Friday, 07 March 2008

What Robin Hood did for the poor There's a short BBC news piece by David Sillito about growing disagreements over the proposed demolition of Robin Hood Gardens in east London - yer classic slab estate, or a masterpiece of twentieth century design? As David says: It's a familiar process, blowing up the sixties' and seventies' mistakes. Cut to Lord Rogers taking the chance to tell us how marvellous the architecture is. More here on the campaign to get it listed. Hang on, what's it like to live there? According to Sillito 80% of the residents don't think it should be saved. Here's an alternative take on the architects in question, the Smithsons: Robin Hood Gardens, a 213-home council housing complex in East London, gave them the chance to practise what they preached on a grand scale. It was disastrous. The brutalist concrete structure turned out to be defective, but the social aspects were worse: Robin Hood Gardens became a hotbed of crime. The Smithsons were exposed as both arrogant and fallible. I'm not qualified to conclude what would be best here, but I want to just note the way in which the architects' arguments tend not to give primacy to the question of what it's like to live there. There seems to have been thirty-five years of accumulated misery for a lot of people, but that's not necessarily part of the equation. The terms of the debate about Robin Hood Gardens, for the professionals, risk putting housing as artwork (or perhaps prescribed lifestyle as artwork) right in your face, non-negotiable. Which is interesting because the lifestyle prescription was problematic precisely because so little of it was negotiable. Here's a flavour of the recognition for the building (from): As a crucial part of the very small built oeuvre of Alison and Peter Smithson, it is hardly impossible (sic) to overestimate its value, esp. with regard to the international debate on modern architecture in those years. We're invited to help save this building because of its iconic aesthetic status, according to standards largely independent of the quality of everyday low-income life. Maybe there could be an argument for such detachment, but it gets clouded by the economics of social policy. I guess the folk at CABE work all the time where these tensions are crackling. And the trouble is that as soon as you see Peter Smithson mouthing about it as 'an exemplar of a new mode of urban organisation' (in a spooky clip reminiscent of Peter Cook) you know you're up against that fundamentally stupid human habit of telling other people how they should live and using some system to try it out on them. (Stupid in the sense of repeating an approach that has failed in the past). Modern architecture was fatally corroded by insistent rhetoric (still echoing) about brutalism, which sought to deny variety. One of my lasting early memories was of going round some east end estates with my dad, delivering christmas parcels for Stepney Old People's Welfare Trust: I didn't know it at the...
Shifting institutions A few weeks ago I had an absorbing discussion with a friend who works at a college, about the systematic reduction of funding, and other obstacles introduced by government, to minimise the contribution of further education institutions to community education. My friend's college, with a distinguished tradition of socially-committed work at local level with people on low-incomes, is being forced to abandon it. It's hardly contentious to record that the present government has presided over a shameful starvation of learning opportunities for people who lack chances, in spite of the originally earnest tone of social inclusion educational policies ten years ago. Since that conversation, it happens I've started doing some work under the current lottery-funded programme for community libraries, and been surprised at how many of the bids I've seen include the provision of spaces and activities for various forms of stuctured and semi-structured learning. One legitimate response to many of these might be, how come the education sector is not already doing this? And then I spotted a note in Monday's Guardian in which it is claimed that: Schools are having to give moral guidance to pupils which should be given by their parents at home... For some children, schools have had to take the place of the institutions that used to set the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. This is from a report of a speech by the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, who says that: For many children, school and its values, its clear boundaries and moral framework, are the only solid bedrock in their lives.' Well, something's going on here - schools claiming they have to carry out a parental role, libraries expected to do the work of schools and colleges, colleges obstructed from providing community education... The roles of institutions are shifting, and I suspect that most of those within the institutions think they occupy terra firma.

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