ROBIN HOOD GARDENS
A.J. Holmes has made a record that captures an echo of a vanishing utopia.
Holmes has recorded a specifically composed collection of songs at Robin Hood Gardens, a residential public housing estate in Poplar, London designed in the 1960s by architects Alison and Peter Smithson, completed in 1972 and at the time of this recording, scheduled for demolition.
The songs were recorded in various spaces around the site and no post-production, processing or effects were used.
With the current housing crisis in London as a backdrop; the aim was to capture the sound of an environment that would soon no longer be there, capturing an echo - literally - of an era of post-war social democracy and public housing boom (seen then as a solution to the housing shortage).
Why the interest in post-war social housing?
They reflect a time of ambition by the state to achieve greater social equality: the establishing of the welfare state; a concerted effort to progress British society towards 'Utopia'. A model of social democracy that seemingly notable political figures (such as Aneurin Bevan, who spearheaded the establishment of the National Health Service) believed achievable in the years following the second world war.
Why Robin Hood Gardens?
This was the only public housing project realised by the internationally influential and respected architects Alison and Peter Smithson. It is perhaps the archetypal public housing project built in the architectural style of Brutalism. In the 1950s Alison and Peter Smithson adopted the phrase ‘New Brutalism’ - taken from the French term béton brut (raw concrete) - to describe their controversial style of modernist architecture; this was later shortened to ‘Brutalism’. In Britain this style became particularly associated with council housings as many projects completed in the 1960s and 70s were commissioned by local authorities.
Robin Hood Gardens however is not only of architectural and social significance, it is also of acoustic interest as from its inception the Smithsons were concerned with sound when designing the site. They designed sound reflecting walls around the site as a way of minimising the traffic ‘noise’ as it is set between two major roads and the Blackwall Tunnel. One would suspect that the Smithsons also paid particular attention to the acoustic qualities inside the buildings, designing high ceilings of glass and concrete into the communal entrances and walkways, creating cathedral like reverbs in the spaces. However this has been largely overlooked in most critiques of the site.
As we move further away from the ‘post-war era’ and arguably, further away from aspirations of social equality - executed by the state at least - such modernist / brutalist monuments to a post-war 'utopian ideal’ as Robin Hood Gardens are symbolically disappearing from our landscapes. Many have been, or are now scheduled to be demolished. Sadly it is - literally in some cases - the last time we will be able to capture an 'echo' of this vanishing era.