Architects can be great fun, because of their love for argument, but maybe they should stay in more. Today we have the secretary of state's decision on Robin Hood Gardens, the brutalist east London estate threatened with demolition, which I mentioned back in March.
I find myself reflecting on the connection with this quotation:
Belonging’ is a basic emotional need - its associations are of the simplest order. From ‘belonging’ - identity - comes the enriching sense of neighbourliness. The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where spacious redevelopment frequently fails.
According to this article by Ian Millis, this comes from the architects themselves, the Smithsons. When you've chewed over the irony of that, here's what the BBC correspondent David Sillito told me after his visit there in March (thanks David) from material he was unable to include in his piece:
One resident, AB moved in 35 years ago. He’s African-Caribbean and he told me that the problem was the arrival of ‘foreigners’... Everyday chit chat was impossible. He would smile at them while tending his garden but he said it felt like a prison as people hid behind their front doors.
There was then the delivery man who stood for 15 minutes outside a flat banging on the door. We both saw there were people inside, and they were expecting the parcel, but they were too nervous to answer the door. I have never been to a place that had so many people in flats who wouldn’t even answer the door. However, when you got inside, the rooms were really quite nice and spacious. The problem is the outside design that forces people in to ratruns and dangerous-appearing dark corners as soon as they leave their front doors.
Various illustrious architects (and they're never wrong, are they?) have built up a clamour of self-important defence for the place, apparently on the basis, as I said before, of prescribed lifestyle as artwork. Reading through some of the arguments for the defence can be alarming. Take this for example:
'If the issue is poor maintanence why not put some cash into upkeep of the building? Then perhaps those living in it might start valueing this masterpiece of English modernist architecture.'
Tsk, they have the privilege to live there in misery and they don't even value it. Somehow I'm reminded of a comment made I believe by George Orwell, apropos of something (source please anybody?) -
'You'd have to be an intellectual to believe that. No ordinary person would be so stupid.'
According to yesterday's Times Online article by Fiona Hamilton, Lord Rogers even claimed that the structure was 'as good, if not better' than any other modern building in Britain. I can imagine that, if he'd said that in a roomful of ordinary people, who had politely said nothing, he'd probably have taken their silence as consent for his wisdom. If he's right, he really should keep quiet about it.
The profession seems to be behind him, but I think the Sesquipedalist puts one and a half fingers on it with this observation:
The debate is not about Robin Hood Gardens, it’s about the profession’s projection of architecture, its image, and the construction of its history. The profession has closed ranks and almost unanimously agreed that keeping RHG is the right thing to be done in the interests of the profession. These interests, of course, do not necessarily coincide with those of the public, some of whom have to live there. It’s also a knee-jerk reaction based on a wish to maintain authority and power.
Perhaps the solution is for all these architects to be required to live there - not for just six months, as has been suggested, but on the sort of tenuously-permanent basis which dooms so many residents of such places.
What's most depressing about it though is that the louder the architects clamour, the less faith the rest of us can have that they will in future pay due account to what it's like to live there.