The Twentieth Century Society

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Robin Hood Gardens

We have requested a review of the DCMS’s decision not to list Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens. Here are some of what we consider to the most interesting and compelling points to have come out of the proofs of evidence provided for us.

Our Chairman Alan Powers wrote on the significance of Alison and Peter Smithson as architects and theorists:

Alison Smithson (1928-1993) and Peter Smithson (1923-2003) have a firmly established place in the history of British and world architecture, on account of their buildings, their unbuilt projects, their theoretical writings and their teaching…

The Smithsons’ work was concerned with a search for the essence of Modernism in architecture. This involved a wide investigation of history and a critical examination of the work of earlier masters such as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. It involved a concern with matters outside the immediate scope of architecture, including painting, sculpture and graphics, collecting, non-western cultures, historical geography and projections of the future. This was conducted in a manner new to British architectural discourse, involving manifesto-like statements with matching illustrations, containing memorable slogans. These constituted a regular flow of material challenging settled beliefs about the nature of modern architecture. The Smithsons were notable for their engagement with past and present designers apparently opposed to Modernism, such as the classicists Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Albert Richardson and Raymond Erith, and François Spoerry, the designer of the Provençal holiday village Port Grimaud in Var, France.

The Smithsons were associated with formal and informal groupings that have long been identified as the most significant of the 1950s and 60s. They were key members of the Independent Group in Britain, associated with the Institute of Contemporary Arts, which generated exhibitions such as The Parallel of Life and Art, 1953, and This is Tomorrow, 1956, in which they participated. The term ‘The New Brutalism’ was adopted by them in 1954, and subsequently widely discussed and identified with the phase of modern architecture dominant from the mid 1950s to the mid 1970s. This was focussed on the use of exposed materials and finishes, the open display of construction, the connection between a building and its setting, and the interpretation of local and regional character in the language of modernism. Following the 1953 meeting of the Congrès Internationaux de l’Architecture Moderne, the chief international grouping of modern architects active since 1927, the Smithsons joined other younger architects in the formation of Team 10, with the purpose of criticising the orthodoxies of modern architecture and sharing ideas to improve on them. Team 10 included major thinkers and designers from Europe and America, and continued until 1983…

Certain themes recurred in the Smithson’ writings, concerning the relationship between the scales of design, from the home to the city, the need to maintain an imaginative stimulus in places, and the need to study the past to find models for emulation. The viewpoint and experience of the pedestrian became central to their understanding of cities and landscapes. Their presentations on these subjects combine graphic suggestions with verbal argument designed to challenge assumptions rather than offer ready-made solutions.

Alan also looked in detail at the significance of the street decks at Robin Hood Gardens:

Street decks are a feature of Robin Hood Gardens that has become a cause of contention in the discussion of listing. It has been stated that the idea was no longer a new one at the time of design and construction of Robin Hood Gardens, and that it was not effective in its purpose. This is a narrow view of the matter. The single issue of street decks should be seen in the context of the Smithsons’ wider concern with pedestrian circulation over a longer period, starting with their competition scheme for Golden Lane Flats in 1952. This was a criticism of the narrow outdoor access for many flats in the pre-war and post-war period, and an attempt to anticipate a future condition in which traditional terraced houses would be blighted by excess road traffic, so that the sight of children playing in the street, as in the photographs by Nigel Henderson used by the Smithsons in their presentation at CIAM in 1953 risked becoming a thing of the past. It was also a criticism of the internal access corridors, described as ‘interior streets’ designed by Le Corbusier for the Unité d’Habitation at Marseilles, which was the centrepiece of the 1953 Congress … If the decks had been wider at Robin Hood Gardens, to accord with the views of certain critics, it is likely that some disadvantages, such as the cost of the building for the client, the overshadowing of windows and the bulk of the twin slab blocks would have been incurred. The width as built was presumably a calculation to find a balances between these constraints.

Housing expert Dickon Robinson pointed out that the space standards at Robin Hood Gardens are much better than much housing being built today:

Robin Hood Gardens was designed to comply with the Parker Morris space standards which were the established space standards of that period. They laid down overall space standards dependant on the number of occupants, the size of individual rooms and specifics such as the amount of storage space.

He went on to explain that:

Many of the homes are large maisonettes, providing three or four bedrooms, on two levels connected by internal, interlocking stairs. Circulation spaces are reasonably generous, and rooms are well proportioned, allowing freedom in positioning furniture. As the larger apartments have a separate kitchen/dining room there has been scope to accommodate the additional white goods which today’s households regard as essential. In my view it is entirely reasonable to assert that the interiors were “fit for purpose” when built and are still so today.

He also analysed the street decks:

The wide access balconies, the celebrated “streets in the sky”, run the full length of each block. It is immediately apparent that any resemblance to streets would be symbolic rather than literal as they are not actually that wide. However they do provide enough space for residents to personalise, and to sit out if they wish, and they allow sufficient space for people to stop and chat without obstructing other residents from passing. As such they create a sense of generosity which is entirely absent from the many inter-war and immediately post-war LCC balcony access estates.

He was very positive about the way in which the external spaces of the estate are functioning:

The internal landscaped courtyard is generous by any standards and the central mound, with clumps of maturing trees, creates an even greater sense of space. A feature is the provision of small raised planting beds between the ground floor accommodation and the grassed landscape. These provide a sense of private and defensible space, and perhaps most remarkable are extensively used by residents to grow vegetables. This suggests a high degree of respect for others’ property and could not exist unless there was considerable social cohesion on the estate.

And finally,our barrister Richard Harwood pointed out that:

There is no evidence to justify the Secretary of State’s description that vandalism was rife, and the photograph of graffiti of “Bow” on a plan of Robin Hood Gardens, Poplar shows some wit.

What next?

The next step is for the DCMS to decide whether a review is justified. If the answer is “yes!” there will then be a period of consultation between EH, the DCMS, Tower Hamlets and the Society. We hope that our Freedom of Information requests to Tower Hamlets Council, the DCMS and English Heritage will have given us access to more information, including details of the reported existing tenants’ vote on what they want for the future. If it is decided that the case for review has not been adequately made, then we will consider the only remaining option: Judicial Review.
Our actions have, for the time being at least, averted the prospect of a Certificate of Immunity being granted for the building. This would have meant that the building could not be considered again for listing for another five years and would have effectively been a green light for demolition.
Catherine Croft

What contemporary architects have to say about Robin Hood Gardens:

The Smithsons were the first architects of twentieth century Britain to make a hugely significant contribution to world architectural discourse, and Robin Hood Gardens is an outstanding example of post-war British architecture.
The design of Robin Hood Gardens is an interpretation of the familiar London street, albeit as a vertical model to allow an efficient use of land, thereby addressing the need for high density developments, but simultaneously sensitively maintaining a community environment by factoring in large communal garden squares.

Robin Hood Gardens was designed in the manner of Brutalist architecture, a response to the post-war demand for quick and economical construction, using pre-cast concrete slabs with little regard for whimsical detail. This stark departure in architecture was being pioneered by Le Corbusier at the time, an architect who is now so revered in his country, and the utmost is being done by the French authorities to conserve his buildings.

Personally, Robin Hood Gardens is one of my favourite projects, and as a Tutor at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, I would take my students to study the actual, physical building, to experience the space and light of the development, and to use this building to reflect on their own architecture. The project contributed to my own work and understanding of architecture.
The importance of Robin Hood Gardens as a formative project in the history of architecture cannot be under-estimated. It is imperative that Robin Hood Gardens is saved from a non-reversible fate. We should develop schemes for the future longevity of Robin Hood Gardens, and I would be among the first to lend my assistance to make sure that Robin Hood Gardens survives for our future generations.
Zaha Hadid, Zaha Hadid Architects

It has heroic scale with beautiful human proportions and has a magical quality. It practically hugs the ground, yet it has also a majestic sense of scale, reminiscent of a Nash terrace.
Richard Rogers, Lord Rogers of Riverside

I believe Robin Hood Gardens to be the most significant building ompleted by my parents…. They were particularly proud of the complexity that arises from the disposition of different flat types, the massing, composition and proportion of the blocks.
Simon Smithson, Director Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, and son of Alison and Peter Smithson

The Smithsons were the leading architectural thinkers of their generation in the UK, and the most prominent in engaging at an international level of debate with Europe and America through their theorising, writing and building. They were very important in changing the direction of British architecture in the 50s and 60s, away from the generic modernism prevalent at that time towards a more tailored regional response… Along with Denys Lasdun’s Bethnal Green cluster block, Robin Hood Gardens is the most striking example of that period when architects struggled to humanise the organisation of the high density social housing estate…

As a teacher, I have often referred to Robin Hood Gardens, and have led visits to the building… It is innovative not only for the organisational idea, but also for the way in which the buildings organise the whole space of the estate, giving it a strong identity in a very hostile situation… It is perfectly imaginable that with proper judgment about tenant mix, RHG could house a satisfied community, and in different circumstances I would be happy to live in it… I know architects in France, Italy, Switzerland and Holland who are incredulous that a building of this stature and profile should be threatened, when it could realistically be renovated. Peter St John, Caruso St John

Without RGH, where would we go to see the work of the Smithsons on this scale and in this sector? It is a stand alone example of their work in housing and hugely influential. Just as the Economist or Hunstanton stands alone in its particular field, thus does RHG when it comes to post-war housing. Without it the UK stands to lose a sole example of the work of the practice at this scale and of this virtuosity. The fact is has failings are less to do with the hard kit of the architecture than by its sad neglect and mismanagement by its custodians. It is a special building and deserves special care… Alison Smithson has cut a furrow for the women architects that followed… we should safeguard Alison’s role as a pioneering woman architect who set the grown for others to follow. Quite simply she was beyond compare… Deborah Saunt, DSDHA

And academics:

Robin Hood Gardens is a highly significant example of post-war public housing and, like the C19 Board Schools and the early C20 Garden Cities, signifies the progressive state of architectural design and public expectation at a time of change and social advance… Like Victorian architecture and Pre-Raphaelite paintings, which were laughed at for many years, it will come to be appreciated for what it is.
Neil Jackson, Professor of Architecture at the Liverpool School of Architecture and C20 Trustee

In spite of all the controversies surrounding their work, then and now, [the Smithsons’] must be rated as Britain’s most important architectural designers, and especially architectural thinkers, during the period 1950-1970. Their idea of community architecture was exceedingly influential throughout the world. RHG is the only proper concrete manifestation of their concepts and is thus of extreme importance, not only historically speaking, but also for the present, as the concept of ‘design for the community’ still holds its fascination for architects and housing reformers.
Professor Stefan Muthesius, University of East Anglia

Catherine Croft

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