High society at RIBA

An image of Thamesmead from the RIBA High Society exhibition

Last week I went RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architecture) for the first time, to see the High Society  exhibition, an examination of 5 postwar housing estates.After gaining entrance, which proved harder than one might expect for a nationally advertised exhibition thanks to an over-officious librarian, I was disappointed to realise that the exhibition was a very small collection of photographs placed in 5 display cabinets in the centre of the RIBA library.

However, the photos themselves are fascinating. They communicate the idealism and genuine hope that the designers and commissioners of the estates had in mind when dreaming up their idea of the future. The fact that Park Hill in Sheffield was designed with wide balconies to allow a milk float to carry out its rounds, or that Thamesmead was built from the first floor upwards to avoid floods that affected London prior to the Thames Barrier, shows that the architects responsible may have been misguided, or failed to see all of the consequences of their designs, but can hardly be called negligent or malicious. Indeed, the arguments against such estates are well worn and it is clear that they were in no way a universal success. But a photograph of a miner in a Gorbals tenement which preceded the Hutchesontown estate shows what the estates were designed to avoid (I can’t find the picture among RIBA’s online collection, sadly). Filthy, tiny, no running water. The new estates offered an escape from this.

An unnatural beauty is shot through most of the photographs, which were mainly taken before the estates in question were inhabited. The estates all look amazing – clean lines, orderly repeating patterns, colonnades of smooth concrete – but are divorced from reality. The picture above, which I have pinched as my avatar, shows perhaps the conflict at the heart of estate living – everything is new, ordered, clean lines everywhere; the man in the photo looks content with his outside space to sit and have a drink or eat lunch; but the eye longs for something which is not man-made. A tree, a patch of grass, a row of flowers, anything. This divorce from nature, combined with economic circumstances which blighted the lives of many of their inhabitants, ultimately undid much of the good intentions of estate living.

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