Sunday, 21 November 2010

Robin Hood Gardens redevelopment - architectural vandalism or mercy killing?

Designs to replace Robin Hood Gardens, the 1970s housing estate in Tower Hamlets designed by Alison and Peter Smithson, have been revealed.

The debate about the merits or otherwise of Robin Hood Gardens over the last few years, resulting from the news that it was being considered for demolition, has not shown the architectural profession, or architectural journalism, in a particularly brilliant light. Amid strident accusations of architectural vandalism, questions about whether you want 'great architects' with interesting theories to design social housing were left on the sidelines. And in the trite description of such projects as 'experimental', the question of how the results of the 'experiment' were supposed to have been monitored, and what the findings were, remain largely undiscussed (there was no such exercise, of course).

The Smithsons' reputation has increased over time. They were powerful polemicists and effective self-promoters. There is little argument that the Economist complex in St James is a masterpiece which has stood the test of time. But many remain sceptical about the Smithsons' built achievements considered in the round. Hugh Pearman wrote about the architects under the title 'Should Alison and Peter Smithson have stuck to talking?'. A dispassionate look at Robin Hood Gardens today reveals the relevance of that question. Robin Hood Gardens, later than and derivative of earlier projects such as Park Hill, is just not that good or that interesting as architecture, and it feels dysfunctional as a place. The idea of using buildings to enclose communal public space is claimed by the project's supporters as a masterstroke, but it's hard to see the result as an advance on the eighteenth and nineteenth century squares, the builders of which appear to have had the idea rather earlier.

Today, Robin Hood Gardens is a run down and depressing place. While it has suffered from the neglect common to many postwar social housing projects, the flaws lie in the design as well as what happened after completion. Demolition appears by far the most sensible option.

Research into the critical reception of Robin Hood Gardens revealed a remarkable episode that took place ten years or so after it was completed. The architect and critic Robert Maxwell wrote an account of taking the leading Italian architect Vittorio Gregotti to see the project in the early 1980s: ‘He wanted to see Robin Hood Gardens……We looked all over it, which was not easy. Many of the flats were boarded up, there were broken milk bottles and a smell of urine everywhere. There was hardly anyone about. This was not the jolly street life envisaged for street-decks. We were all at a loss, and not a word was spoken. We turned away…. Only a visit to Berlage’s Holland House, on our way back, could cheer him up.’

The connection made here between Robin Hood Gardens and Holland House is remarkable, because their elevations are structured in very similar ways - see below. Did they visit Holland House by chance, because it was already on Gregotti's list of things he wanted to see, or because someone said to him ' we can show you this kind of thing done a lot better.'

Where Berlage is all sensuality and detail, the Smithsons offer, well, Brutalism. The demolition of Robin Hood Gardens will not be a great loss to the world. The problem, as with other Brutalist buildings, is that it is clearly a 'something' rather than a nothing. The challenge to the architects of the replacement scheme is to improve on the architecture as well as the housing.

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