Conversation between Ollie & Tommy 

Streets
In The Sky,
Head
In The Clouds

Robin Hood Gardens, a stone’s throw from Canary Wharf, was designed by Alison and Peter Smithson for the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1966. As it stands today, it is in a state of material decay, brought on by a lack of resource to fully maintain it over its forty-four years of life. A redevelopment scheme, involving the demolition of Robin Hood Gardens, was approved in 2012, after rejection by the government in 2009 of an attempt supported by a number of notable architects to head off redevelopment by securing listed status for the estate. Demolition of the western block began in August 2017, now in 2018 parts of the building are taken apart and are possibly going to be exhibited at the Venice Biennial. Since the completion of the build, Robin Hood Gardens has probably gathered to itself more mythology than any other social housing in Britain, certainly than any other in London. On Tuesday 5 September 2017, Tommy Spitters and Oliver Long took a walk around the estate to discuss whether communications can have a role in solving the issues surrounding the housing crisis.

O So what did you think of Robin Hood Gardens?

T I think I was wrong…

O About what?

T Remember when we had that conversation about the nostalgia that surrounds Brutalist buildings? At the time I thought that if Robin Hood Gardens was dead, let it die - if it had failed, it had failed. I thought trying to revive it wasn’t going to work. But just by walking around it, it seems like it could actually be revived. The infrastructure seems to be there and although we didn’t go in any the houses themselves, the concepts still seem to make sense. It’s a shame it hasn’t been allowed to exist.

O Anyone can go on YouTube and watch videos of people saying how it wasn’t ever really looked after by the council because Brutalism fell out of popular interest. Lots of architects seem to have differing views on all of this. I think the nostalgia thing is interesting... and problematic.

T Yeah, I think the nostalgia thing kinda comes in two parts. Have you read ‘Concretopia’ by John Grindrod?

OL No? silly name.

T Ha, It’s a bit twee, but it also comes recommended by Owen Hatherley [British writer and journalist based in London who writes primarily about architecture, politics and culture]. The nostalgia is justified because imagine how great it would've been at the time when these things were built. I mean, it came into existence when people needed houses after the war and they needed somewhere to live that was actually clean and efficient.

O Yeah, it was revolutionary at the time!

T Exactly, It fulfilled a function and it did it well. Since falling out of favour it now seems to be back in fashion but purely from an aesthetic perspective.

O I see so many 'cute' paper Barbicans and tote bags that say 'BRUTAL' on them. It's become so popular. Do you truly think the recent boom of pop brutalism is purely aesthetically charged? Or do you think there is a political motivation behind some of it?

T I think there's both. I guess you have two camps, don’t you. You have the people who are fighting for the social housing that does exist to be maintained and then you have the people who are like “Oh, Balfron tower, Trellick tower - How beautiful! I want to live there!”

O Yeah, it’s almost like the style is being fetishised.

T Yeah, but I understand where they're coming from. If I could live there, in a building like Robin Hood Gardens, I would. It’s beautiful. And that's a testament to how successful they are as places to live. It’s complicated.

O Very complicated!

T What about us though? Do communications have a role in talking about the issues surrounding the housing crisis?

O You see all these people on Twitter saying “this or that place is getting knocked down” and it's really hard to know how much of it is true. Maybe there should be some sort of role for councils to provide education about its architecture and what’s happening with it. I guess the only way of finding out what is actually needed is to actually be talking to more Londoners that are experiencing extreme cases of gentrification.

T I guess the problem with assuming design can help in a situation like this, is that the majority of groups that work in support of keeping social housing alive are grassroot type organisations. They don’t have a big audience and design won't necessarily take them into the mainstream. It could help, I guess. It might help raise their profile a little. But if you think about E15 [a campaign group born in September 2013 when a group of young mothers were served eviction notices by East Thames Housing Association after Newham Council cut its funding to the Focus E15 hostel for young homeless people] - well they’ve garnered big press features on their own and their message hasn’t yet made the jump into public discourse.

O Do you think designers have a responsibility to give voice to groups like Focus E15? Do you think we can?

T I think working on a campaign alongside a group like E15 can help go some way reaching an audience. Maybe it's not the biggest audience but it's an audience. So there is still a point in doing it. It’s justifiable and it could be good.

O What about directly contacting some councils within London for the sake of actually interrogating how we could help? At least we could start a conversation?

T I guess another problem is that the councils are normally the ones who are doing it. Take what’s going on with Haringey. [Haringey council plans to demolish whole streets of publicly owned buildings as part of a vast regeneration project in which 6,400 new homes will be built. Under a controversial deal with private property firm Lendlease, public assets will be transferred into a new company, the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV), owned 50/50 by Haringey council and Lendlease, in a deal set to last 20 years.]

O ...

T Yeah, the problem is that this isn't happening in a vacuum, Haringey council were forced into a corner because central government weren't giving them any money to maintain the land so it was like, either we let the housing fall into complete disrepair or we sell it and hope that it becomes ‘affordable’ housing. Even if it's not really affordable. The point is, councils are in between a rock and a hard place and it’s hard to place blame solely on them.

O I’ve worked with councils before and they all say the same sort of thing: that they are stuck in a tight spot and fighting an uphill battle. It must be frustrating. They really fucking care!

T And there’s gotta be a fight from the inside, otherwise, any struggle is destined to fail.

O I have friends who would disagree with that position, but I'm definitely interested in seeing if internal persuasion is possible…

Pillow Talk is a string of sweet nothings between , the design collective. More about us at lovers.co

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