Exhibition shines light on the lives of Robin Hood Gardens residents

East building, June 2015. Concrete modernism gets a bad press, or it did until the recent boom of interest in Brutalist architecture. But foes and friends of Robin Hood Gardens alike have too often framed the scheme with a damaging cliché. Either it’s a ‘concrete monstrosity’ from which residents are to be saved, or a Brutalist masterpiece to be saved from its supposedly ‘sink estate’ residents. On both sides, the buildings and their residents have been cleaved from each other, with residents’ experiences and voices pushed out from the public realm. The reality of course is that for 45 years, residents’ lives and the Smithsons’ experimental architecture have been intimately interlaced. It was this lived experience with which we sought to find a dialogue in text and image. The context is political, for the stigmatising and marginalization of council residents has become a central discursive feature of the wave of destruction of council estates and tenancies that has taken hold of London and the UK under the guise of ‘regeneration’ and ‘densification’.

An extraordinary exhibition of photographs has been launched which records the lives of residents at Robin Hood Gardens, the experimental Brutalist council estate by pioneering British architects Alison and Peter Smithson, in the estate’s last years before demolition.

Completed in 1972, the ‘streets in the sky’ development has long been described as a ‘sink estate’ and a ‘concrete monstrosity’. Against such representations, and the social cleansing agenda they serve, photographer Kois Miah and Sociology lecturer Nick Thoburn have chronicled the complex lives, emotions, and routines of the estate’s residents.

Few council estates have been photographed as much as Robin Hood Gardens, but not since Sandra Lousada’s iconic early photographs of the estate have its residents featured as more than occasional bit-players. This exhibition places them at the centre by presenting an intimate exploration of their lives.

“Of course, the photographs feature the astonishing architecture of the estate: the concrete textures, inorganic shapes and monumental scale of its Brutalist form, and the abundant light of its interiors,” said Nick. “However, the building is accompaniment to the portraits – rarely the main show.”

“Our project places residents at centre stage in this set of portraits and interviews,” added Kois. “We have explored their relationships and experiences of living and socialising on this estate, many of whom have lived there for decades.”

Kois and Nick hope that the exhibition will highlight problems caused by the widespread selling and demolition of council housing in our towns and cities – usually to be replaced by more costly private accommodation – which pushes out low-income families to outlying areas.

“The project approaches the question of inequality through the specific conditions of housing access and quality, which of course are foundational to social reproduction and one’s quality of life,” said Nick Thoburn. “It explores the lived experience of an estate that was formed under one social model, that of the Welfare State, and is being demolished under another, that of neoliberal privatisation – a model rendered visible at Robin Hood Gardens by the ominous sparkle of the towers of Canary Wharf which loom overhead.”

‘Lived Brutalism: Portraits at Robin Hood Gardens’ takes place a stone’s throw from Robin Hood Gardens, at St Matthias Community Centre (113 Poplar High Street, London E14 0AE) until October 21st. Visit http://events.manchester.ac.uk/event/event:p43-itbm0dpq-bb091 for more information.