Streets in the sky

External view of Robin Hood Gardens showing the ‘streets in the sky’

In the 1960’s as the UK’s economy was finally recovering from the Second World War, city planners were falling over themselves to come up with futuristic solutions for housing developments, keen to explore a new modern way of living. The big idea of the time was ‘streets in the sky’, an approach to lift pavements and walkways from the ground and connect upper levels of blocks of housing with alleyways and routes. A wonderful concept, but with hindsight, terribly executed.

There are videos on the subject on You Tube, one shows a milk float happily delivering goods to happy housewives on the doorsteps of their immaculately kept flats. At the time it seemed like utopia and the solution to city housing problems. Communities would live together in neighbourly peace, everyone would get along and the blocks would be close knit.

There are few examples of such designs still in existence, The Barbican Estate is probably the best. Properties on the estate fetch commanding prices; its an iconic and desirable place to live. For most other places the story is not one of success, but abject failure.

Peter and Alison Smithson were architects of the day and suggested much that influenced city planners during the 1960s. I’ve watched a clips of them talking about city dwelling, specifically social housing. I must say their attitude would not get them far today. They both seem to have a distain for those lower in the social pecking order (such as it was looked upon in what is now last century). That said, their aspirations were admirable in that they seemed to want to create the best solutions possible at the time.

The Smithsons built, as far as I’m aware only the one development; Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, East London. Sandwiched between the approach road to the Blackwall tunnel, and Poplar High Street, the location had its fair share of noise. To address this the development was designed with two blocks - arms cradling a planted area in the middle. It’s interesting the note that the central area was created with a hill to prevent children playing ball games. Instead it was planted with trees in an attempt to make it a tranquil space.

Accommodation was arranged with bedrooms overlooking the central space so these would be quieter with living rooms outwardly facing. On this side, were the streets in the sky.

To baffle the noise of the traffic eight feet walls were built with an angle at the top to bounce sound away and back to the street. Small slits were incorporated into the wall to allow pedestrians to see in and out of the wall. But, the end result was more like a prison perimeter.

I pass Robin Hood Gardens on my journey to work and have often wandered what it’s like inside. Just recently one of the blocks has been demolished so I thought I’d take a look before the other meets the same fate.

To be honest, I was a little apprehensive about venturing inside, but brazenly walked through what’s a surprisingly small entrance and found myself inside between the garden and the remaining block. What struck me instantly was how quiet it was; maybe the designers had at least got that bit right. I felt an immediate sense of sadness. Difficult to explain exactly why. I think given my research beforehand, I got straight away that this social housing experiment had failed, but that failure was impacting on people’s lives.

I walked further on. Many of the windows were open on an unseasonably warm October day. I could hear life from inside. Children laughing, someone washing up, an argument, a TV. Normail existence, normal life.

The building though isn’t normal. Close up, it’s brutal. Hard edges. Concrete construction. Colourless. The facade is in poor condition; years of neglect and a lack of maintenance clearly showing.

Alas, I was unable to venture up to the higher levels, there’s a entry system on the access door preventing anyone other than residents from getting in. A good thing I thought, one of the reports I’d read said that most of the vandalism that plagued the estate in the 1990s occurred from those outside of the area. I decided that I wouldn’t try and tailgate the few people around, and allowed residents their privacy.

I walked round the block a few times, slowly, taking in the scene and soaking up the strange, calm atmosphere and getting a feel for the place.

It seems to me sad that although the building had failed in its aspirations, it is due to be demolished. Couldn’t it be saved? Improved and regenerated? I guess not, although the block occupies a large footprint, it provides only around 100 homes. Modern blocks will allow a much higher density population on the site.

Strange to reflect on the excitement of replacing the slum housing 60 years ago with blockchain such as this, and yet now, with the same enthusiasm we’re tearing these down to replace them with something else.

Let’s hope we get it right this time.

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