Howard Croft column: Brutal-looking homes now museum ‘gems’

A flat from Robin Hood Gardens, London, has been aquired by the V&A.
A flat from Robin Hood Gardens, London, has been aquired by the V&A.

The Victoria and Albert Museum is reported to have acquired part of one of the country’s most notorious buildings with intention of displaying it as an architectural “treasure”. I suppose that once we could have referred to this block of council flats as “the” most notorious buildings, but since the Grenfell tower block fire that building holds the top spot never, I hope, to be surpassed.

An entire flat has been removed ahead of demolition of the complete block. No price has been mentioned, but I suppose that the V&A will have to bear the cost of the intact extraction and relocation at a planned outpost in east London, which will not be cheap. It will take its place alongside a recreated Renaissance interior of the Old Palace in Bromley-by-Bow and the 18th century music room from the London residence of the dukes of Norfolk.

Opened in 1972 these flats were unpopular with residents from the start because of leaks and design flaws that made them uninhabitable by anyone with a choice in the matter. The block was called Robin Hood Gardens, presumably a sly joke on the part of the planners as no one had a garden and it was an excellent example of the rich (the architects) robbing the poor and keeping it for themselves.

The council tenants living there were regarded as simple folk, poorly informed about architecture, by the architectural establishment who viewed the building very highly. The Twentieth Century Society, supported by leading architects, opposed demolition. My Lord Rogers (Richard Rogers, the greatest living architect) described the building as “the best piece of social and architectural thinking in the past fifty years” and declared that he would be happy to live in it. He was inundated by invitations from miserable residents, who were all too familiar with the failing water and electricity supplies, damp and crumbling fabric, but he failed to turn up with his sponge bag and jim-jams.

An attempt to have the estate listed in 2009 was rejected by English Heritage whose spokesman said “it fails as a place for human beings to live”. Quite so – but they didn’t add, as they might have done, that it is indescribably ugly. This style of post-war building, rejoicing in the apt term Brutalist, is to be found in every city in the country and happily it is being dismantled, a process that has been given a nudge by the Grenfell tragedy. It is interesting that the architectural/planning establishment that praised this “streets in the sky” approach to housing was at the forefront when it came to demolishing Victorian buildings, leaving cities like Leeds violated and robbed of fine Victorian buildings.

It is interesting how often well-educated professional people cling on to what they thought were game-changing innovations long after the man on the Clapham omnibus has seen through their foolish, often dangerous, impostures. Doctors and their leeches spring to mind. They continued enthusiastically to apply blood suckers to the limbs of ailing patients even when it had become clear that this treatment was killing them. The patients, that is, not the doctors – no fear!

Similarly, there still might be about the place passionate social workers who fervently believe in the widespread practice of satanic abuse of children in spite of all the evidence, or rather lack of it. Some teachers will defend the lunatic ideologies in the 70s that deprived a generation of children basic life skills and forced university staff and employers into remedial teaching roles.

One recent policy change that has set aside ancient practices concerns the vital business of ear-syringing. People who use hearing aids need this procedure from time to time, especially in advance of visiting the otology department at the hospital where they need a clear view of the eardrum without debris getting in the way. I always thought that if you had your own device (not a syringe at all, but a small tank of water with a heating element, a tiny water pump and a pipe for going in) you could do it yourself and not bother the nurses at the local practice. I mentioned it once and asked where I could buy such a machine. I was firmly told that syringing could only be carried out by medical staff after many years of training. It is dangerous to do it yourself, and to do so risks irreversible injury to the eardrum or even brain damage. I was disappointed.

I was overjoyed to learn that there is a new protocol: they no longer perform this now minor procedure and you are directed to the chemists to buy your own kit. At last, I can thrutch out my ears in the privacy of my own home, but I am having difficulty inspecting my handiwork down the otoscope.