The landscape of housing: Smithsons design and site planning for Robin Hood Gardens

Zaha Hadid: ‘Personally, Robin Hood Gardens is one of my favourite projects.’
Richard Rogers: ‘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.’
Simon Smithson: ‘I believe Robin Hood Gardens to be the most significant building completed by my parents. ‘
Tom Turner: ‘Sao Paolo could learn a lot from the Smithsons’ approach to planning urban landscape’
Here are 3 videos, by Alison and Peter Smithson, by Jonathan Glancey and by me. I am impressed by the Smithsons and in full agreement with Glancey that (1) I would not choose to live there (2) the scheme should not be demolished – as has been decided (3) it should become student housing, because it is so well suited to communal use. The Smithsons account of the scheme justifies slapping a preservation order on Robin Hood Gardens. The English Heritage commissioners were right about the building architecture being mediocre: the elevations are elegant but the roofs are leaking, the concrete is spalling so that the rebars are exposed, the stairways are pokey, the balconies are usable only for drying clothes (so the residents protect them with bird netting) and a ‘street in the air’ (often with hoodies) is not a nice thing to have outside your living room window. BUT the site planning is excellent. London’s ‘tower blocks’ are usually planned like tombstones in plots of grass. The Smithsons protected against noise and used their buildings, as in London’s Georgian Squares, to define and create outdoor space. I have never seen their hill well used but attribute this to its not being a safe protected space. I also agree with their comment, on the video, that using Robin Hood Gardens as a ‘sink estate’ was not wise. Both these mistakes can be attributed to the housing managers: Tower Hamlets Borough Council. So what should be done now? (1) keep the Smithsons excellent site planning (2) implement Glancey’s idea if it feasible – and convert the buildings for use by a student community (3) otherwise, replace their shoddy architecture with better buildings on the same footprint (4) manage the central space as a garden, instead of as a public park.

Alison Smithson has a strange manner and makes some strange remarks (eg ‘Any African state would have as good a chance of joining the Common Market as London’). But the two of them speak wisely about what should happen to London Docklands.

Jonathan Glancey presents a well-reasoned and well-balanced account of the design.

13 thoughts on “The landscape of housing: Smithsons design and site planning for Robin Hood Gardens

  1. Christine

    Union College at the University of Queensland by James Birrell seems to owe something to Robin Hood Gardens and the Smithsons. [ ] It seems also to have been more successful in integrating its garden setting?

    It is planned on the horizontal axis rather than vertical axis. And perhaps the use as student accommodation on campus has assisted with its long term management?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Yes, student accommodation would be an excellent use for the site and, in fact, East London is in need of an engineering university, probably established on a different basis from ‘standard’ UK universities. It should be a partnership with businesses, respecting their technical needs. London aspires to being Europe’s Silicon Valley and describes it, with British understatement, as Silicon Roundabout (not quite here but not too far away).

  2. Christine

    I am not convinced that the architecture could be described as shoddy, but take the point about the problems with the construction. These technical issues are common amongst buildings of this age as the technology being used was still in its infancy. It is difficult to guess at the contribution of the construction quality, maintenance regime and occupancy issues to the buildings current state. The Twentieth Century Society ought to be well placed to advise on its preservation.

    If the building was adaptively reused as student accommodation as part of a university campus, taking into account the architecture and site alone – and presuming a good interiors brief – it could be a great place for all students including postgraduates and potentially visiting academics to live!

    Charles Jencks Garden of Cosmic Speculation seems to have been inspired in part by the Smithsons design at Robin Hood. If so, it is not hard to imagine a community garden that is accessible to both students and the public – depending of course on other aspects of its integration with the campus and neighbourhood. (Some examples of this to follow soon)…

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Here is a review of the estate, including a comment from Jencks (in which he does not name it as the source of his ‘spiral’ idea!).
      My feeling is that if there are a large number of construction problems (heating, insulation, wiring, plumbing, lifts, exposed rebars etc) AND if the internal spaces are not enjoyable (eg because of shady rooms outlooking to ‘streets in the air’) then the quality of the elevations 9which I like) is an insufficient reason for keeping the blocks (which were seen by contemporaries as ‘brutalist’ – hardly a term of endearment).

  3. Christine

    So Jencks is not a fan – but my impression of Robin Hood Gardens influence on him still remains – even if it influenced him unconsciously.

    The estimate to upgrade the facilities of $75K per unit if it was to be retrofitted to a higher standard might be a feasible proposition.

    Shady rooms out looking to streets in the air should with architectural imagination be possible to overcome – and those streets in the air could become ‘Highlines’ for the student population. [ ]

    Here are some examples of community gardens as promised…Roma Street Parklands Brisbane[ ] and Central Park Sydney [ ] (Reality is better than the render!)

    Brutalist is a style term (movement)rather than an insult!

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Communal gardens can be a great success but in a troubled neighbourhood they are most likely to flourish if access is limited to residents. This is problematic at Robin Hood Gardens (I realised after making the video) because access to the residential blocks has to be through the gardens (because of the security fence and grade-separated car parking inside the perimeter). Access might have been managed with an entry-phone system but this was not done and the communal garden became a place for ‘unsavory youths’ to gather. Sorry, but those famous streets in the air are not nice places and I doubt if they could be made so.
      I first heard the term brutalist from an architect c1968. There was a broad smile on his face and he knew the style was not destined to popularity!

  4. Christine

    Of course it is necessary to ask what came first troubled people or a troubled neighborhood? Then the next question is – why is the neighborhood troubled?

    Re: those streets in the air…it would be possible to introduce light into the walkways above window with the strategic use of structural glass.
    [ ] and [ ]

    Sure this wall looks more like something you would expect to find at Check Point Charlie or the Gaza Strip than London…[ ] and it is certainly consistent with the reputation of Brutalism – but could be transformed as a vertical green wall. [ ]

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism works through ‘creative destruction’ seen as ‘process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.’ And a physical consequence of this process is what are called ‘disadvantaged neighbourhoods’. Tower Hamlets (the Borough in which Robin Hood Gardens is located) lost its economic base when London ceased to be a seaport and a manufacturing city but it retained its role in attracting immigrants, because property was relatively cheap. Over 30% of the population is now of Bangladeshi origin and this group has established political control of local government, reputedly with most council jobs going to Bangladeshis and most expenditure going on Bangladeshis. These are not policies with significant appeal to middle and upper income groups.
      With other London estates of the same vintage (eg Heygate Estate and Kidbrooke Estate) I favour ‘reclamation’ policies but for the better designed Robin Hood Gardens I favour re-building. The flats are spacious enough but I don’t like the idea of having one set of windows facing a busy road and the other set facing those gloomy streets in the shade
      ps I have a pretty good head for heights but those glass boxes look scary!

  5. Christine

    How is it that 30% of the ethnic immigrant population of Tower Hamlets has come to monopolise political control of the Borough government? Is there something akin to branch stacking occurring here or is there a participation issue with other groups?

    How can an uneven distribution of funds to Bangladeshis be justified?

    Similarly are the Bangladeshi applicants all the most meritorious applicants?

    1. There photographs of the entries suggest there is scope for improvement here.
    2. Where is this graffiti corridor in the complex? It does seem rather narrow.
    3. The night time design of the streets in the air could be improved.
    4. It would certainly be possible to improve the interiors. The outlook to the busy road and highline street and interior park would certainly require much consideration.

    It would be good to have plans and cross sections of the building to investigate further.

    Tower Hamlets does seem to have some valuable public assets to design with…[

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Re the Bangladeshis of Tower Hamlets, it can’t be justified. I guess they have taken control by voting on ethnic lines instead of on the policy issues which determine most UK elections. Here is a BBC report: There are allegations of council money being used as bribes and legal investigations are underway.
      I agree that the design of the Robin Hood Gardens blocks could be improved but the costs would be high and there must come a point when re-building is a better plan. If re-furbishing, I would wonder about an elegant new system of access galleries (in filigree steel) on the outer perimeter of the blocks so that the streets in the air on the inner perimeter could become private garden balconies (with openable glazing). A big problem with major refurbs is that the existing residents do not have money so it might be necessary to move them out and bring in yuppies.

  6. Christine

    It is not a question here of gentrification and bringing in the Yuppies – but rather that although the Simthson’s design was not appropriate for public housing it is meritorious and significant as architecture. Thus the question of retaining the building as national heritage arises along with the question of the buildings adaptive reuse. To best adapt to the positive potential of the existing Simthson design and to overcome the maintenance and management issues the use of the building as campus based student accommodation is perhaps the most appropriate reuse.

    So yes in the spirit of adaptive reuse a new system of access galleries on the outer perimeter may be a solution. Of course a comprehensive views analysis would be necessary in the first instance. Any solution should in the first instance try to follow the philosophy of the Smithson’s and deviate only where a creative solution of the appropriate standard cannot be found.

    I am therefore for exhausting the design possibilities of student use of streets in the air and communal living before moving to a more individual and privatised solution. Informal communal learning spaces are a big part of the design of universities and educative environments presently…

    A student population should have the advantage of not having underlying social issues and a university could manage the building holistically maintaining a high standard of amenity.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      That is a good way of thinking about the project and, for students, I think as near to 100% restoration to the ‘opening condition’ of the flats as practical, would be appropriate – furniture, plumbing, colour schemes, kapok mattresses, everything. I don’t want to exaggerate but the experience would be in the same league as the re-creation of a Victorian house (see Dennis Severs house) or a re-creation of an Iron Age village. The experience of living in such a place would be wonderful, even for budding high-tech entrepreneurs. For this project, its just a pity Robin Hood Gardens was completed in the 1970s instead of the 1960s.


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