Saturday, July 20, 2024
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Streets in the sky: The utopian dreams of Poplar’s social housing

The first in a four-part series about the threat to Poplar’s pioneering social housing, we look at how post-war architects didn’t just build Poplar’s social housing, they built utopian dreams of a better future.

Walking through what remains of Robin Hood Gardens before it is fully demolished, it seems to have truly become the Brutalist stereotype its detractors always claimed it to be.

Broken panes of glass cling to the window frames of the shell of the building. Time has left the grey concrete dirtied and tagged with graffiti. Rubish and weeds litter the grass mound where children used to play. One block is already completely demolished.

But it didn’t start out this way.

The architectural couple behind Robin Hood Gardens were Alison and Peter Smithson. It was the Smithsons’ only attempt at building social housing and was conceived as a radical departure from what had come before. Their vision was of not just the buildings themselves, but the people who would inhabit them.

Alison Smithson summed up their grand design herself, saying that ‘only through construction can a Utopia of the present be realised’. She wanted ‘to knit together what is good in the surroundings by the insertion of a new building.’

It was the East End itself that inspired their grand designs for Robin Hood Gardens. Regular visits to friends living in Tower Hamlets caused the architectural couple to want to take the spirit of the East End and inject it into Robin Hood Gardens. This stood in contrast to previous social housing, which involved mass clearances moving people away from what they knew to housing estates on the edge of London.

What remains of Robin Hood Gardens today. Image by Robert Postings @ Social Streets CIC.

The streets in the sky were this inspiration manifest. Walkways built on every third floor of the building intended to replicate the streets people would have lived in before. In an attempt to encourage socialising amongst residents, designers made them wide enough for two prams side-by-side. They hoped residents would stop and chat with each other. Recesses off these ‘streets’ featured front doors of two houses facing each other, promoting social interaction. There was also enough space for residents to create makeshift gardens. Inside, the flats were spacious, spanning over two floors.

The A13 and the approach to the Blackwall Tunnel hemmed in the estate, cutting it off like a moat. To reduce noise pollution, the Smithsons surrounded Robin Hood Gardens with a large wall and added fins to the buildings.

Between the two buildings of Robin Hood Gardens, a large green mound and four playgrounds were constructed. The kitchens of each apartment faced out onto these areas so parents could watch their children playing.

The Smithsons completed Robin Hood Gardens in 1972. Despite this architectural attempt to manifest a utopia, it soon faced criticism. Today, Brutalism has not aged well in the eyes of many.

For the people who lived in the estate, their experiences are more nuanced. Rugena Ali’s family lived in Robin Hood Gardens for 20 years. Talking to Spitalfields Life she recalls fires, police raids, and shootings. She also speaks of community: ‘Memories of how our landing was used for gossip and to pass on information, and of the 10pm ladies walking club! And happy memories of weddings. And how the ladies on the estate used to come together after a death to support families. We used to live in each other’s houses and I was babysat by practically everyone at some point.’

‘It really was incredible growing up there.’

Drugs were something critics associated with the estate, and it was a problem. Rugena’s brother Sahedul recalls ‘Once, a man in a suit, who obviously worked at Canary Wharf, knocked on our door asking if we had any kitchen foil he could use to smoke heroin…’

Robin Hood Gardens did not last. Just 45 years after completion demolition began. A new 1500-home Blackwall Reach development will replace the 252 flats. There would be fewer green spaces, most of the apartments would be smaller, and it would be a mix of social and private housing.

Poplar’s social housing wasn’t limited to Robin Hood Gardens. Just north of the estate lies Balfron Tower, another Brutalist landmark. Built five years earlier in 1967 by renowned architect Erno Goldfinger, Goldfinger also aspired to more than just a building. He aimed to provide high-quality housing for working-class families while fostering a sense of community through innovative design.

A close up image of Balfron Tower through trees.
Balfron Tower waiting for residents. Image by Robert Postings © Social Streets CIC.

The design envisioned it as not just a building but a social entity. The authorities re-housed families into the tower street by street, keeping communities intact.

Goldfinger built the lift in a separate spire reached by walkways, designed to encourage meeting. Alongside the lift was a launderette, a table tennis room, a hobby room and more social spaces. Ground floor maisonettes had small gardens and a playground was built above the garages.

Inside, Goldfinger designed Balfron Tower to maximize space in the flats. Every apartment had dual-aspect windows, meaning that in the morning residents could greet the sunrise and then at the end of the day watch the sunset from their living room.

Upon completion, Goldfinger and his wife Ursula lived in the tower for months. Holding cocktail parties for residents to learn about what worked and what didn’t.

Like Robin Hood Gardens, this utopian vision did not last. 

A resident speaking to the East London Advertiser in 1978 described living in Balfron Tower as being like a ‘battery chicken in a box’. Single parents lamented the poor design for children. Windows opened at the bottom, so parents had to be careful or risk a child opening one and falling.

While Balfon Tower has avoided demolition, it has gone under a controversial restoration completed in late 2023.

In preparation, they had to ‘decant’, or move out, the people living there. Balfron Tower’s social housing was redeveloped into luxury apartments, no doubt intended for wealthy workers at nearby Canary Wharf.

Landlords Poplar HARCA did not keep any of the apartments for social renting, deciding to ‘privatise’ this building to fund social housing elsewhere.

‘We built and bought more affordable homes than were available in Balfron Tower before it was refurbished, rehousing all Poplar HARCA tenants to a new home that matched their housing needs and preferences.  This is what residents voted for when asked about the future of the Brownfield estate by Tower Hamlets Council,’ says Poplar HARCA.

Visiting there now, the building is clean. The glass is new and shiny, you can even see fresh curtains in the windows. But it is empty of life, cordoned off with fencing. 

Peeking through the door to the building, you can see a shiny directory listing a Cinema, Yoga studio, Library, and Concierge.

Even the sales office is dark, with a display on the window boldly titled “Streets in the Sky,” but it is closed.

Since then, the housing market has changed and developers have failed to sell a single flat. Relaunched earlier this year, flats are now available for rent rather than sale.  Way of Life, the property management company that claims to lay ‘the foundations for renters to make a home’, has recently listed apartments for rent at Balfron Tower. One-bedroom apartments start from £1,715pcm while four-bedroom apartments start at £3,765pcm.

The Brutalism of the 1960’s and 70’s was not the first utopian vision in Poplar. Between the Brutalist Balfron Tower and Robin Hood Gardens lies Chrisp Street Market.

Markets have existed here since the Victorian period, and since the 1860’s the area was popular amongst London’s Costermongers, another word for street traders. From the Costers developed what we now think of as Cockney culture.

Following the devastation of World War Two, they built the current market as part of the Festival of Britain. The festival aimed to symbolize hope for post-war Britons and usher in better-rebuilt towns and cities.

Chrisp Street Market opened in 1951. English architect Frederick Gibberd designed it as the first purpose-built pedestrian shopping area in the UK. Soon, it was replicated across the country. Perhaps the most prominent feature is Chrisp Street Clock Tower, a landmark to represent the start of England’s renewal post-World War II.

Crisp Street Market's famous clocktower.
Chrisp Street Market’s Festival of Britain clocktower. Image by Robert Postings.

While Balfron Tower has been refurbished for private sale and Robin Hood Gardens has been demolished, Chrisp Street Market still clings to its original character.

Traditional East End Pie and Mash shops rub shoulders with Chinese takeaways and Indian restaurants.

However, this too will change. In 2016 Poplar HARCA put forward plans to redevelop the market square. Designers plan to rebuild the market square to introduce new market stalls, new retail spaces, a cinema, two pocket parks, a community hub, restore the Festival of Britain clock tower, and build 649 new homes.

While the planned regeneration of the run-down shopping centre has generally been received positively by residents and businesses, the demolition of the country’s first purpose-built pedestrian shopping area in the United Kingdom, built as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain, is the loss of another legacy of Poplar’s social reform history.

Like Balfron Tower and Robin Hood Gardens, Chrisp Street Market offers a glimpse at the utopian ideals that underpinned the urban redevelopment in post-war Poplar. Regardless of the outcome, architects and designers approached Poplar’s social housing with the lofty goal of building better homes for the people who lived in them. Not simply a focus on profit.

In the next article in this series, we explore the next wave of developments and whether they have managed to retain the principles of this utopian vision.

Correction: On 12 July 2024 the article was updated as follows. Robin Hood Gardens was managed by the Council, not by Poplar HARCA. Edits were made to reflect the local support for the redevelopment of Chrisp Street Market. A comment from Poplar HARCA about the Balfron Tower redevelopment was added.

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