Relocating the Dream: Working-Class Housing as History and Spectacle

This week marks the beginning of the Venice Biennale – an internationally-acclaimed series of events and exhibitions showcasing the arts and architecture. However this year, one exhibition in particular has been met with a wave of campaigning and protest in Venice and London against gentrification and the social cleansing of the urban environment, its communities and cultures.

Towards the end of 2017, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London announced that it had acquired a three-storey section of the Robin Hood Gardens housing estate in East London, currently mid-demolition. The Biennale will be the first time this acquisition is put on display. Completed in 1972, the working-class housing project was a statement piece of British Brutalist modernism by architects Alison and Peter Smithson – raw concrete blocks, 213 homes connected by elevated ‘street in the sky’ walkways. Robin Hood Gardens reflected a 1960s design that projected an ideal of social life and community through new modern structures and ways of living for all, built on the war-ruined spaces of the old. It addressed the need for homes, but it also embodied a vision of social housing, of socialism and, in the words of Owen Hatherley, a ‘fortress-like’ structure for the protection of that dream.

However, like many other post-war housing estates in the UK, Robin Hood Gardens fell into decline. By the 1980s, housing policy and planning was subject to new political imperatives. A lack of continued investment in social housing and the ‘right-to-buy’ movement under Thatcher provided the logistical challenge, while reinforcing an ideological one: the death of the dream of municipal modernism itself. In this vein, its current demolition seems only to highlight the impossibility of the renovation of any part of the site or the vision. Despite numerous heritage organisations and campaigners’ attempts to list the building as an historic monument, the once future-of-living for the working class has been deemed an ‘unliveable’ structure. It is an example of the demolition of the 20th century modern more broadly – including of forms of work, community, and living – that can be seen across the UK as well as in North America and the former Soviet Union.

The preservation of working-class heritage has long been a rallying point of struggle but also a matter of contention. Heritage is a way of celebrating, maintaining, and rescuing landscapes, objects, community cohesion, and ways of life threatened by social, economic, and cultural change. For some, preserving the practices, ideas, and ideals of working-class communities provides an opportunity to halt the process of class-cultural erasure. Others see heritage as the last gasp of a culture now all but gone. To paraphrase the Marxist cultural theorist Theodor Adorno, even the best intentioned museums and heritage centres are filled with the objects and stories to which fewer and fewer people have a ‘vital’ relationship. When something becomes heritage, it gains permanence but becomes less present, its appeal derived from absence and loss as much as continuity. Rather than help working-class communities to survive detrimental change, heritage can draw a definitive line dividing the past from the present.

Housing has rapidly climbed up the political agenda in the UK recently, becoming a crucial concern for working- and, increasingly, middle-class people. Housebuilding generally, and social housing construction in particular, has failed to meet growing demand. An inflated market, stagnant wages, and a ‘buy-to-let’ boom over recent decades have put home ownership beyond the reach of many, if not most.

Yet even as prospects for affordable housing and economic stability look bleak, people have begun to look to models from the past in order to imagine a better future. A continued interest in and admiration for municipal housing and its dream, including Brutalist architecture specifically, have found a collective and public face. Popular social media accounts such as This Brutal House, blogs like Municipal Dreams, or films such as New Town Utopia are exploring the UK’s relationship to this architectural and political vision. Instead of romantic recollection, these examples suggest a radically nostalgic rediscovery of a time when progressive ideas of exciting and high quality living for all were part of housing policy. Audiences are drawn by an interest in architectural innovation, political beliefs, and the attempt to configure new alternatives.

The V&A’s acquisition of part of Robin Hood Gardens, complete with both architectural facade and internal living space, reflects its recognition of a vital political and architectural moment, which, the museum has declared, should be preserved for ‘future generations’. Preserving the site also acknowledges the toll that a decline in social housing as an ideal and practice has taken on incomes and life trajectories. (These are perhaps generous readings given that the museum’s current director is the picket-crossing former shadow minister for education Tristram Hunt, who quit his role as a Labour Party MP following the party’s shift to the left).

However, if the demolition of Robin Hood Gardens suggests the inevitable failure of a dream, preserving part of the building in a museum does nothing to dispel or counteract that idea. A curatorial vision of the place of the estate within an art and design history framework displaces, re-forms, and distorts the experiences of those who lived in Robin Hood Gardens, as well as the desires and concerns of those who designed and supported the development. Preserving the site recognizes its significance for working-class people and communities and highlights the plight of social housing today. But turning the structure into an exhibit also defines not just the building but its ideals as history, in which working-class experience is acceptable because it is of the past. This in turn ignores the people whose lives have been displaced in this process. Those protesting the exhibit are standing up against such erasure and proclaiming the future of a dream.

David Nettleingham

David Nettleingham is a Lecturer in Cultural Sociology at the University of Kent, UK. His research explores the roles of memory and narrative in processes of social and political change.

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