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We have a special prejudice about materials. The Japanese have Zen words to describe the beautiful way in which stone, wood and other natural materials age and patinate, acquiring charm and character as they deteriorate. We lack that. No one has yet coined a term, at least not a favourable one, to describe the way man-made materials grow old. There are no haikus about plastic. There is not much Zen in an old Ford Mondeo. There is even less Zen in an old housing estate.

This is specially so if it is made of concrete, the fashionable hate material of today. The only words that concrete attracts are ‘grimy’, ‘stained’ and the ones they tag with aerosol paint. Right now culture minister Margaret Hodge has taken very badly against concrete. The particular object of her vengeful, twin-set loathing is Robin Hood Gardens, a failing social housing megastructure near the north end of London’s Blackwall Tunnel that was completed in 1972. Mrs Hodge does not have council household taste. She wants it demolished. It does rather remind us that nothing dates quite so quickly as visions of the future.
Robin Hood Gardens was designed by the husband-and-wife partnership of Peter and Alison Smithson, a couple fully possessed of a vision of the future which seems as quaint in our day as John Betjeman’s soppy idylls about honey on the vicarage lawn seemed in theirs. The Smithsons were the great intellectualisers of British postwar architecture, but that is not meant to sound as faintly praiseworthy as it does. British postwar architecture needed it. In the same drab landscape of beige rissoles and rationing which inspired Elizabeth David to discover the exoticism of lemon, oil and garlic, the Smithsons sensed the excitement of a future designed by architects…

The Smithsons were great connectors. Alison wrote an appreciation of the Citroën DS that was as sibylline as Roland Barthes’s, even if it did not become so famous. They were often criticised for this unrepentant, lofty, continental-style intellectualism. But the pair saw architecture and design as part of a whole cultural continuum.

The influential 1956 exhibition This Is Tomorrow was where Pop Art was launched into Britain’s grey spaces. The Smithsons showed a plastic house and proposed a self-cleaning bathroom. The mood is brilliantly described by JG Ballard, one of their collaborators, in his new memoirs. One of their other collaborators was the architectural historian Reyner Banham who later gave the world the term ‘Brutalism’. This is how, and however wrongly, the Smithsons will always be remembered.

Brutalism was not originally a term of opprobrium, but because of a prejudice about concrete and the debatable, one-dimensional ‘failure’ of Robin Hood Gardens, it has become one. As teachers and polemicists with an eye to European fashion, the Smithsons were among the most articulate champions of le Corbusier. Robin Hood Gardens is a development of the Swiss-French architect’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. This was designed as a whole city within a single building: with shops and schools within an apparently simple, but subtle, structure. Before Mrs Hodge and her elfin helpmates condemn the sinister influence of Corbu on the British idyll that was life-before-concrete, I suggest she visit Marseille. I have stayed in the Unité d’Habitation and it is magnificent: an architectural masterpiece and a social success.

Robin Hood Gardens is, essentially, two large blocks of 10 and seven storeys comprising 213 flats arranged as one-storey apartments or more spatially interesting duplexes; every third floor there are what the Smithsons idealistically called ‘streets in the sky’.

Alas, their architectural reach exceeded the grasp of the builders and Robin Hood Gardens suffered from the start with a singular lack of commodity and firmness. Worse, the unintelligent housing policies of Tower Hamlets populated Robin Hood Gardens with the tenants least likely to be able to make sensible use of the accommodation. We have to whisper it, but the Unité d’Habitation works because it is populated by teachers, psychologists, doctors, graphic designers, not by single mothers struggling with buggies…

The Smithsons were the angry young architects of their day. Concrete Brutalism suited their mood. No one among the supporters, probably not even Richard Rogers and Robert Venturi, signed up to the cause by Building Design, the trade paper, thinks Robin Hood Gardens has any more delight than it has commodity and firmness, but the campaign against is uninformed and unfair. True, le Corbusier’s style often worked badly in interpretation: the first riots in the French banlieues were at Toulouse-le Mirail, designed with streets in the sky by his disciples. Robin Hood Gardens has been a social calamity. But the architecture alone is not to blame. Its neighbour is Balfron Tower, designed by Corbu student Ernö Goldfinger (dashing inspiration for the Bond villain). When people criticised Goldfinger’s design, he went to live in his concrete tower block ‘to taste his own cooking’. That he pronounced it delicious is maybe not surprising, but its twin sister, Trellick Tower in Notting Hill, has people fighting for flats when they come on the market. As Marx asked, does consciousness determine existence or does existence determine consciousness? Or to put it less correctly, do the pigs make the sty or does the sty make the pigs?

Margaret Hodge’s remarks about concrete are ignorant prejudice. Concrete is a fine material, but needs maintenance and care as much as marble and oak need maintenance and care. Denys Lasdun once told me it would have been cheaper to make the National Theatre out of travertine, but who says this cared-for concrete on the South Bank is anything less than wonderful? Granted, these are strange times when Modernists fight the conservation cause and Labour ministers attack low-cost housing. Robin Hood Gardens is a test for lots of things: a test for taste, for intellect and vision. And a test for the government’s ability to seize an interesting opportunity which could act as a model for benign redevelopment in every city in Britain.

The Smithsons used to say that good architecture was ‘ordinariness and light’. I wonder if so fine and rare a sentiment is known to the minister…

Stephen Bayley
The Observer