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Demolition: What lies behind the walls of the Brutalist landmark estate

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For some, it is an iconic example of 1970s Brutalist architecture; for others, a big, ugly eyesore.
“Whatever they think, there’s a huge sense of community here,” says photographer Kois Miah of Robin Hood Gardens, a housing estate comprised of two blocks containing 213 flats, soon to be demolished and replaced by a new build.
In light of this, and because of the sheer volume of tenants that will have to be relocated – some against their will from the only home they have every known – local Miah and his friend and partner Nick Thoburn, together with the support of the campaign group SPLASH (South Poplar & Limehouse Action for Secure Housing) visited the affected families, and immortalised some of their last moments in the apartments in intimate portraits.

Pat in 75 years old and lives with her husband John and married for 52 years. "My first impression of the flat was 'oh, what have I come to?"
Pat is 75 years old and lives with her husband John, married for 52 years. “My first impression of the flat was: ‘Oh, what have I come to?”.
Canary Wharf views.
Canary Wharf views.
“There has been a lot of talk about the Brutalist architecture, but I thought it might be quite interesting to get the residents’ perspective on living on that estate,” says Miah.
“The thing about this project is that it’s really intimate – people invite you into their homes. But you also have to be careful because a lot of people might think that you can help them, but this is a purely documentary project.”
Moyna Miah and his grandchildren.
Moyna Miah and his grandchildren.
Since 2012, the Poplar estate began to be emptied.
The smaller West Building of seven storeys is now entirely empty, whereas the 10 storey eastern wing still houses a few remaining families and lease holders – but not for long.
“It was essentially an ongoing maintenance issue,” explains Miah. “Depending on who you talk to, it was either left to disrepair or just too complicated for it to be repaired.”
There was also reportedly asbestos found in some parts of the construction, slowing down the demolition and process even further.
As is the nature of Brutalist architecture, the estate, designed by architects Alison and Peter Smithson in the late 1960s, is entirely built of heavy, dense concrete.
To the frustration of its inhabitants, maintenance was indeed an issue, almost from the start. As the photographer explains:
“Having a leak is the worst thing. None of the flats are uniform, so to find it takes forever. They have to go up and down the stairs, and all around the sides just to find where it’s coming from. They have to do a diagnostic on all the surroundings.”
Adrienne Sargeant.
Adrienne Sargeant.
And the structural peculiarities do not end there.
For example, as well as having balconies in by their front doors, each flat has a back door leading to a separate alley-like pathway running the length of the entire floor.
These ‘rear balconies’ allow anyone to walk alongside every flat on that level, passing laundry lines whilst peering into kitchen and living room windows.
It was intended as a swift fire exit, but has resulted in a somewhat forced intimate living situation between neighbours.
Summer fun day organised by SPLASH.
Summer fun day organised by SPLASH.
These long winding corridors that hug the exterior of block, however, create a compositions that beg photographers to exploit its natural perspective.
“It’s extremely nice to photograph,” says Miah. “The long lines of the pipe works lead to all sorts of places, and draw you in. It’s not nice to look at from the outside, but when you go inside and start looking through a lens, it’s quite different.”
40 images make up the series that will be on display at St Matthias Community Centre from 3 October as part of PHOTOMONTH, the East London Photography Festival, but Miah hopes to extend the project a little further.
He would like to follow up with the former residents of the concrete monstrosity in their new flats – some have relocated to new builds “just a stone’s throw away”, but the photographer also hopes to get a glimpse of its physical destruction, as the larger 10 storey structure is finally flattened to make way for Stirling-prize winner Haworth Tompkins and London’s Metropolitan Workshop’s new builds, (the designs of which were announced in August this year).
Taurus Miah has a cigarette.
Taurus Miah has a cigarette.
“The more stories we get the truer the picture we get of people living in that estate and their experiences. It seems like every trip you make into the building, you see new things,” he says.
The exhibition Lived Brutalism: Portraits at Robin Hood Gardens is at St Matthias Community Centre (Old Church), 113 Poplar High Street, London E14 0AE from 3 – 31 October 2016 

Izabela Radwanska Zhang

Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Managing Editor of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.


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