“Cultural identities are…the unstable points of identification or suture, which are made, within the discourses of history and culture. Not an essence but a positioning. Hence, there is always a politics of position, which has no guarantee in an unproblematic transcendental ‘’law of origin’’ (Stuart Hall). The Quote and more significantly a “politics of position” propose that global political and economic trends have emerged out of unsound conditions, from small economic downturns and political struggles, that have a profound effect on how we shape and reshape the built environment; which may not be highly regarded in a specific cultural community, that has in a generation established an intricate local hierarchy in an diverse city such as London. The area of East London in general has experienced large amounts of gentrification by way of modern urban regeneration schemes to accommodate a new and slightly ambiguous consumer society that theoretically takes London more than ever into a ‘global’ city after nineteen eighty as defined later on. The already homogenous environment which had established an intricate cultural presentation of its own, by way of migrating ethnic groups forming or re-forming an identity has transformed once again, but this time with the focus on a neo-liberal ‘urban regeneration’ which emphasises the cities productive economy over existing cultural and traditional hierarchies, which causes tension specifically when building new developments, and the use of traditional English architectural language. The focus for all of this being a categorization of the structures surrounding these cultures, the history of a specific building and how it has been altered through this time period. The thesis in a way down plays the fixed history of a single structure, but looks at the general political, cultural and economic state that allowed the development to exist; along with a study in kind of the structure presently. “Observers of the contemporary city have described the late capitalist urban condition as characterized by a trend toward the anesthetization, where the primacy of the visual and the centrality of the image have reduced the city to a landscape of visual consumption, an object to be gazed upon, or a spectacle. Current urban design practices are said to nourish this appeal or the embellishment of the material world by giving precedence of the façade to the creation of urbane disguises, thereby reducing the effect of much architecture to two dimensions.” (Adriana Navarro Sertich). The quote recognizes the adaption to the new neo-liberal urbanization trend that has become official policy for many European Union countries, with the
emphasis on gentrification that boosts economic output. The trend and theory could be traced to the relationship of American capitalism which has been studied in depth in the book ‘The Special Relationship’ , “Daily life changed profoundly as a result of the rupture of traditional pattern; indeed, even the concept of tradition is a product of modernity, being seen as its direct opposite. ‘Modernization’ refers to the social and economic processes, however flawed, that enabled the advent of experiences of modernity. This transformation happened first in Britain and continental Europe, followed by North America and elsewhere across the globe, in most cases involving an adoption of the capitalist mode of production. “ (Special Relationship) The current trend in neo-liberal urbanization has to some extent taken place in New York particularly in the early nineties with the largest private housing development in New York along the Hudson River on Manhattans Upper West Side ( the former Penn rail yards), since then and presently every area in Manhattan is experiencing similar gentrification by way of smaller developments filling in vacant land; as Manhattan has very strict zoning laws and planning boards it becomes difficult to remove older structures for larger developments either because of historic preservation comities or the lot has already exceeded the property density as set by zoning laws. The current trend however is renovating abandoned industrial buildings and former low income housing, in particular the Stuyvesant town and roughly the Alphabet City neighbourhood. The gentrification takes on a slightly different scope or rationale than in London; the interest in a New York to London comparison is to see exactly how the built environment differs and mainly the role of the architect. In setting up a clear methodology the study had to focus on similar structures in terms of age, density and use, a few key developments as case studies and inspiration for an intervention are the Robin Hood Gardens project in Tower Hamlets neighbourhood, particularly because it was built prior to the new urban strategy in nineteen seventy six. The area has since experienced gentrification and the new urbanization discussed. Robin Hood Gardens was interesting because it had a very clear political and economic rationale assigned by the developers, the City of London in the nineteen seventies as exclusively low income housing designed by the Smithson’s. The quote ”British architectural discourse still recoils from notions of hybridization and heterogeneity, preferring instead to emphasize categorical qualities based on purity, order, rigour, consistency and
cleanliness. From the Gothic Revival to Arts and Crafts to Welfare Modernism to High Tech, the tone has remained fairly consistent, yet is only achieved by downplaying external cultural influences.” (Special Relationship) Which describes the general tone of British architecture prior to the nineteen eighties, having traditional British architectural language carry forward to reinforce smaller traditions such as the use of an urban garden and emphasis on the front door echoed from Victorian architecture; “Perhaps the most intransigent issue is the continuing myth there might be a national style of architecture for Britain (or more accurately, for England). It is a concept which developed in the nineteenth century as a corollary of the economic and political ideologies of capitalism, fuelled by imperial expansion, and one which regrettably has afflicted British architectural culture ever since. Some argue that nationalism was itself a necessary temporary construct that enabled people to find a place within an industrializing, modernizing, globalizing world; but by even if so, there can be little purpose for it today. Yet there still persists within the darker corners of British architecture a refusal to accept the reality of external influences, preferring instead to voice self-centred nationalist myths.”…….” In this sense, modernism's moral precept, as handed down by eighteenth-century Enlightenment theorists – and traceable back to Rene Descartes or early British empirical scientists - was that the solution to any problems of modernity was to control and reshape the natural environment and human society by even more modernization. Hence the world became conceived in increasingly objective and systematic ways. The architects of t twentieth-century modernism were simply providing their own interpretation of an increasingly rationalized, ephemeral and restless worldview.” (Special Relationship) The Smithson’s strategy for Robin Hood Gardens and similar projects was written about in a manifesto ‘Architectural Solutions for Urban Housing’. In analysing the manifesto and concepts stated specifically for Robin Hood Gardens design in a ‘new brutalism’ style. “With ‘New Brutalism’ the Smithson’s were effectively exploring how materials can bring life to a person by connecting them to the place in which they live. The combination of materials is a true expression of the new and old. The new construction retains the memories of the past in the same way a Team 10 plan would be sensitive to the memories of a town. The Soho House is in fact the start of something much bigger. An example is the ‘Robin Hood Gardens’ project in
which the memory of London’s urban garden is used.”. (The Smithson’s) The design of Robin Hood Gardens shows a clear strategy to use traditional elements in modern housing to only enrich the comfort of living in a very systematic urban environment, which may not seem natural or even desirable based on that very same tradition, you will notice that traditional elements and the aesthetic are used in a very careful way; the urban garden being a natural element, surrounded by the structure as a container to segregate non-residents, giving a break from a typically stressful urban environment. The use of tradition was very well planned in Robin Hood Gardens, rather than building or simply reconstructing a series of Victoria homes with added density, solving none of the typical problems. “Peter Smithson also used this diagram to illustrate the problems of circulation within the context of community. He stated ‘any community must be internally convenient’ (habitat, Smithson’s, 1954) and therefore density must increase as population increases. His final point was that the solutions to urbanisation would be found in architectural invention rather than in culture or social behaviour. This statement on ‘habitat’ was subsequently given the name ‘Doom Manifesto’ by Alison Smithson.” “They defined ‘New Brutalism’ as architecture that was a direct result of the way people lived and built. “ (The Smithson’s) By using New Brutalism style and adding the small traditional quirks of a home they were able to introduce a peaceful and convenient community. Despite all the positive design aspects and close attention detail unfortunately today Robin Hood Gardens is to be demolished, because of the political and social qualities the inhabitants themselves represent as defined later on. “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” (Oscar Wilde) Investigating the previous notion of a static structure being scrutinised primarily because the theory and rationale of the inhabitants are currently unfavourable; which is the initial thesis interest of how an individual builds and amends personal identity in response to a geopolitical or economic situation; the hypothesis is that an individual adapts morals or ideals quickly and fluidly in the face of immense political or economic pressure thereby naturally calling for changes in the built environment, the quote by Oscar Wilde suggests an identity is informed by life experiences beyond their control, and
transform rapidly with current trends. The style of construction at this time and the re-use of a structure are directly related to present dogma. The Smithson’s accurately summed up a very dense and sensitive study of tradition paired with the needs of the community at the time, while never taking focus off the quality of life for inhabitants; however the debate is incredibly subjective. Having previously in the methodology narrowed the investigation to study specifically post war modern architecture, as the quote “Daily life changed profoundly as a result of the rupture of traditional pattern; indeed, even the concept of tradition is a product of modernity, being seen as its direct opposite. ‘Modernization’ refers to the social and economic processes, however flawed, that enabled the advent of experiences of modernity”. (Special Relationship) “What is the place of one person - any individual - in the complex, ever-changing landscape of the world? lt is a question without a fixed or universal answer. Still it must be asked. Answers, however provisional, must be attempted. This is particularly urgent for the apportioning and use of space, which every person needs, and which the work of architecture explicitly provides.” (Lebbus Woods). Inspired by the quote to take a look at the present local situation at Robin Hood Gardens. The role of an architect is interesting in the current debate to remove and replace Robin Hood Gardens with a new housing development. “The 1960s, There are of course significant large-scale precursors, such as hausman in Paris in the nineteenth century, but the contemporary experience of gentrification dates to the post - World War 2 period and is usually associated with small-scale renovation of neighbourhoods that had experienced major economic disinvestment. Since the 1980’s, gentrification has become increasingly generalized as a strategy of global urban expansion. Central urban reconstruction increasingly integrates residential with all other kinds of land uses - offices, retail, recreation, transport-and is also increasingly integrated into not just the overall urban economy but into the global economy. A highly mobile global capital increasingly descends to and aspires to the remake of urban centers. At the same time there is a more seamless collaboration among property capital, the state, retail capital, and financial capital than at any previous time. This process has probably gone farthest in Europe, where neoliberal “urban regeneration” (a label Lefebvre would have abhorred as patently ideological) has become official urban policy in the European Union and in
individual states as well as cities. The massive reconstruction along the Thames in London exemplifies the way in which gentrification generalized has become a highly significant part of the city's productive economy.” (The Urban Revolution) The quote reinforces the previous notion of Robin Hood Gardens as merely a push to remove low income housing in favour of luxury condominiums to reflect the recent economic desirability in Tower Hamlets, and if so is it ethical or practical to move forward with replacement. “Marx, however, made a crucial observation. “Capital”, he observed, “abides no limit”. Once the process of capital accumulation is set in motion, the system is like (the incorrect analogy of) a bicycle: it cannot stop without the rider falling on his face.” (The Urban Revolution) The Quote suggests that once the economy takes a negative turn the development will almost immediately collapse into a ghetto. The question of reasonable ethics as an architect who purposely creates a static environment for possibly unsuspecting users is the actual debate for removal of Robin Hood Gardens. Do architects have a responsibility to reinvent or modify the current Robin Hood gardens into a functioning development, because it seems pointless to argue that the newest proposal has any improvements, and quite possibly provides a deterioration in quality compared to current Robin Hood Gardens as described later. Does an idea like ‘capitalist urbanization’ which is evident in the Tower Hamlets area supersede definite cultural, personal, and traditional practices/ideology by constantly shaping and re shaping the built environment? By which the inhabitant is part of the ‘capital’ and subject to the whims of economic trends, where a ‘fixed’ unit such as housing project theoretically embody a series of moral, social, and economic dogma that is no longer relevant, which creates either justification for removal or re-use. In making the case for either removal or reuse of Robin Hood Gardens it was essential to build a set of questions not just on the hard evidence such as demographics and the overall change in economy and political philosophy since completion of Robin Hood Gardens, but rather unattached research on the subjective opinions and cultural background of local politicians, residents, and architects. 1. What are the stated reasons for removal of Robin Hood Gardens?
“We can learn from our mistakes without forcing people to live in them. That a building lingers in the memory of 1960s architecture students does not make it historic.” (Simon Jenkins) “Margaret Hodge, Never have the rich been robbed to dump so much concrete ugliness on the heads of the poor. The tenants and Tower Hamlets council want the place down, and now”. (Margaret Hodge) “Stained concrete enclose mean staircases, narrow decks and unusable balconies, a prison without a roof endured by 600 people for half a century. The east London Pevsner guide calls Robin Hood "rough and tough ... ill-planned to the point of inhumane". Not one current resident to my knowledge has stepped forward in its defense.” (Simon Jenkins) “Plenty of buildings that seemed hopeless have been rescued with success and, in some cases, with profit.”Listing" Robin Hood Gardens need not mean declaring it beautiful or even saving it. It would just signify it as "historic" and require some review before alteration or demolition.” (Simon Jenkins) “Even the RIBA president, Sunand Prasad, says it would be "a foolish misreading of the lessons of history to knock it down". This is from a RIBA that has never murmured a note of protest about the destruction of Georgian or Victorian Britain, since it meant money to its members.” (Simon Jenkins) “Had the estate not been designed by two gurus, Peter and Alison Smithson, no one would be shedding a tear.” (Simon Jenkins)
“The couple were duly idolized by students for offering a high-rhetoric, low-skill route to architecture” (Simon Jenkins)
The subject of memory, and having been designed by a Famous architecture team are very interesting, especially in the debate for removal, should residents bear an unforgiving and ‘brutal’ home just because it is engrained in a previous generations memory as an ideal environment. Precedent studies of similar housing projects such as Lafayette Park in Detroit by Mies Van Der Rohe, which is endanger of being abandoned because the city of Detroit is in an endless negative spiral in terms of population and economy, because it cannot compete with a global city like London or New York. This shows economic desire supersedes the issue of memory. 2 The theory of ‘capitalist urbanization’ would support that the area has since become more desirable economically, thus the property which has low income and affordable rent schemes would be once again relocated to the edges of the city. “Once on the margins of London, since its completion in 1970, RHG has been surrounded by Docklands’ development and its site, despite all its obvious drawbacks, is valuable and subject to predatory development pressure. With Canary Wharf within striking distance and sitting opposite the offices of Tower Hamlets Council, RHG is gradually being encroached upon by high density development so that it now seems low in density compared to other housing in the area.” (Architects Journal) “RHG is currently out of favour with politicians, being aesthetically challenging and redolent of welfare-state paternalism. Currently suffering from under-investment, unsympathetic alterations and lack of maintenance, RHG is occupied by people with little economic power, some of whom do not speak English well or even at all …. an impediment to progressive capitalism. ……it is a fact that it takes a generation to build a community, especially one that is struggling to survive under the difficult economic, cultural and spatial circumstances of Poplar Ward.” (Architects Journal) Robin Hood Gardens, even after all recently completed projects in the vicinity still has a very high density compared with adjacent properties, consisting of single and double family Victorian homes. Robin Hood Gardens falls prey to ‘capitalist urbanization’ because it is publicly
owned; therefore developers offer meagre doations as a sale price to the community funds, in promise of removing the burden of managing the low income housing by council members and citizens, in the midst of a deep economic recession. The new development pans to remove Robin Hood Gardens and replace the existing low income housing with ‘social rent’, which will most likely remove current residents within years. 8 What was the political situation in terms of ideology that allowed for the project to proceed? “Although we should have learned the lessons from the slum clearances of the 1960’s and 70’s, buildings perceived as failing continue to be the subject of predatory powers that overlook the importance of social cohesion in the rush to please voters and developers alike. The tenants in RHG are now a vulnerable community that would lose controlled rents and secure tenancies were they to be evicted. Furthermore, this would disperse the community and destroy the careful relations painfully established over a long period of time.” (Architects Journal) “Architecture is more than art. It must be useful or it becomes a ruin. The doomed Heygate Estate in Bermondsey was a "historic" example of factory-designed, system-built mass housing. Yet its retention would have been an offence against both land economics and the human soul.” (Simon Jenkins) The Heygate Estate in the central London Neighborhood of Elephant and Castle has been nearly demolished, and is to be replaced by a similar development consisting of market rate apartment and condominiums, a retail promenade, which takes the park and public green spaces and surrounds them with a shopping mall; even though next to the Heygate Estate there is already a shopping mall which is partially abandoned, and a connection to the mass transit. The renderings for the proposed Heygate Estate and Robin Hood Gardens use an exterior view of the shopping center and the housing unit, showing no interior renderings or floor plans. The proposed Heygate Estate renderings in some ways exploit the future inhabitant, showing a very utopic scene of the shopping node mixed with the only public park, while the housing towers in the background only as an elusive glass block. The scenes seem like something from a movie or theme park rather than a serious and well developed architectural proposal.
Expansive ‘global’ urban design strategies like ‘capitalist urbanization’ and philosophical theories, such as the ‘American dream’ project a utopic approach to modern developments, which combine residential , commercial and mass transportation into a never ending series of promenades, detaching residents from any traditional sense of an urban environment. Previous developments like Robin Hood Gardens clearly define the ‘built environment’ as a single block structure not interconnected significantly to other developments. The “predatory capitalist urbanization” strategy supersedes any definite individual, cultural and traditional practices by constantly shaping and re shaping the built environment, in the name of urban regeneration with no thoughtful programmatic improvements. In this sense the occupant of a current urban regeneration scheme is part of the ‘capital’ and subject to the whims of economic trends. Opposed to a ‘fixed’ unit such as Robin Hood Gardens housing project, which theoretically embodies a system of ethical, social, political and economic views that are no longer relevant; which becomes the only apparent reason for removal. This situation happening physically at Robin Hood Gardens; now slated for removal not because it truly has programmatic or structural flaws but rather it is remnant of a ‘paternal welfare state’. The new proposals compared with disputed design flaws at Robin Hood Gardens as reason for removal have no direct remedy; questioning the role of architects in a seemingly political and social debate rather than a programmatic physical debate. Modern housing projects in other cities are essential precedents; specifically what happens after a new development is built, and when or if the ‘capitalist urbanization’ strategy fails. Cities like Detroit and Philadelphia which are steadily declining in economy and population have to be considered in the planning of any new development in cities like New York and London, which are currently expanding. The visual represents a hybrid of re and degeneration happening at a global scale but reflected only on Robin Hood gardens and immediate area. “and councilmen sit in their offices with their social programs ... that don’t work…They're rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But a new day is coming!” (Strange Days) The quote represents what is truly happening within the Robin Hood Gardens debate, which makes it an incredibly unique situation, although having many similarities to large post war modern developments in East Berlin and the Unite De Habitation in France. The city of Berlin which is also implementing large scale urban regeneration projects
does not have the same fierce debate as Robin Hood Gardens, because Germany is currently, compared to the rest of Europe and the United States doing well economically, which again shows that economic and political positions can often supersede any previous logic or understanding of the built environment, provided there is ‘prosperity’. The Unite De Habitation which has striking structural similarities to Robin Hood Gardens is not being physically encroached upon by new development. The weak economy of England and the United States paired with ‘essential’ density and regeneration claims in the area make it naturally a strong debate. The visual responds to unsound large scale regeneration polices that have a direct impact on residents while attempting to focus on experimental architectural notions for future Robin Hood Gardens, such as luxury housing, retail, gallery, park…… etc. The extensive playful and absurd renderings mock political and social taboos or exploitations by focusing the right portion of the debate only on programmatic possibilities; although all possibly have very offensive recommendations for the future of Robin Hood gardens, the visual none the less shows how constructing entire city centres based on idolized notions like ‘capitalist urbanization’ packaged and sold as the ‘American dream’ are not economically sustainable; and should be devoid from an architect’s position while generating any structure. “Europe was built on history and America was built on philosophy”. (Margaret Thatcher) The final visuals represent a socio economic philosophy being implemented directly on the built environment. The renderings and marketing proposals for Robin Hood Gardens and the Heygate Estate regeneration only show the exterior promenades in every single instance, while never showing a floor plan or interior rendering of the illusive towers. It does seem dangerous, and in a traditional sense of an architect’s job, unethical to design purposely misleading market only renderings for massive developments that eradicate already established communities. Robin Hood Gardens does have noticeable quality of life defects that should quickly be addressed, but these defects are by no means related to the actual tenants or community established; by removing the entire development in no uncertain terms will dissolve every interconnection between current residents. Designing via a larger global philosophy like 'capitalist urbanization' versus Robin Hood Gardens and the Smithson’s approach of actually responding to the local environment with the use of materials and form to connect the user to the built environment
without manipulation of the ground plinth. The economy of London and much of the world has certainly changed from industrial to service industry, but inventing a new language or design formula that disregards inhabitants and local customs, only exploiting them in a marketing strategy where they are merely seen as a consumer. There is proof such as Stuyvesant Town in New York that any infrastructure can be modified and reused in an innovative way, sensitive to local history and most important not marketed as a â€˜theme parkâ€™ utopia like many urban regeneration schemes presently.
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Simon Jenkins. 2008. This icon of 60s New Brutalism has its champions. So let them restore it. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jun/20/architecture. [Accessed 02 September 12]. Architects Journal, A, 2011. Robin Hood Gardens. Robin Hood Gardens, [Online]. NA, NA. Available at: http://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/Journals/1/Files/2011/1/31/SWA%20RHG%20prese ntation.pdf [Accessed 02 September 2012]. Strange Days (1995) [dvd] Los Angelas: F. Gary Gray.