Robin Hood Taking From The Poor To Give To The Rich
Take a close look at how the council is treating this brutalist icon and what the V&A
has done in an unprecedented step to save an original piece of classic architecture by the Smithsons
We’ll be part of the ‘do you remember when they knocked down Robin Hood Gardens’ generation.
Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar began life as a project filled with hope in the heart of London’s East East. Designed by Alison Smithson (1928-1993) and Peter Smithson (1923-2003) as social housing to help meet the acute need for homes after the devasting World War Two bombing only exacerbated by a post-war baby boom. Commissioned by the Greater London Council, the ‘GLC’, Robin Hood Gardens was completed by the Smithsons in 1972 at a cost of £1,845,585. One could argue that before it was even completed the seeds of its demise were sown.
1972 was a big year for what was to be later the Right to Buy policy of the first Thatcher government, a scheme that allowed local authority tenants to buy their homes.. The sentiment behind the expression ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’ runs deeper than one might at first imagine in the British psyche and the idea of a sale to tenants had first been mooted by the Labour government in 1959. However the scheme didn’t really get going for almost a decade. By 1972, the year Robin Hood Gardens began to welcome people to their new homes, across England more than 45,000 tenants had decided to take up the offer to became owners of the properties they had previously rented. Typically long-term tenants were offered a 20% discount on the market price for their homes. Whilst Right to Buy didn’t officially kick in until the following decade, in effect the scheme was well underway before. The question is did Right to Buy contribute to a chronic housing shortage that ultimately led to a real threat to estates like Robin Hood Gardens? Even more Machiavellian, did it just become too tempting to allow a misunderstood estate to fall into such a level of disrepair that the argument for demolition would stick?
Many tried to step in and every one failed. The Twentieth Century Society couldn’t persuade the powers that be to list and protect the estate. Was what Richard Rogers described as the estate’s ‘heroic scale’ part of what made developers eye it up and salivate?
Alison and Peter Smithson thought big, they were heavily into changing the social status quo, how people lived. They were close to fellow members of the IG, the Independent Group, a gathering of creatives ranging from artists such as Richard Hamilton, art critics such as Rayner Banham who wrote about New Brutalism and fellow architect Colin St John Wilson. The group’s exhibitions Parallel of Art at the ICA and This is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956 were recognised as groundbreaking. This is Tomorrow was created by 38 participants formed into groups. Artist Richard Hamilton’s contribution ‘Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing’, recognised as a key early piece of pop art, added to the feeling that change was coming and there was no turning back. The Smithsons were part of Group Six together with Eduardo Paolozzi and Nigel Henderson.
The fact that these two people were in the middle of important artistic movements, were visionaries looking to improve living conditions for people in a disadvantaged neighbourhood ultimately stood for nothing when the demolition ball swung in the direction of their biggest project sixty years later.
Blackwall Reach will be built on a site which includes the former home of Robin Hood Gardens and will become home to 1500 people who find the idea of “high-yielding investment” appealing. The site will be composed (under current plans) of 561 rented flats, 118 shared ownership and the others have been marked for overseas private buyers.
The Smithsons were recognised as groundbreaking in their ideas. Their story could have played out quite differently; they entered the competition to design Golden Lane Estate (think step one, with step two being the peachy prize of designing the Barbican, a brutalist estate that is properly appreciated and cared for) however they lost out to Geoffry Powell, later of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon. Not that the Smithsons were not doing well, their architectural practice founded in 1950 was flourishing. What they were not willing to do was compromise their vision and that brought them into direct conflict with Corbusier.
Le Corbu, who, as we know, was not formally trained as an architect, was a key mover in the formation of the highly influential CIAM in 1928. CIAM, (Congres Internationaux d’Architecture moderne or, in English ,the International Congresses of Modern Architecture), ruled the roost and in the immediate aftermath of WW2. There were a lot of building projects and opportunities. By 1953 things were changing, political lines were being redrawn in Europe and building materials were becoming more expensive. Newcomers on the scene Alison and Peter Smithson formed an alliance with Jacob Bakema, Aldo van Eyck, John Voelcker and Giancarlo De Carlo and they all found themselves at the July 1953 CIAM, its 9th Congress. They didn’t like what they saw, they wanted to change the world and they felt CIAM was no longer the medium by which to do it. They became increasingly unhappy and frustrated, rejecting the setup and the ideas, inevitably the split occurred and Team 10 / Team X was formed. An invaluable insight into Team X’s thinking can be found in Alison Smithson’s book, ‘Team 10 Primer’ in 1964. By 1955 Corbusier himself had left CIAM unhappy about the prevalence of English spoken at the meetings and by 1959 CIAM disbanded. Team 10’s first formal meeting took place in 1960. The Smithsons became more and more committed to New Brutalism while Van Eyck and Bakema to Structuralism.
The Smithsons were commissioned to build Robin Hood Estate, with a canvas of 3.7 acres in the heart of Poplar near the London Docks. The Smithsons spoke of creating ‘streets in the sky’. They designed the estate around two large long blocks, curved facing towards each other protecting a green area in the middle with its own man-made hill. The blocks were huge, dominant, composed of precast concrete slabs. One block was seven storeys high and the other seven. The idea was so clever, so carefully thought out which is why what happened in terms of experience for the residents and ultimately for the estate as a whole was so sad. Bedrooms faced inwards, on every third floor a wide balcony with a view was incorporated into the design to encourage people to pass and mingle with one another. The Smithsons created what they called ‘pause spaces’ by entrances in and out of the estate with play areas for children. Alison and Peter were always considering ways of enhancing opportunities for human interaction. I like to think that they were really thinking about how to recreate the famed sense of community among neighbours that existed in the former back-to-back housing or tenement blocks.
We now know that the dream estates, home to large numbers had major pitfalls which for some outweighed all the potential. Robin Hood managed to be, for some, a perfect home with a real sense of neighbourhood, for others it was a place where for too many years criminal activity marred any pleasure derived from the design, further hampered by the estate’s strange sense of geographic separation from other parts of the borough due to the fast traffic-choked roads around it heading for the Blackwall Tunnel.
A redevelopment scheme, known as Blackwall Reach involves the demolition of Robin Hood Gardens; as part of a wider local regeneration project that was approved in 2012. An attempt supported by a number of notable architects to head off redevelopment by securing listed status for the estate was rejected by the government in 2009. The demolition of the western block began in December 2017. The eastern block still with tenants in is to be demolished later.
A 2008 C20 Society bulletin about the estate, showing that the protests agains demolition began years ago, reminds us of Professor Stefan Muthesius’ view that ‘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. Robin Hood Gardens is the only proper concrete manifestation of their concepts and is thus of extreme importance, not only historically, but also for the present, as the concept of ‘design for the community’still holds its fascination for architects and housing reformers.’
Today we have bulldozers, crumbling concrete and a lump of that once great example of a hopeful future protected and exhibited by the V&A