runs till June 8.