Brutalism's last stand

Robin Hood Gardens

(image from sublime photography)

Cedric Price once wrote, (quoted here):

"What is objectionable,is the staggering conceit and arrogance of those who determine just what part of our built environment should be deemed sacrosanct"

With that in mind, some additional thoughts on the Robin Hood Gardens debacle.

I read Margaret Hodge's article in Grand Designs magazine, reproduced here, several times, and still can't work out what she is trying to say.

Hodge, Minister of State for Culture, Creative Industries and Tourism, with responsibility for architecture and the built heritage, seems to be unhappy that her hands are tied when it comes to listing buildings.

"It might have lain derelict and unloved for decades, it might be on the brink of redevelopment to become something of real public value, it might even be just plain hideous: my hands are tied."

It's difficult to establish whether she wants more power to decide whether to save buildings or not, or whether she wants to wash her hands of the whole process. I suspect the latter.

My knowledge of listed building consent is uncertain, and Hodge does nothing to make the process any clearer. If the minister for culture has no choice but to accept English Heritage's decision, then why does she ultimately make the decision?

She continues:

"And they're tied by the good (we hope) intentions of a mysterious and unelected inspector who may be working on the basis of no more than a photograph."

While I agree that the machinations of English Heritage, (an archetypal quango) are opaque, quite possibly full of hidden agendas, and should be opened to much greater public scrutiny, I find it highly unlikely that recommendations to list buildings are made on the basis of a 'single photograph', and certainly not in the case of Robin Hood Gardens.

Hodge concludes:

"Decisions on listing modern architecture should be left to people who are accountable. Who can be booted out if they get it wrong."

As Sir Humphrey might have put it: "That would be you, Minister".

This is Hodge playing the "woe is me" card. One can't help but think she has found herself in a position she feels distinctly uncomfortable in. But as her Wikipedia entry recalls, she didn't exactly shine as Minister for Children, either, and with misplaced remarks about white working class voters, inadvertently became the BNP's best friend, leading to the BNP winning 12 of 13 seats on the council in Hodge's Barking constituency.

Hodge is the ministerial embodiment of the Peter Principle.

Architecture/ the built environment is the Wandering Jew in the UK government. Formely part of the Department of Environment, it now finds itself the unwanted part of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Hodge, perhaps hoping for a cushy post watching some opera and opening art galleries has found herself being berated by a bunch of crazed architects, driven bezerk on a diet of Brutalism and Banham, and whipped into a frenzy by Building Design.

Building Design has gone into overdrive with it's crusade to save Robin Hood Gardens, publishing the names of 1000 people who signed their petition to get Robin Hood Gardens listed, and claiming victory in the recent decision of English Heritage to delay making their recommendations to Hodge. But with a circulation of 25,000, the "UK's best read architectural weekly", has only managed to mobilise less than 4% of them to complete the online petition.

Havig being shamefully quiet about the Pimlio School, BD have decided that this is Brutalism's Last Stand, their Alamo.

And listed building consent? The process needs to be made a lot clearer. And while listing may save Robin Hood Gardens from being demolished, it will almost certainly make it harder to modernise into a workable building. English Heritage will need to be involved at every step of any proposals to breathe new life in RHG.

I vacillated before finally signing the petition to list Robin Hood Gardens. Listing might be the worst thing that could happen to the Smithsons' masterpiece, a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire.