I’ve mentioned it before on many of my VBAT blogs and it’s because it’s something I am passionate about. I strongly believe that as a creative person, for me as graphic designer, it’s important to look beyond your direct field and towards other creative fields to widen your palette and draw in reference for your practice, personal style and taste. However that may be through photography, music, fashion, dance, architecture, product design, sculpture, art or anything else. It’s not about knowing everything, it’s about being open and broad-minded.
Throughout university studying graphic arts and design I always had an interest in architecture; almost always older buildings with history and in a particular style and rarely the new over-designed glass and shiny stuff. During our finals my collaborative partner (Ben Rimmer) and I began to use our shared interests in architecture and steered it towards the topic of high-rise tower blocks and in-turn the idea social housing; predominantly made from concrete and constructed during the mid 20th century and sometimes, but not always, in a Brutalist architecture style.
For me, this interest first grew through the appreciation for the form of these concrete housing blocks, photographing interesting compositions of sharp angles and hard lines. However, when reflecting on these photographs and creating work using them I became engrossed in their history and their cultural and social relevance and the general history of social housing. The why, when, where and how.
It’s difficult for me to say why I have such a strong interest in social housing, estates and the idea of mass-housing; I’ve never lived on an estate and I don’t envision myself ever living on one. It could be because I went to high school for five years which was on a relatively rough estate and I had to travel through the estate twice each day; watching it all pass by through the bus window.
It could also be derived more generally from the area in the UK I am from and grew up in where my high school estate sat (since demolished), the Wirral Peninsula (North-West England/Merseyside); for such a small borough (60 square miles/160 km2) it has huge contrasts of deprivation. One half, the west of the Wirral, has affluent picture-postcard towns like Caldy, Hoylake and West Kirby where multi-million pound detached houses and mansions are owned and lived in by premier league footballers and entrepreneurs. Whereas the half, the east-side, has towns like Wallasey, Bidston and Liscard; places with large council estates, high-rise towers and rows upon rows of small, tightly packed terraced houses where many people live in close proximity. My parent’s house is in the middle meaning for the years I lived there it was very common for me to travel through these individual towns and witness the contrast and divide for myself; being in the middle I have a non-biased perspective in terms of experience. However my small interest in the ideals of socialism, communities and sharing mean I tend to side and emphasise with the less wealthy.
Just the word ‘estate’ has so many negative connotations; the mere thought of the word conjures up a strong image in the mind of anyone whether you have been in or around one before and even if not, you can always imagine. To most people it’s a place you avoid at all costs if you can, a place where drugs, crime and trouble is rife, a place where you live on top of your neighbours in a confined box, a place you wouldn’t dream of being around at night time, a place where the lowest of the low live, a place where dreams go to die, etc etc.
I could go on and on and this isn’t just an outsider’s perspective, it’s sadly a common perception for tenants of many estates; however there’s often not much they can do about it. I think the words of George Orwell say this best, in his 1937 novel The Road to Wigan Pier (a novel exploring the social and historical reality of Depression suffering in the north of England): “…in a Corporation estate there is an uncomfortable, almost prison- like atmosphere, and the people who live there are perfectly aware of it”.
However, I think it is this which interests me: the perception, connotations and semiotics of estates and also the cultural significance of them especially in UK culture of my generation and many before. Despite their negative image, estates are often where many influential people are originally from, where they grew up and developed especially in the creative world of art, music and fashion etc. One example I can think of that many people would know, (perhaps not by their surname, more their stage names) is the Adenuga family who grew up in the Meridian Walk council estate in Tottenham, North London: Joseph Junior aka Skepta – a successful and award-winning grime artist and producer, his brother Jamie aka JME – also a successful grime artist and producer and their sister Julie – one of Apple Music’s Beats 1 lead DJ’s and “one of London’s most vital taste makers”. Estates like Meridian Walk grow tight communities and through this, give people a chance to escape. The video below shows the history of Tottenham estates and how people grew from it:
Back to graphic design though, the first project me and Ben produced together on housing was our homage to the Park Hill Flats estate in Sheffield (1961), exploring the form of the massive building complex. We compiled our 35mm film (colour and black and white) images into a small publication: All those people, all those lives. Where are they now? We chose this name after a piece of poetic and symbolic graffiti we saw on the wall whilst there. From this small project we then focused our final major project on the more general and nationwide exploration of social high-rise housing in our large publication, BY ORDER, named this time from the signage we commonly found attached to the facade of these buildings where any and every rule is by order of somebody, e.g. “NO BALL GAMES, BY ORDER OF (insert x location) COUNCIL/ESTABLISHMENT” etc.
We were compelled to produce this work using the experience and knowledge from our Park Hill Flats project but also following the statement by the then British prime minister, David Cameron, who proposed to bulldoze 100 ‘sink estates’ in the UK. A ‘sink estate’ by definition is: “a British council housing estate characterised by high levels of economic and social deprivation. Such estates are not always high crime areas although there is a strong correlation between crime rates and sink estates in large urban areas.”
One of the sections of this project (amongst the topics of the history of estates, the rise and fall of estates and the future of estates) was where we explored a divide which we saw in the UK; the divide in opinion and perception of social (mostly high-rise) housing with our two case studies being our university city of Leeds (the North) and the UK capital city London (the South).
Note: across all of the country, the word estate still holds the same meaning; there are just many celebrated estates in London, because they are in London; this also isn’t to say that there aren’t celebrated or listed estates and buildings outside of London though.
Through our knowledge, research and experiences we deduced the existence of this divide regarding social/concrete/high-rise housing in Leeds which is seen as a very negative image where only the lowest of the low live, it’s mostly all seen as disgusting and dangerous; avoid at all costs. Places like Gipton and Seacroft. Whereas in London there are ‘great architectural masterpieces’ such as the Barbican Estate, Trellick Tower, Balfron Tower, the Alexandra & Ainsworth Estate, the Brunswick Centre and the Golden Lane Estate which are all Grade II or II* listed and preserved. They are celebrated and hailed as incredible pieces of architecture despite effectively doing the same thing – providing housing on a mass scale (I do agree that they are great pieces of architecture, they are incredible to admire, it’s just how they are perceived regarding their purpose not their aesthetic).
Because of this listing and celebration these flats, especially in the Barbican estate, are worth millions. Although, at the time of producing our publication BY ORDER, in my opinion, we naively included the Robin Hood Gardens estate in our selection of ‘celebrated London estates’. It was a naive choice as since finishing the project it was given the green light for demolition having been unsuccessful on multiple occasions over many years for any listing or preservation status as “it does not equal the architectural achievement of other 20th-century estates which have been listed” despite earlier support and backing from Richard Rogers and the late Zaha Hadid who famously called it her “favourite building in London”.
When I was in London over Christmas time I was able to witness for myself the destruction of the estate; the destruction of the west wing, the destruction of homes and the destruction of a piece of British architectural history. But is it deserved? Is it a piece of history or is this just my opinion? Should it have been preserved?
The Robin Hood Gardens estate was designed in the late 1960’s by Alison and Peter Smithson and completed in 1972 at a cost of £1.8m. It was their first and only opportunity to create a council and mass-housing estate, the culmination of their research on and vision for social housing. Their design was distinctive for its noise-reducing features such as exterior concrete fins and its exterior wall/barrier and for its elevated walkways, known as ‘streets in the sky’, intended to increase interaction between neighbours. It also featured a grassy space in the middle with the two sides of the building angled inwards, hugging this green space and creating a homogeneous space for the inhabitants.
The Smithson pair regarded their Robin Hood Gardens design as
“a demonstration of a more enjoyable way of living … a model, an exemplar, of a new mode of urban organisation”.
Both during their lifetime and since, there has been much heated debate between architects and planners as to whether or not the building successfully realised these aspirations. It’s been said that no other work of British social housing has divided opinion to such a great extent.
However it is undeniable that the estate is and was in disrepair for a long time. Its fate was possibly sealed not long after its construction; built in the 1950s style of Brutalism which was already out of fashion in the 1970s. Some of the features which initially made it so distinctive eventually became part of its downfall; the exterior concrete fins began to crumble due to cheap construction and the surrounding sound barrier wall meant the estate became introverted and detached from its surroundings. The ‘streets in the sky’ idea, despite being innovative, never received as much praise as other estates which used the same feature like Park Hill or the Golden Lane Estate, but even still, they were not wide enough to be truly called ‘streets’.
The estate also sits in a perfect location for potential and would-be investors and developers; it is right by the financial area of Canary Wharf with its huge 21st century glass skyscrapers occupied by huge corporations and banks. There are also various retail spaces and tube stations around the area meaning it has great transport facilities not only into the city but also outwards, towards London City Airport.
All of this adds to the appeal of the area, it means investors can come in and replace what was affordable housing for many and replace it with luxury apartments for the few; and this is already happening. All of the tenants in the west-wing have been ‘decanted’ (politically correct word for evicted or removed but not with force) and some from the east-wing although it seems many are happy to leave and see the place torn down. Actually living in the estate and buildings is probably not that nice of an experience and people like myself can simply look from the outside and admire it from an architectural perspective without having to actually live there.
But the story of the Robin Hood Gardens estate didn’t have to end this way. This destroying, starting over and redeveloping is almost the easy solution, it means London can do as London always does and has done and that is to develop by creating housing which is needed and creating more money by swallowing itself. As a contrast and the topic of this write-up, during the summer of 2017 the DeFlat Kleiburg renovation project in the Bijlmer neighbourhood in South-East Amsterdam by NL Architects received a lot of press attention from design blogs and newspapers for its receiving of the Mies van der Rohe Award (The European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture). I think it’s a great example of what could have been done to the Robin Hood Gardens estate; it’s a successful renovation and regeneration project and program which focuses on a simple solution. By restoring the overall building exterior and framework but leaving the individual apartments open for tenants to do as they wish: a Klusflat – do it yourself, it has somewhat changed the image of the area from negative to positive. The Kleiburg flat is the last building in the Bijlmer area that is still in its original state; it is the “last man standing in the war on modernism” as many of the other housing blocks have been destroyed and replaced with more modern tower blocks.
The area and buildings are probably most known for the tragic Bijlmerramp; the El Al Flight 1862 plane crash disaster in 1992 which obliterated parts of now fully demolished Groeneveen and Klein-Kruitberg flats sadly killing 43 people (4 crew, 39 on ground).
There are multiple benefits to this ‘klusflat’ idea, it allows tenants to design their own homes with a sense of individuality, creating the home they want to and not what they have to adapt to as well as being suited to their budget. Because tenants purchase the flat ‘shell’ with no kitchen, no shower, no heating solutions and no rooms it means the initial cost investment is very low; this itself is said to have created a new business model for housing in the Netherlands.
From this development I produced a small publication on the Kleiburg flat named after the development project, DeFlat Kleiburg, comparing it at the time to my Park Hill Flats estate project by exploring the history of the area and the building as well as its development and tenant quotes. Again using my own photographs (this time digital) of the form and compositions of the building but also focusing on the lightness and green space around the building.
So why destroy one and renovate the other? I think it has to do simply with the London way of thinking I mentioned earlier and the location in which Robin Hood Gardens sits. In contrast, the Bijlmer area in Amsterdam is in the outskirts of the city with not much in way of development around it – it has the Ajax Johan Cruijff Arena, Ziggo Dome as well as multiple travel links but in my knowledge it isn’t close to any major financial areas like Canary Wharf is to Robin Hood Gardens in London. It is a perfect example of London doing as London does, devouring itself to grow; especially in the east of London which is the fastest-growing area of the capital by far with this development or overdevelopment clear to see when travelling around any part of the city be it north, south, east or west.
For more context on this idea of overdevelopment and where I picked this word up from; there was an interesting project in 2017 called Spectres of Modernism where banners bearing protest slogans were created by a collective of artists and writers; together known as Artists Against Overdevelopment, artists such Gavin Turk, Fraser Muggeridge and Iain Sinclair. The typographic banners were hung from balconies in homes in the Golden Lane Estate which were planned to be re-developed meaning these homes and schools would lose much of their natural light and some parts of the estate would be destroyed with no plans for any affordable social housing, only luxury housing. The protest banners contained strong, ironic, comical and provoking and mocking messages, it is a good example of how simple graphic design can be used to convey a message to the public and the planners. Messages like: “Zombie Investors Take Stock”, “Parasites will starve in this carcass of culture”, “Land Grabbing Shocking Shunts” and “Fashion designers, Turner Prizer-winners…and you”. Whether the planners and investors actually looked, listened and cared however is another story – of course they only have one thing on mind and that is how much money can I make and it isn’t the well-being and livelihood of the people who live there.
However, to return to the main focal point I want to conclude with this image below. It’s an image of the Robin Hood Gardens estate west-wing being torn down by a claw machine; ripping down the original concrete structure to reveal the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf through a newly created hole. It is an image of overdevelopment. An image of a lack of respect for history. An image of money-hungry-investors. It’s an image of something that didn’t have to happen. It’s an image of something which I find upsetting.
I and many others can only hope that there is soon a wider appreciation of post-war, socialist, mass-housing in this country before more is lost to shiny skyscrapers and unaffordable glass housing blocks. There is however some consolation for the building as the V&A Museum recently acquired a three-storey section, both the exterior facades and interiors of a maisonette flat. For them it is important to save this as they see it for what it is: a defining example of Brutalist architecture and social housing in the UK and internationally. It will be exciting to see how, what and where they present this piece as it is a large acquisition both in terms of importance and physical scale.