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Robin Hood 'homes v heritage': residents and architects clash

PUBLISHED: 18:22 14 March 2008 | UPDATED: 13:07 05 October 2010

That decorated doyen of British architecture Baron Richard Rogers wants to save this run-down 1970s housing block by the Blackwall Tunnel for the nation. It has led to a conflict with residents and Tower Hamlets councillors wanting it pulled down

That decorated doyen of British architecture Baron Richard Rogers wants to preserve this run-down 1970s housing block by the Blackwall Tunnel and save it for the nation. He compares the concrete Robin Hood Gardens to the great Georgian crescents of Royal Bath.

But the real tragedy is the appalling conditions which thousands of East Enders have been living in during the three decades since it was built, as this special Advertiser investigation reveals:

By Michael Parker

A PROJECT to regenerate a decaying housing estate that has inspired both love and hate has sparked a furious row in London's East End.

The Blackwall Reach regeneration scheme had its first stage redevelopment plan rubber stamped by Tower Hamlets cabinet last week, including the decision to demolish Robin Hood Gardens overlooking the A12 Blackwall Tunnel approach.

But demolition plans have caused an international outcry from 500 architects who have signed a petition demanding Robin Hood Gardens be saved and repaired.

The two recognisable blocks of flats, rising like walls in Poplar High-street, on the corner of Cotton-street, were built between 1969 and 1972 and designed by husband-and-wife architects Peter and Alison Smithson.

Some see the buildings as 'important examples of modernist architecture,' like Lloyds Building architect Richard Rogers, who praised their "heroic scale with beautiful, human proportions" in a letter to Culture Secretary Andy Burnham.

But the council would rather sweep away the seven-storey and 10-storey blocks to build new housing.

The grim, prison-like appearance of the blocks and its location, sandwiched between the busy A13 and A12, made Robin Hood Gardens unpopular from the outset.

The estate suffers problems with electrics, appalling damp, leaks, and crime after 36 years of chronic underinvestment.

Residents association chairman Akhtar Hussain has lived on the fifth floor with his wife, mother, daughter and son for 14 years. He has mixed feelings about the place.

"The community is fantastic," he tells you. "I couldn't imagine living with anyone else.

"But what I'd really like is this building to magically disappear and be replaced with a new one."

The wide landings that make it possible for neighbours to meet high above ground, and the cut-off location that offers few other alternatives, have pulled a community together.

But it's not enough, he says.

"Apparently a lot of architects want to save it," Akhtar notes.

"Well, I say let them come and live here, and we'll live in their Chelsea houses! Most people here want it pulled down."

His daughter Roshan, 13, however, doesn't have her head in the clouds with the high rise block she was brought up in.

"It's dirty and overcrowded," she says.

"The lights don't work and the lifts are full of spit.

"I just want to be somewhere else whenever I'm here."

It's worse on the ground floor, where 71-year-old East Ender Lloyd Harrison has lived for 21 years.

"It is the biggest dump," he says. "Stinking water come through from above.

"The roof leaks, it smells like stinking socks and there's an ocean of water in my garage. I'd be glad to see it go."

It's no joke when his wife Sophie cooking supper.

She chipped in: "When we cook, we have to cover the pans or else bits of the roof fall into the food."

There are dissenting voices, however. Shirley Magnitsky, 62, on the fifth floor, said: "It's a great place to live. The regeneration has got nothing to do with the design.

"The homes are run down because Tower Hamlets council won't spend money on them.

She adds with scepticism: "This is a prime spot, that's why they want to build 3,000 more homes here.

"The whole thing is about location and money."

English Heritage is currently researching the case for listing the buildings and would be presenting its findings to the Government next month.

michael.parker@archant.co.uk

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ADVERTISER SAYS: TEAR DOWN CONCRETE HORROR

BARON Richard Rogers of Riverside, the decorated doyen of British architecture, called last week for the dilapidated Robin Hood Gardens estate by the Blackwall Tunnel to be 'saved for the nation.'

"It is as good, if not better, than any modern building in Britain," he wrote in a letter to the Government.

He compared the impoverished estate to "the great Georgian crescents of Bath" and felt demolition of Robin Hood Gardens would be "a tragedy."

Well, the real tragedy, Lord Rogers, is the appalling condition in which thousands of East Enders have been forced to live during the three decades since the estate was built.

Your voice would have been welcome then.

It is 'a tragedy' indeed that this well-intentioned Robin Hood Gardens has been robbed of vital investment by the mean sheriffs of Tower Hamlets council and successive governments.

As Lord Rogers and his merry men prepare a case for listing by English Heritage, we and the residents so desperate to escape its gloom say Robin Hood Gardens is nothing more than a monument to failure.

Tower Hamlets council is right to want to start again.

But just as the council must carry the can for past sins, it must also protect the future of other parts of our cherished East End.

Councillors were deciding last night on planning permission for new giant tower blocks not three miles away in Bethnal Green.

Many fear these developments are the thin end of the wedge.

Our communities, already squeezed by the billion pound towers of Canary Wharf in the south, now face the might of the City Fringe spilling over from Bishopsgate in the west.

Yes, we need housing, but we need homes that we can genuinely afford... and green space to go with them.

These new developments provide little of either.

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