diamond geezer

 Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Next up, two classic 1960s Tower Hamlets estates with very different futures.

Open House: Robin Hood Gardens

A patch of land off Poplar High Street overlooking the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel ought not to be desirable real estate, not least because of the noise. The site was cleared by the GLC in the mid-Sixties and the challenge of rebuilding offered to the architects Alison and Peter Smithson. They adopted a novel approach, designing two long low concrete blocks with a large open space between, the taller eastern block forming a barrier to blot out the sound of the traffic. They also embraced the concept of the street in the sky, as at the contemporary Balfron Tower a few streets to the north. The end result is one of the most famous Brutalist council estates, much admired by those with a bent for architecture. But the scheme was never listed, and while the first residents in 1972 loved the place the latest residents aren't as keen, and so in a few months time its demolition begins.

Robin Hood Gardens looks nothing like any of the other housing in the area, more like a pair of gargantuan walls with windows, softened greatly by the contoured landscape inbetween. The older kids have a kickabout space at one end, probably not original, while the central grass and trees and mound don't see the toddler footfall they once did. A community centre of sorts lurks in one corner while I assume the vanful of police positioned in the road outside was a random weekend thing rather than a permanent presence. And although the estate's wide open, should you want to take a look, the walkways were sealed off some time back to help prevent vandalism and crime, so it was only thanks to a photography project (and Open House) that any of us got inside. I'd better not tell you how we unlocked the door.

The lifts aren't lovely, and the stairs not much better. They wind round a narrow stairwell with crumbling treads and poor sightlines, so were once places of fear, and the exits aren't exactly obvious either. The lowest elevated passageway comes at floor two, then five, then eight, due to the Trellick-like way the flats have been crammed in. Tenants live on two floors, alternating upwards then downwards from the front doors along each 'street'. These looked safe and homely over the weekend, with bikes and plants and even an exercise bike enlivening the alcoves, plus extended families wandering back with shopping and querulously eyeing up the middle class invaders.

Stepping inside your flat the hall's not enormous but the kitchen's large, that is assuming you want to use the space for cooking rather than dining. Most of everything else is upstairs (or downstairs, depending), in this case with four bedrooms and a living room leading off a labyrinthine landing. The whole set-up felt a little compact, although dimensions were in excess of the minimum standards laid down at the time, and the disrepair in the empty flat we got to view won't have helped. But there was a balcony, if you can call a ledge no more than one person deep running along the front of the flat a balcony, this doubling up as a fire exit in case of the unthinkable.

Having visited both the Balfron and Trellick Towers courtesy of Open House in previous years, there were a number of similarities to the feel of the place. But the flats at Robin Hood Gardens were perhaps a little less brutal, and with added layers of design, such as the way all the kitchens faced out over the central park so that Sixties mothers could watch over their Sixties kids while cooking. This was the only social housing that the Smithsons ever built, even though they entered every municipal competition going, and the 20th Century Society have used this and several other mitigating reasons to try to get the building listed. But there are better examples elsewhere, the argument goes, and a lack of care means that the structure is economically past the point of saving.

What happens next is Blackwall Reach. This multi-stage project is a joint venture between Tower Hamlets and a housing group, and phase 1 beside the East India Dock Road is already complete. This has allowed the council to move everyone out of the western block (or disperse them elsewhere if their tenancy wasn't protected), which now stands empty. Phase 2 will see the western block demolished, starting in the New Year, and when that's complete in a couple of years those in the eastern block will move across. The replenished estate will eventually have 1500 flats rather than the current 214, with half deemed affordable and an overall increase in socially rented homes. In further good news they're keeping the open space in the centre, but marketing to the over-privileged of Docklands has already begun, and the dynamic of the site is going to change utterly.

You have approximately four months to come down and see Robin Hood Gardens in its natural denuded state (and pick a bright day if you can to bring out the monolithic splendour of the concrete). This time next year it'll resemble more of a worksite, and by the end of the decade we'll have to rely on photos to remember. And while the replacement architecture won't look awful, it won't look amazing either, just another bog standard late-2010s estate, and I very much doubt that Open House will ever be coming back. [10 photos]

Open House: Cranbrook Estate

To Bethnal Green and a site off Roman Road, south of Victoria Park, formerly covered by workshops and terraced houses. In 1955 the council decided upon wholesale clearance, with all the existing residents to be rehoused in a new high-rise neighbourhood of groundbreaking design. The architects they appointed included Berthold Lubetkin, the modernist pioneer, in what was to be his final public scheme. His plans for development included fifteen-, thirteen- and eleven-storey blocks, each with four flats per floor, plus some rather lower infill and a row of old people's bungalows out front. Each tower was named after one of Bethnal Green's twin towns - they had enough in those days - and the development was officially opened in 1965. [history here]

Although densely-plotted the site feels spacious, with plenty of open space and little in the way of traffic. Originally the street pattern was based on two diagonal axes, but that's since been upgraded to a figure of eight to make vehicular access a bit easier. The exterior of each block features characteristic green cladding arranged as at the intersections of a grid, and the windows alternate in pairs to accommodate shifts in the balcony space at each corner. Oh, and you'll have seen the Cranbrook Estate on TV, if only fleetingly, as it was where Little Britain's Lou and Andy used to live, not that this is particularly relevant architecturally-speaking.

What happens if you add a Modernist housing estate to the Open House listings for the first time is that dozens of people turn up. A good idea, then, to have opened up the estate's Community Centre for an informative exhibition of photographs showing before, during and after construction, plus the official mayoral programme for the opening ceremony. An inspirational idea to have a handful of long-standing residents present to provide first-hand reminiscence (they were lovely, as you'd expect). And an exceedingly brave idea to invite members of the public into your flat, especially when there are quite so many of them, and your flat isn't especially enormous.

The stairwells are magnificent, a very Lubetkian trait, in the case of Mödling House a teardrop-shaped lightwell with a single railing spiralling down fourteen floors. The council later added bobbles to the banister to discourage boisterous children from skidding down the banister, although I suspect vertigo would be the clincher for most. As at Robin Hood Gardens the central circulatory space used to be open access, but about twenty years ago the council added ground level entry doors which means only those with friends here will ever see inside, but no doubt makes residents feel a lot more comfortable.

Into the flat we crowded, impressed that the hallway was large enough to hold us all, although the living room with all its furniture was more of a squeeze. Originally all the walls were painted battleship grey, bar one in each room which was instead pillarbox red, if you can imagine living under such indecorous conditions. Free underfloor heating was provided, a municipal perk which was rapidly withdrawn once the council worked out how much cheaper giving every flat its own boiler would be. Our Open House host was extremely keen to share her enthusiasm for the building, and rightly so, though with a mild hint of terror at the thought that one day Tower Hamlets might decide it's time to build something new. As yet there's no sign, hurrah, as these homes of character pass their half-century unscathed. [6 photos]

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