Robin Hood Gardens. V&A: The not-so-very-arms-length state-led artwashing of state-led gentrification and social cleansing

All images in this post are my own, taken during research in 2016.

All images in this post are my own, taken during research in 2016.

Much has been written about V&A’s decision to purchase a part of Robin Hood Gardens: an ex-council estate; more recently social housing.  The estate is currently being demolished to make way for Blackwall Reach – a luxury property development.  Campaigners fought to save Robin Hood Gardens: some because of its architectural significance; others because they believed in maintaining social housing.  Yet the estate was not saved.

A large proportion of the press coverage and broader debate about V&A’s acquisition of a slice of Robin Hood Gardens sees it as a positive move – as “saving”, “salvaging”, “preserving” an important part of the UK’s Brutalist architectural heritage.  There is little mention of the dispossession and displacement of hundreds of people, families, children.  Yet Robin Hood Gardens was an experiment – part of the utopian dream of providing those with the least in our society with new, spacious, comfortable, communal homes; a dream for better lives for everyone.  Council estates were quickly ran down and then demonised as “sink estates”, “slums”, “ghettos”, “no-go-zones”, etc.  This was all part of the “regeneration game”.  Part of the state-led cycle of gentrification – of planned disinvestment, planned dispersal of working-class people, planned demolition, and planned re-investment.  Robin Hood Gardens is part of this cycle.

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It is therefore interesting to see the V&A – a state institution with state-appointed board of trustees – purchase (presumably using tax-payers’ money) a small section of Robin Hood Gardens which, it seems, will probably be rebuilt in its new museum on the deeply contested, hypergentrification zone which is Queen Elizabeth Park, Stratford: a quasi-public (i.e. essentially private) space.  V&A representatives have claimed that visitors will be able to literally “walk in the front door” of this important architectural design artefact in years to come; that preserving a little piece of Robin Hood Gardens in a state-governed institution is a good thing that will stimulate debate.  Yet the V&A doesn’t seem too keen on debating with those who criticise the acquisition.  They have their trophy.  Some say it will be free to visit.  This is unlikely.  Many of the V&A’s exhibitions attract entrance fees – significant entrance fees.  In any case, it will be primarily middle-class people who queue to gawp in awe at the “little bit of slum housing” faithfully recreated in a temperature-controlled, secure space on private land.  V&A are, I claim, acting like cultural vultures, scavenging a carcass from our poisoned welfare state, our murdered dream of decent council housing for all, picking through the scraps of social housing made putrid by legions of money-loving housing associations.

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V&A’s Robin Hood Gardens “exhibit” may seem like a well-intentioned act of historic preservation by some but for me it will represent the shallow grave of council housing – a literal shallow grave, given that the entire Queen Elizabeth Park site sits on a thin layer of soil protected from pollution by a special membrane.  You can imagine the exclusive exhibition preview evening, London’s great and good trotting along to sneer, chat and pat backs.  Some at the V&A have even suggested that some of the decanted ex-Robin Hood Gardens residents will be allowed to “interpret” the exhibition.  How very smug.  How abusive.  They describe Robin Hood Gardens as being like “a Rubik’s Cube”.  What?!  This affair lays bare the insincerity and self-entitlement of our current government and its cultural bureaucrats.  Of course, Labour parachutist-turned-ship-jumper, Tristram Hunt, is gleeful.  He’s just bought a bit of public housing which was paid for by tax-payers using cultural funding from tax-payers.  V&A’s loyal corporate sponsors will be happy.  Many of them are investment banks and property developers.  They stand to profit from state-led gentrification.

V&A's corporate patrons... For more see the link above.

V&A's corporate patrons... For more see the link above.

And this is the crux of the argument here.  I argue that the V&A’s procurement of a piece of Robin Hood Gardens – a piece of what was once someone’s home – is an act of aggressive artwashing.  V&A have been involved in artwashing before.  For example, their “outreach” project “Lansbury Micro-Museum” in the also threatened by gentrification Chrisp Street Market in Poplar, not far from Robin Hood Gardens.  Here they harvested histories, memories, old photos and memorabilia.  Now they’re museumifying bricks and mortar.  As a state quango – an “arms-length organisation”, V&A couldn’t support the campaigns to save Robin Hood Gardens and/ or its residents.  But that very status enabled them to buy a slice and to exhibit it.  The museum’s actions are deeply political, even if some cannot see or accept this.  They are also intensely commercial.

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V&A is artwashing the state-sanctioned demolition of Robin Hood Gardens and the state-backed Blackwall Reach gentrification programme.  Its purchase has led to massive media coverage, increasing awareness of the “architectural significance” of Robin Hood Gardens.  Blackwall Reach property developers, supported by the local housing association and Tower Hamlets council, are already marketing the luxury condos which will soon be built on the site of Robin Hood Gardens to people across the globe as being steeped in Brutalist heritage.  Therefore, V&A’s act of “preservation” serves as PR for luxury condo sales.  That’s not all.  Choosing to site the remnants of Robin Hood Gardens in a new museum that acts as a flagship for the hyper-gentrification of Stratford, Newham and the East End of London as a whole, means that the V&A are artwashing the social cleansing of vast swathes of London.  Its very presence there will only validate the claims of gentrifiers and intensify the pressures on the area’s working-class residents to get out.

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It’s a scandal that Robin Hood Gardens was ever allowed to be demolished and not refurbished.  It’s a disgrace that the same thing is happening all over London and, indeed, across the UK.  It’s an outrage that very few people care about council housing or social housing TENANTS, instead focusing on HERITAGE and ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN AESTHETICS.  It’s despicable that social housing is being knocked-down by property developers and replaced by UNAFFORDABLE housing and LUXURY condos.  And, it’s disgusting that the V&A are leading the cultural soft-power invasion force – that they are artwashing gentrification and social cleansing.  The institution is an “arms-length” state instrument – part of the government, so this is a case of the state artwashing state-led gentrification.

V&A's purchase of a part of Robin Hood Gardens is the fetishisation of working-class ways of living.  It's also an act of poverty tourism and poverty porn.  It is an act, literally, of accumulation by dispossession.  It represents art and culture in the form of property, power and wealth in the hands of the few - in the hands of the privileged elite.

As always, displaced social housing tenants do not matter.

It's time that V&A had an open debate about council and social housing past, present and future.  It's time that it admitted it is a political instrument with deeply political and capitalist agendas.