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Published 25/07/2008 email E-MAIL print PRINT

Robin Hood, Robin Hood

One of the important architectural icons of the 1970s is, by popular consent, now due to be demolished in London's Tower Hamlets. Conceived as providing housing for lower income groups, it was launched by the architectural husband and wife partnership Peter and Alison Smithson in 1972. It achieved something of celebrity status, despite its grim demeanour, owing to the fact that the architects formed part of the famous Independent Group, which included Eduardo Paolozzi, the photographer Nigel Henderson, and the historical and leading proponent of brutalism, P Reyner Banham.

Robin Hood Gardens, Poplar, London

by MICHAEL SPENS

In forming the Independent Group, they created a powerful arts and architecture lobby, advocating a functionalist 'Valhalla'. Banham himself was to say, even if the Smithsons were not offering a style they were actually offering a set of moral responsibilities; and that was the problem. They claimed an innocence of style 'in the ordinariness and quiet of their preceding Golden Lane scheme'. They continued to admire the great 'Unite' housing block by Le Corbusier at Marseille. And they attempted to lift across the intended sense of community, which Le Corbusier tried to create there.

The Smithsons were by now disillusioned about concepts of neighbourhood, which had been propagated only a short while earlier by the pundits. Since the early 1970s the Smithsons had ironically experienced a gradual disillusionment, both with the planning authority - the Greater London Council - and through the ennui of the prospective inhabitants, now spreading from other large-scale housing schemes nearby, being communicated to them. In common with numerous other high-density housing schemes - from Sheffield to Glasgow, from Paris to New York - the disillusion was widespread. It is the occupants who have resiled, with their feet. And much of the overall responsibility for this withdrawal of support must be laid at the feet of the architects themselves. This disillusion everywhere was exacerbated by the effects of poor estate management, and social and community disruption - poor servicing of domestic services, lifts, refuse removal and plumbing. These are all fundamental shortfalls in Utopian schemes.

Culturally, the Smithsons had approached the Robin Hood Gardens project on the high wave of the particularly British architectural movement known as brutalism. An attitude of wilful patronisation could be detected in the approach of the architects, on the 'we know best' basis. Now, nearly 40 years on, the proposal by the local authority to demolish the lot might seem to be precipitate. What is interesting is that no tenants within the scheme seem to want anything other than to see the scheme torn down. It has been a slow-burning fuse, but now there is no way back.

The extraordinary thing is the apparently blind commitment of the star architects Lord Foster and Lord Rogers to saving the monolith. The journal Building Design has also found a conservationist cause in saving the 'iconic' Robin Hood Gardens. And predictably, the current President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Sunand Prasad, is quoted as saying, on behalf of his members that 'it would be a foolish misreading of the lessons of history to knock it down'.

The Smithsons established a strong teaching base in the 1960s and 70s via their practice. Their design ideology derived from the early pioneer groups: the Mars Group, Team 10 and Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM; the European group of activists). However, they and their supporters seem to have lost the narrative over Robin Hood Gardens. Even the occupants must be seen to be victims of mandatory 'Old Labour' type design orthodoxy, and are today trapped in an indefensible enclave. But still, leading architects and institutions seem prepared to come together as a misguided lobby to seek to preserve Robin Hood Gardens. To what end?

It is a fortunate twist of fate that Sir Simon Jenkins, the conservationist, has been selected to take over as Chairman of English National Trust. So, hopefully, the buck can stop. The wrecking ball can clear the site. Various schemes are proposed to use the location to better effect but the problem here too is how can the location fully fill the building and prolong its life into the distant future? They are all stymied by the way in which the so-called 'stress-free central zone', with its landscaped mound, cannot create that 'quiet green heart onto which all dwellings could look out into'.

The Smithsons, in their wisdom, put all the access decks and living rooms on the outside of the blocks, nearest the noise, and placed bedrooms and dining rooms/kitchens on the inside. This simplistic ploy did not work. Today the noise level inside, on both sides, is offensive, given the growth of traffic on the busy arteries that surround the scheme. The residents are in a no-win situation. So, even if the scheme, named for the warrior philanthropist Robin Hood, had good intentions it has proved wholly unsuccessful, non-iconic, and socially is an abandonment of all those romantic ideas of the 1950s and 60s. These ideologues of 'the street in the sky' here never got their feet on the ground.



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