The Literal Collapse of Social Democracy: Robin Hood is (Nearly) Dead

I wanted to write a long and probably boring piece on this, but I don’t have time, so thank your lucky stars. The basic points I wished to convey were as follows, in shameful brevity:

1) Robin Hood Gardens, the Smithsons’ (subjectively) beautiful but (objectively) run-down social housing development in Blackwall, east London, is due for demolition. Built for ‘the socialist dream’ and now, in classic neoliberal fashion, a public good which has quite intentionally been allowed to malfunction and decay in order that a private alternative would seem attractive. See also, for example, inner city state schools, and, shortly, the NHS. When Jonathan Glancey went to visit in 2009, he took a rather skeptical view, but almost all of the documented complaints refer to maintenance, not architecture. When I visited, the streets in the sky concept – which I love – was in full swing, with groups of kids playing football and cycling up and down.

2) Social democracy and the welfare state as a linked pair of historical phenomena seem to be just as run down (or to have been run down just as much!) as Robin Hood Gardens. In the cases of Italy and Greece elected governments were earmarked by the EU for demolition and replacement with private-finance friendly technocratic post-states. In Britain we are consensually daydreaming our way to something similar. Here was a physical representation in east London of the grand political shift of our era.

3) But wasn’t the social democratic ideal always like the Robin Hood of legend? Couldn’t a capitalist welfare state only ever survive as long as there was money coming in, strongarmed from the rich in times when there was gold sloshing around to be thrown at foreign wars and other follies? What happens when Robin Hood is dead? Weren’t such handouts always dependent on the goodwill of an enlightened member of the nobility (the mythical Loxley, the actual Beveridge) to sweep crumbs from the table into our grateful paws? Where do we go next?

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(Note, there are two photos of nearby, more modern buildings – hopefully it’s obvious which ones!)

So I went to look around and take some pictures before it is gone. A few things struck me. In relation to the surrounding monstrosities of Canary Wharf (and other faux-marble or glass-and-steel yawnfests slightly further north), Robin Hood Gardens is a fine piece of architecture. It is elegant, sweeping and open, with its deck access ‘streets in the sky’ and setting around a shared garden. It’s not too high so even in early spring (when I went) the sun comfortably enters the communal space. The ratio of windows to wall is extraordinary compared with most more recent mass housing (whether social or yuppie). Even in its decrepit, boarded-up state, there is something friendly and hopeful about it. It’s a great shame that it has been deliberately run into the ground. I really liked it.

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Published in: on May 15, 2012 at 3:04 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. You’re right – the window/wall ratio is pretty impressive. Was it called Robin Hood Gardens for the reasons you imply? Whether it was or not, it has a terribly melancholy symbolism.

    The photo which struck me most was of the Millennium ‘breathing space’. To me, “millennium” has become a kind of synecdoche of everything constructed through Blairite bluster, of all those PFIs and stealth-privatisations and public-private partnerships that were more one-sided precipitations of the social democratic collapse you describe. The millennium was of course the beginning of an end, not the beginning of a beginning.

    • I don’t know if you followed the link to Jonathan Glancey’s video, but the bit where he meets the residents and looks around inside shows a beautifully light and spacious living area. Daft having the kitchens on a different floor, but that seems eminently fixable. It’s all about money. Who is going to pay – the wealthy, through effective taxation? Or the poor, through deregulated post-social housing?

    • Not sure about the name, will explore it. You’re of course bang on regarding Blairism. So much of what haunts us now from the right began to take its form in the fog of the post-socialist left!


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