Book review: Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions

Robin Hood Gardens – a housing estate on the fringes of Poplar in East London – is an example of mid twentieth-century architecture on the brink of extinction.

Much love has been shown to the Alison + Peter Smithson-designed project over the last few years, spurred on by a campaign for listing spearheaded by UK magazine Building Design which collected over 1,000 signatures from across the world.

Architects including Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers tell of the influence the building and the prolific couple have over them, while one of the most compelling arguments on why the estate should be kept comes from Dickon Robinson’s evidence compiled on behalf of the The Twentieth Century Society‘s submission for a review of the listing decision.

Completed in 1972, Robin Hood Gardens is a design very much of the era – incorporating the then much lauded ‘streets in the sky’ concept, with wide landings where people living on higher floors could socialise as if on their doorsteps on the ground.

There are two main blocks, both with a long, linear shape, built from pre-cast concrete and home to 213 flats. The lower block is seven storeys high, the taller ten. Between the two buildings is a landscaped grassy area, designed as a recreation and rest area for residents, built using the rubble of the houses demolished for the project.

Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions collates a series of photographs, essays and a conversation between the Smithsons detailing the full history of the estate.

The original sketch drawings and plans, complete with hand-drawn sun compasses, show their skills as designers to the full, and deserve their place at the start of the book.

The old, colour photographs show a housing estate that was clearly a place enjoyed by its first inhabitants and one gets the distinct impression that it was the council’s neglect of the buildings that have led to the current situation.

Finally, a collection of Ioana Marinescu’s more recent photographs – previously the subject of an exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects – look very nice indeed, but display a faux-nostalgia for buildings that deserve to be photographed in a contemporary way.

The book has been published on the eve of local London council Tower Hamlet’s decision of which developer will get the privilege of razing the estate, which received its death knell from the previous Labour government when it granted it immunity from listing for five years from 2009.

It is a worthy totem of appreciation to a visionary housing project admired by thousands in its lifetime.

Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions is edited by Alan Powers with contributions from Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid, and Dan Cruikshank. Photographs by Sandra Lousada and Ioana Marinescu. Published by The Twentieth Century Society.

Guest blogger Andrea Klettner
Follow her blog Love London Council Housing.

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2 Responses to “Book review: Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions”
  1. John Kellett says:

    Having studied at the Bath University School of Architecture, where the Smithsons were professors, I had some experience of their design philosophy first hand.
    I wasn’t totally convinced then but as I get older I’m warming to it.
    The main questions to be answered with regards to Robin Hood Gardens are:
    1) Did it meet the requirements of the original residents?
    2) Were those residents happy with the result?
    3) Is the lack of maintenance the fault of the Council now using its condition as a reason for demolition?
    4) Were more recent residents ‘suitable’ for the accommodation provided?

    Surely an ‘eco-refurbishment’ project and tenants (public and/or private) who want to be there would be the sustainable and responsible thing to do.

  2. Leila Bijan says:

    I agree with John that a refurbishment of this project seems to be the most appropriate solution, so that it meets the needs of today’s tenants while keeping the framework of the initial design concept. It seems that if nothing else, such a building is a rare and great case study for those in the field of Architecture, but of course that is not enough of an argument for developers who at the end of the day are in it for the money. It would seem that the Council (or whatever government branch such as a historic preservation group) could subsidize part of this project so that the developer could do a refurbishment project.

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