HOUSING AT THE EXPENSE OF AN IDEA
Robin Hood Gardens: Housing at the Expense of an Idea.
Robin Hood Gardens is situated in the Docklands of East London, in the council of Tower-Hamlets. It is just north of the river Thames, providing a viable source of labor and commerce. The docks were initially developed at the end of the 17th century and grew to be the largest in the world during the 19th century. The project is on Robin Hood Lane, a medieval road whose name is of no relation to the English folklore, but a corruption of the original name of Robin Wood Lane. The road was an essential connection for the working class who lived in this region throughout the 19th and 20th centuries while working on the docks. In 1802, the East India Dock Company began selling off parcels of land to be developed into high-density, low-cost housing for workers on the docks. By 1870, the area was considered a slum. Tower-Hamlets council has since tried multiple times to gentrify the area in an attempt to reduce crime and improve living conditions.
In 1980, eight years after the opening of Robin Hood Gardens, the British government began closing the docks in East London and adopted various policies to stimulate new development. By 1988, ground was broken on the first of many new towers by New Haven architect Cesar Pelli, in what is now the highly vibrant and financially sound Canary Wharf. This has created radical change in the site conditions surrounding Robin Hood Gardens and its own potential property value on the private market. Canary Wharf has grown considerably over the past twenty years as a global financial hub and is planned for continued growth in the years to come. The view outside of the typical Robin Hood Gardens flat has developed from the disparity of the docks to monuments of capitalism very quickly. This has brought into question the appropriateness of the projects insularity and low cost construction.
Social housing in Britain began as early as the 10th century. It wasn’t until early 20th century when the government councils began collecting taxes to build housing specifically for lower income families, which are now known as council homes or council flats. The need for housing at the end of World War I and later the Housing Act of 1930 created more opportunities for council homes to be constructed. After four million homes were lost in World War II, Britain began building more council homes than ever before. The need for housing in the late 1960s was so great that the in-house architects of local councils could not keep up with the demand. By 1961, there were over 52,000 people on the waiting list for housing in London. The London County Council, which was overseeing the construction of council homes, began to outsource the designs to private architects, opening up new opportunities to explore the role of social housing. The London County Council created a short list of qualified architects and held a competition for three new developments. Alison and Peter Smithson were among those selected to design one of the developments.
Alison and Peter Smithson were a British wife and husband architect team. They worked as architects for London County Council before forming their own practice and later became highly active educators at the University of Bath and the Architectural Association in London. They were credited with creating New Brutalism, a movement between the 1950s and 1970s. Reyner Banham identifies New Brutalism as an ethic, not an aesthetic even though it was widely familiarized with the use of heavy building materials. Alison and Peter Smithson were the first to complete a building that could be identified as New Brutalism with the school at Hunstanton in Norfolk, England. They would continue this movement with Robin Hood Gardens.
Alison and Peter Smithson’s first concepts of housing were exposed in a competition for private housing in 1952. Their entry for Golden Lane Housing introduced the concept of “streets in the air.” This was a response to the rue interieur concept used in Unité d’Habitation by Le Corbusier. Alison and Peter Smithson argued that the new forms of production, consumption, transportation and life demanded a new form of housing . They understood the city as a structure of human associations, and wanted to address this in housing. Their “street in the air” concept was to build housing as a series of slab decks, with an exterior widened deck at every third level. This space would be used to access the flats and connect the dwellers to one another in the external, rather than the internal as proposed by Le Corbusier. Alison and Peter Smithson lost the Golden Lane competition, but widely published their entry for self-promotional purposes. They would make several further competition entries using and building upon these initial concepts, but its only fruition would be seen at Robin Hood Gardens nearly two decades later.
The flats are divided into two large housing blocks that enclose a central green space. This central space acts as the core to social life for the children of the estate. A large mound was constructed in the middle of the space, containing the remains of the demolished buildings previously on the site. The buildings are built out of in-situ concrete, a robust building method to withstand the demands of the building’s lower-class occupants. It was thought that by using heavy building materials, the lower-class and often criminal tenants would be less able to cause detrimental damage to the buildings. What has resulted is a housing scheme slightly nicer than a prison.
Robin Hood Gardens uses three primary elements to formally combat the heavy noise of the city. The first line of defense is a ten foot high “acoustic” concrete wall that reminds the users of nothing other than the Berlin Wall (which had been standing for a decade at the time). The façade is given projecting concrete mullions in the shape of I-beams, emulating what was built at the Seagram Building in New York City. The final line of defense is the street decks, acting as the buffer between the living space and the city beyond. These efforts combined do aid in making the central green space a bit of an oasis within the complex.
Peter Eisenman was one of the initial critics of Robin Hood Gardens, publishing initially in Architectural Design in 1972 and an extended review in Oppositions 1 the following year. Eisenman argued against Alison and Peter Smithson’s use of metaphors defining their projects. He claimed that Robin Hood Gardens lost the heroic vision of the ‘streets in the air’ as envisioned by the Smithsons at Golden Lane. He dislikes the façade treatment and the failed search for a generalized aesthetic. He understands that Alison and Peter Smithson are taking Miesian ideas of the skin of a building, but instead of a complex screen that remains neutral, they create a disjunction of the generalizing and “iconically expressive” disposition of internal elements.
As word got out that Tower Hamlets Council wanted to demolish the project, the British architecture magazine, Building Design, began a campaign in 2008 to save Robin Hood Gardens. This attracted a lot of interest in the architecture community and gained the signatures of 1,000 architects in the country who wished to see the building saved. Building Design was able to recruit the architects Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers to write in support of saving the estate . Hadid claimed that the project is “the best period of twentieth-century work in London.” She said Robin Hood Gardens represents “an ambition based on how urban geometry can actually introduce activity on the street through built form.” Richard Rogers would proclaim that “the building’s original concept combined a heroic scale with beautiful, human proportions.”
The arguments proposed by those trying to save the project are flawed. Most of the argument is centered on this being the sole housing project by Alison and Peter Smithson to incorporate the “streets in the air” concept. While that may be the case, there are many housing projects that have been created since Robin Hood Gardens which also have large communal external walkways connecting the dwelling units. This concept is not unique to this project. Even if it was, an idea is not enough to keep a building, which does not work. An idea is not architecture alone. Things that hold value only to academics may not always be of value to society. It is society which must live with the consequences of these experiments.
The conversation over whether Robin Hood Gardens should have been built in the first place is too late. The project was complete in 1972, the same year Pruitt Igoe in St. Louis was being torn down and modernism was claimed to be dead. Jane Jacobs’ pivotal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was already a decade old. The “streets in the air” concept was from the 1950’s. Alison and Peter Smithson had even strayed away from this concept in their own writings and teachings since their Golden Lane competition entry. How Robin Hoods Gardens ever came to be is a mystery. It defied everything that we had learned about housing, cities and social stratification in the decades prior. Nevertheless, it was built. The architects were designing at a time when the London County Council was too busy to ensure what was delivered was up to the standards of the time. They used their academic experiments to create a physical complex that impacts real lives. Alison Smithson revealed her own doubts over Robin Hood Gardens in a BBC interview. “It may be we should only be asked to repair the roofs and add the odd bathroom to the old industrial houses and just leave the people where they are, to smash it up in complete abandon and happiness, so that nobody has to worry about it anymore. You know, we may be asking people to live in a way that is stupid. They maybe just want to be left alone.”
Like many social housing projects, Robin Hood Gardens has been left without proper maintenance for many years. The building is over 40 years old and has not once been renovated. It is logical that it will fall into disrepair. It is thus illogical to use its disrepair as evidence of failure as housing. It could also be seen in Tower Hamlets best interest to encourage the decay of Robin Hood Gardens to profit on a future scheme of a housing estate which includes both social flats, and middle-class tax paying flats. Peter Smithson acknowledged the possibility of this decay of the project before it had ever been completed. “It is very depressing for the builders and the contractors, and the subcontractors and the architect, to feel that much of the effort they have out in is going to be smashed up.”
Robin Hood Gardens is no longer a viable solution for living. The council will demolish the project in the summer this year and replace it with a new mixed-income housing scheme as part of a larger master plan. This is the correct course of action. The recent praise of the complex by critics, has focused too much on what the project was supposed to do rather than what the project is today. Peter Smithson himself even claimed that “the idea of the street was more important than the reality [of Robin Hood Gardens].” This project makes a joke out of the respectability of the architecture profession. The complex shall be treated on the same grounds as other civil projects from the era. It has become common practice to replace schools, office buildings and other housing projects of this era and with this low quality of upkeep without question. Robin Hood Gardens is no exception. The project is viewed by tenants as abandoned and out-of-date. Visitors see the project as a prison, though whether it is to keep the tenants in or the city out is up for debate. The council sees the project as housing with density levels too low for today’s standards and property value with too much potential.
By removing the project, developers and architects can devise new schemes which to further gentrify the area and generate commerce while providing better standards of living to those in social housing. Robin Hood Gardens was a step in the process of moving people out of the slums and in to proper housing. It is the natural next step of this process to now remove the project and create something for today and tomorrow. When it was constructed, the docks that supplied many of the envisioned tenants work were being replaced by the largest financial sector in Europe. The property’s adjacency to Canary Wharf must better utilized, which can help generate further revenue for the council.
The fate of Robin Hood Gardens may become precedent for many existing housing projects where demolition is a threat. It may also be used to justify how we view architecture based on principle, as opposed to outcome. Should architecture be saved on the justification of an idea it was supposed to create? No. Should architecture be saved on the justification of a few elite and well-regarded architects saying it is worth saving? No. The fate of this project should be based on the same principles of the fate of any other project in the same economic situation. The building will be documented and demolished.
Banham, Reyner. 1966. The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? New York: Reinhold.
Jacobs, Jane. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. [New York]: Random House.
Johnston, Pamela, Rosa Ainley, and Clare Barrett. 2005. Architecture is Not Made with the Brain: The Labour of Alison and Peter Smithson. London: Architectural Association.
Eisenman, Peter. “From Golden Lane to Robin Hood Gardens; or if you follow the Yellow Brick Road, it may not lead to Golden Green.” Oppositions 1, 1973.
Powers, Alan, Sandra Lousada, and Ioana Marinescu. 2010. Robin Hood Gardens Re-visions. London: Twentieth Century Society.
Rosenfield , Karissa. “Robin Hood Gardens to be Demolished” 26 Mar 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 03 Mar 2013.
Smithson, Alison Margaret, and Peter Smithson. 1967. Urban Structuring: Studies of Alison & Peter Smithson. London: Studio Vista.
Smithson, Alison Margaret, and Peter Smithson. 1994. Changing the Art of Inhabitation. London: Artemis.
Smithson, Alison Margaret, and Helena Webster. 1997. Modernism Without Rhetoric: Essays on the Work of Alison and Peter Smithson. London: Academy Editions.
The Smithsons on Housing. Produced by B.S. Johnson. 1970. London: BBC2.