Mourning a social housing hero

Words:
Charlotte Collins

Urban ThinkTank's documentary is an evocative portrayal of the optimistic birth and sad demise of Robin Hood Gardens estate

Once the future of social housing: Robin Hood Gardens estate, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson in the late sixties.
Once the future of social housing: Robin Hood Gardens estate, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson in the late sixties.

Released earlier this year to coincide with the debate on social housing, The Disappearance of Robin Hood is a documentary about how Robin Hood Gardens estate in Poplar, east London, once seen as the future of social housing, came to be demolished in 2017.

Urban ThinkTank, an interdisciplinary design practice, produced and directed the 24-minute film to educate audiences on social architecture.

The film, like the estate, is split into two parts. It opens with the words ‘An English folk tale’ written across the screen, an immediate allusion to the eponymous hero who took from the rich to give to the poor. The first part details how it came to be built in 1972. As well as expositional shots of the estate there is footage of children playing on the landings and older residents cooking and playing the piano, conveying a cosy feeling of home, safety and security.

Alison and Peter Smithson designed Robin Hood Gardens in the late sixties, completing it in the early seventies. We see them briefly through archival footage discussing the estate’s purpose to aid the social housing crisis in post-war Britain by providing affordable homes for the under-privileged. It was constructed with the premise that everybody has the right to a decent home. Old radio broadcasts document and add layers to the imagery about how it was conceived as two buildings ‘split in the middle like a kipper’ with a large green space in the centre.  

Sultana, a young woman who grew up there, explains how this space between the two buildings was a perfect place for children to play in sight their parents. We see her being interviewed in her flat where she grew up and understand the positive impact the building had on her childhood, with the landings used as a communal area where, in summer, residents of all ages would socialise with each other, sharing stories and food.  ‘We all, all of us came out on the landing, summertime it was packed. There were children’s bikes, scooters, old people, young people, all together everyone looking out for each other,’ she explains.

  • Pete and Abdul, handyman and long-term resident of Robin Hood Gardens.
    Pete and Abdul, handyman and long-term resident of Robin Hood Gardens.
  • The second part of the documentary uses darker tones.
    The second part of the documentary uses darker tones.
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One of the most poignant scenes in the film is between Peter, the handyman of the estate for 12 years, and Abdul, a long-term resident. Two people from different backgrounds and cultures that have formed a bond through Robin Hood Gardens, which you might imagine was the whole scheme’s purpose.

The second part of the film moves into a more sinister and melancholy narrative. A disconcerting score kicks in, and the monotonous turning of the cement mixer makes uneasy watching. Images of children playing are replaced by cranes and bulldozers moving in to tear down the building and its community. It’s done in an almost brutal fashion. Darker tones are used and the sound of piano playing gives way to demolition noise. We learn that the destruction of the community is necessary to make way for more housing.

Shots of the empty space where the estate once was leave a disturbing impression of the events that have unfolded. Although the counterargument is missing, the documentary succeeds in making a strong case for the continuation of social housing. It is hard to escape the feeling of loss. We are shown how much care and consideration for the residents went into the design of the building from the green space in the middle to the way it was blocked from the noise of the roads.

The film ends at a museum where a photograph of Robin Hood Gardens is displayed. It’s a sad reminder that this influential estate, built to improve people’s lives, is now history.


Charlotte Collins is a Sheffield Hallam film studies graduate and editorial and digital support for RIBAJ.