Robin Hood Gardens

Posted on 4 February 2012 0 comments

Robin Hood Gardens
Robin Hood Gardens. Photo from Flickr by Steve Cadman.

Robin Hood Gardens is a large housing estate in Poplar in East London designed by the architects Peter and Alison Smithson and completed in 1972.

The estate is owned by Tower Hamlets Council who wish to demolish it and build new homes in its place. The redevelopment is part of the Blackwall Reach regeneration project which covers not just Robin Hood Gardens but the surrounding area too.

Robin Hood Gardens is made up of two separate slab blocks of ten and seven-storeys that sit facing each other across a green mound of grass.

Robin Hood Gardens site plan

There are a total of 213 housing units. The ground floor of each block consists of one-bed single storey flats. These were originally intended for elderly residents. The upper floors contain two-storey maisonettes; each has its own front door which is accessed from a wide gallery or deck.

Robin Hood Gardens
Robin Hood Gardens. Photo from Flickr by Christian Skovgaard.

Time has not been kind to Robin Hood Gardens. Years of neglect have left the buildings in a run-down and dilapidated state. Problems with crime and the quality of construction have also contributed to their decline.

Although the slab blocks are relatively low-rise, they have an uncomfortable, overbearing scale. And they just look a bit grim.

Robin Hood Gardens
Robin Hood Gardens. Photo from Flickr by John Levett

Robin Hood Gardens has its defenders, mostly from the architecture profession.

In 2008, the Twentieth Century Society and Building Design magazine launched a campaign to have the building listed and thus saved from demolition. The campaign attracted over 2000 supporters including prominent architects like Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid. However, English Heritage turned down the request for listed status and subsequent efforts to save the estate also proved unsuccessful.

Robin Hood Gardens is now slated for demolition and an outline planning application (January 2012) for a replacement development has been submitted to Tower Hamlets Council.

What do the residents of Robin Hood Gardens think of all this? There are conflicting reports, so it’s hard to know for sure. Tower Hamlets claims the majority of residents support demolition and the creation of new homes. However, in June 2009, Building Design magazine reported that resident Darren Pauling had challenged the claim by Tower Hamlets that 80% of residents wanted the housing complex demolished. Pauling carried out his own survey among residents:

“I managed to speak to 60 people in the [eastern] building and 48 of those said they wanted it refurbished…Where is the council getting this figure of 80% from?”

Can refurbishment or reuse save Robin Hood Gardens? I simply don’t know. I am not against demolition, but the needs of the residents must come first. Any replacement homes must not be smaller or offer inferior layouts to the current flats and maisonettes. One of the arguments against demolition is that there is an enormous amount of embodied energy in the estate and that it is less wasteful to renovate than rebuild from scratch.

Robin Hood Gardens
Robin Hood Gardens. Photo from Flickr by rb.fzz

Why is Robin Hood Gardens so highly regarded among architects? Much of the admiration seems to be for the original design intent of the place rather than the actual reality it represents. In this respect, Robin Hood Gardens epitomises the chasm that often exists between the textbook, somewhat abstract way that architects admire the qualities of a building and how the public perceive it. Of course, architects who wish to save this building don’t want it to remain in a dilapidated state. But how many would actually want to live there?

It’s true that there is a lot of detailed thinking in the design of the estate – a level of thinking that is mostly absent from the design of housing today (even among architect-led schemes). But there are also aspects of the design that have failed.

The Smithson’s most prominent idea for Robin Hood Gardens was “streets in the sky” (or “streets-in-the-air” as the Smithsons described it). They first proposed this idea in a 1951 housing competition for the redevelopment of Golden Lane and Fann Street in the City of London. They did not win the Golden Lane housing competition, so it was Robin Hood Gardens that gave them the opportunity to implement (or should that be test?) their idea of “streets in the sky”. But was the idea ever sound in the first place?

The Smithsons designed Robin Hood Gardens with good intentions but they were also designing for their own idea of the future. In a paper called Urban Structuring published in 1967, the Smithson’s wrote:

“This study is concerned with the problem of identity in a mobile society. It proposes that a community should be built up from a hierarchy of associational elements and tries to express the various levels of association – the house, the street, the district, the city. It is important to realize that the terms used, street, district, etc., are not to be taken as the reality but as the idea, and that it is our task to find new equivalents for these forms of association for our non-demonstrative society.” [My emphasis]

“Traditional Street considered as active environment is now being changed by increased mobility.

Re-identifying man with his environment cannot be achieved by using historical forms of house-groupings: streets, squares, greens, etc., as the social reality they represent no longer exists. [my emphasis].

The principle of identity we propose is the basis of the Golden Lane Project – a multi-level city with residential streets-in-the-air.”

“The street decks are intended as ample spaces, wide enough for two mothers with prams to stop to talk and still to leave room to pass.”

But even as the Smithsons were turning these ideas into reality, other architects at the time were following a different path. The housing projects built by Camden Council from 1965 to 1973 provided low-rise, high density family housing that didn’t reject the traditional urban street but embraced it. (For details, see the related post Cook’s Camden: London’s great experiment in urban housing).

I’m repeating a book passage below that I’ve quoted in another post because it seems quite relevant. It’s from An Introduction to Urban Housing Design: At Home in the City by planner and architect Graham Towers. He argues that:

“Most flats in successful blocks are small, recognising that flat living is more appropriate for small households rather than families with children. In their layout they generally avoid the complex networks of corridors, stairs and decks which are so often the location of abuse and crime [in larger estates]. Above all, where the large estates ignored and destroyed the traditional street, successful flats work within the urban grain. Blocks of flats are set within the existing street pattern reinforcing the perimeters to street blocks. In large developments, the blocks themselves define and form coherent urban spaces – squares, courts or closes.”

Floor plans

You can view floor plans of the maisonettes in Robin Hood Gardens on the Modern Architecture London site.

There are some oddities in the design: the kitchen and living room are on separate floors, for example. But there are also many good details. The living room has good proportions and a wide frontage (in contrast to the narrow frontage common in most new-build flats today). The flats are dual aspect. The separate kitchen (another rarity in flats today) is also well-sized and has enough space to accommodate a small table for sitting.

The estate is located on a difficult site surrounded on three sides by roads with noise and traffic. The large grass courtyard at least gives many of the residents a more pleasant view and long views out of their windows.

Robin Hood Gardens
Robin Hood Gardens. Photo from Flickr by nothingtoseehere

It will be interesting to see what replaces Robin Hood Gardens. Will the new flats have living rooms with a wide frontage? Unlikely. Will they have a separate kitchen? The FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) on the Blackwall Reach website (as of January 2012) has this to say:

Q. In the new homes will the bathroom and kitchen have an external window?

All bathrooms are internal due to the configuration required within the parcel of land and number/size of the units. This has always been the case and is very usual in new developments. Due to the quality and specifications of ventilation there is no issue with internal bathrooms.

Kitchens will where possible (currently in all cases subject to detailed design) have external windows.

Q. Will the new homes have separate kitchen and living rooms?

All 3, 4 & 5 bedroom properties will have a separate enclosed kitchen from the lounge. It is almost impossible to accommodate this in 1 bed homes and where possible we will introduce the enclosed kitchen in 2 bedroom properties.

Below is the latest image of the redevelopment (Jan 2012). It’s impossible to properly assess the design from this image but first impressions are not great. It looks typically generic and bland. The density has shot up and there are some unattractive high rise towers in the distance.

Blackwall reach redevelopment

Recently (Jan 2012), a number of architectural practices have called for a boycott of the Robin Hood Gardens redevelopment competition. Building Design magazine asked two architects to debate the issue. The argument in favour of a boycott was put forward by Steve Smith from AHMM (Allford Hall Monaghan Morris). Arguing against a boycott was Hans van der Heijden of Rotterdam practice Biq.

Part of the argument put forward by AHMM was couched in exactly the detached, slightly abstract language I mentioned earlier. The estate is admired for what it was intended to be rather than what it has become:

“Experience tells us that buildings are often demolished before their merit or importance is widely understood. Several brutalist structures face this fate.

Top of the list is Robin Hood Gardens. Alison & Peter Smithon’s seminal housing scheme in Tower Hamlets has been the subject of a long campaign. It is a fine piece of architecture in its theoretical underpinning and in the exhilaration of its realisation with such rich articulation and monumental scale.”

The argument against a boycott by practice Biq was put across more convincingly:

“A boycott is pointless, serving merely to further isolate the British architectural profession from any meaningful engagement with housing and urban design.

If good architects will not think about a critical reconstruction of Robin Hood Gardens and its awkward urban setting, who will? If they cannot find ways of dealing with the technical deficiencies of post-war brutalism, who can? If they refuse to participate in the broad coalitions needed to improve housing design in Britain, who will take their place?”

“No-one could deny that Robin Hood Gardens failed to provide a habitat that its residents esteemed, and in the face of that failure, a degree of modesty on the part of the profession would be appropriate.”

Update April 2013: work has started on demolishing the north-eastern end of the Blackwall Reach regeneration site, which includes Robin Hood Gardens. Building Design Magazine has a report (registration required).

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