Robin Hood Gardens. The past, present and future of a much debated housing estate

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ROBIN HOOD GARDENS The past, present and future of a much debated housing estate

Marialena Kasimidi, 4254600 TU Delft, History Thesis November 2013


Table of contents pages 5 7 9 10 18 23

The shaping of the local context 1.1 Introduction to the history and character of Poplar, London. 1.2 Industrial development and slums 1.3 Post war reconstruction and port decline 1.4 Canary Wharf development

29 31 35 43

Introduction to P&A Smithson 2.1 Biography 2.2 The origins and development of big ideas 2.3 Criteria for mass housing

47 49 53

Envisioning and building a dream 3.1 The challenges of the site 3.2 Design analysis of the Robin Hood Gardens The debate of listing 4.1 Future scenarios 4.2 The listing campaign 4.3 Conclusions Bibliography

67 69 71 74 77






Dealing with existing buildings in changing environments is a challenge in itself. Here, the tale of a much debated housing estate is presented: The Robin Hood Gardens in East London designed by Alison and Peter Smithson during the late 1960’s. The recent listing campaign was the inspiration for this research, as it brought forward the complex and diverse nature of the Smithson’s architecture. Demolished or not, the building will remain one of the greatest examples of post-war British architecture. It reflects the housing policies of that time, urban theories and visions, and most importantly the effort of its architects to apply their experimental and imaginary ideas on design. The story of the Robin Hood Gardens begins with the story of the Docklands, follows the theoretical preoccupations of the Smithson’s, describes the spatial qualities implemented, and concludes to the current unsafe situation of demolition or listing.


The shaping of the local context

Poplar Robin Hood Gardens

Canary Warf

Greenwich peninsula


Fig. 1.1 Aerial view credits: google maps, 2013 The local context today


1.1 Introduction to the history and character of Poplar, London East London and specifically the areas of Poplar, Blackwall and the Isle of Dogs have undergone a series of significant changes through time, which formed and re-formed the local identity, as well as their role within the city of London. Their current image is far from what those places looked like before the establishment of the London Docklands Development Corporation in 1981. Today, Canary Warf, one of the world’s most important business centers, accompanied by luxury riverside residential areas, is situated where once docks, shipyards, warehouses, heavy industries and slums were located. Most of the areas fabric remained industrial and river related for the biggest part of its history. Docklands were to accommodate mainly this activity, whereas Poplar and Blackwall offered housing accommodation for the majority of the working force. This characteristic survived throughout Poplar’s historic development, with the authorities investing on its building stock in post-war years. On the contrary, Docklands were to undergo one of the largest comprehensive redevelopments of the city at the end of the 20th century. Today, the area is still under transition, but all plans for future development of Poplar sustain its residential character. The question is whether they will sustain its existing building stock as well.


1.2 Industrial development and slums Diversity and complexity have been concrete features of Poplar since its early development during the 15th century. Due to its proximity to the financially developing City of London, and its location along the Thames, the area initially attracted river related marine and industrial activities. Ship repairing was a key component at Blackwall even before 1500, and was expanded significantly after the 1614-1617 construction of the first shipbuilding yard (Blackwall Yard) on behalf of the East India Company. (Survey of London, 1994) It was not until the 17th century that London seriously started to develop beyond the Tower of London to the east, due to the growing port activities. From that point on the history of Poplar follows in a great extend the story of West and East India Companies. Their influence in the area is so extensive that not only set the basis for its economic and building development, but also shaped and marked its topography more than nature itself. The construction of the Brunswick Dock in 1789-90 and the West and East India Docks, built between 1800 and 1806, created major economic opportunities and an enormous landscape impact. Consequently, the Docks caused the development of road networks, like the Commercial Rd, West India Rd and East India Rd, which connected the East End to the City. West and East India Companies finally merged in 1839, after their monopoly was expired a few years earlier. Nevertheless, the two companies –either individually or merged- were two of the largest employers in London throughout 17th, 18th and 19th century. Most of their labor force was originating from the local area or other parts of East London (Berdmonsey, Southwark, Stephney, Bethnal Green, etc). Consequently, population of Poplar grew steadily during the first decades of 19th century, from 4.493 in 1801 to 12.223 in 1821, (Survey of London, 1994), and accommodation was mainly offered in private housing units. By that time the area had become densely occupied by poor dwellings following the general housing needs for the fast growing city of London. The development of overcrowded slums was actually enhanced by the constructions of the docks, as large areas of

Early development: from 15th to 19th century, and reasons for development


land had to be cleared. (Museum of Docklands) Commercial and industrial activities dominated the area of the Docklands, leaving Poplar to support the growing housing needs. Mid 19th century: the first big financial boom

The area’s first financial boom in the mid-19th century rapidly exploded all aspects of living and working. Moreover, Millwall Docks, built in 1864-7, further increased the docks area. Population wise, Poplar experienced an almost 50% rise during 1850s and 1860s, from 28.342 inhabitants in 1851 to 43.529 in 1861. The social stratification of the area included almost exclusively working class families, as wealthy ones operating in Poplar had traditionally picked other areas for living, like Essex. (Survey of London, 1994) Consequently, new houses were constructed especially in Poplar and Blackwall, but quickly filled up the area. Those two areas offered exclusively the dock workers accommodation. Despite the poor condition of houses and the rising number of working class families settling in the area, there was little or no effort to construct public housing by any possible stakeholder. ‘The dock companies provided only a minimal accommodation for their enormous workforce and none of the early philanthropic housing societies built anything in the area.’ (Survey of London, 1994) With no state provision for the workers accommodation either, the situation in Poplar grew to be quite depressing.

Late 19th century: housing boom and initial efforts to address poor living conditions

In 1866 a financial crisis erupted that ceased commercial activities in the area and caused unemployment and emigration. There were little or none new housing activity, and there was even a large amount of empty houses. Poplar became known as one of the poorest areas in London. It was described as ‘a district of dreary, slummy streets that were narrow, ugly and dirty, containing uniform rows of two storey cottages in grey brick that were no better than miserable hovels.’ (Survey of London, 1994) About 40% of its population was classified to live under the poverty line in 1887, when for London it was 30%. Despite poverty, population of Poplar


Fig. 1.2 The marine and industrial character of the Docklands till after WW2 credits: [Accessed on 4/11/13]


and Blackwall reached a peak a couple of decades later, in 1880, whereas the whole area, including the Docklands, reached its peak in 1901 with 58.814 inhabitants. In 1880s and 1890s there was a revitalization of building activity to accommodate the growing number of people that included new immigrant communities. The houses were occupied by multiple families, causing high density issues. ‘By the late 19th century, poor housing, over-crowding and low wages had contributed to the widespread poverty of the East End, resulting in disease, high infant mortality and high crime levels. (Museum of Docklands) The British state finally responded to this urgent situation with the ratification of the ‘Housing for the Working Class Act’ in 1890. The principal concern was sanitary conditions and slum clearance legislation. LCC -a government body for the city of London, established in 1889- and the local authorities of each London Borough were responsible to carry out clearance schemes and rehouse the residents. The only real effort in Poplar was due to the Blackwall tunnel construction from 1892 to 1897, which required the rehousing of many people. In general the fabric of the area remained largely the same from 15th till the early 20th century. Early 20th century: economic prosperity and slum clearance

1. In 1931 Virginia Wolf wrote six essays for Good Housekeeping magazine describing her experience of life in London. Five of those essays were published together during the 1970’s, but it was not until 2004 that the sixth essay was found and published.


At the start of the new century, the prosperity of the Docklands must have seemed never-ending. The management of the area changed completely after the establishment of the Port of London Authority in 1909, raising the financial expectations of the port. It was estimated that by 1913 the Docklands were handling 20 million tons of cargo per year, and about 100.000 people were employed. (Life of London Docklands) The WWI didn’t seem to have a big impact on the area that continued growing not only in economic terms, but also in population and housing. Virginia Wolf described in one of the six essays1 called ‘The London Scene’ her experience of this part of London. ‘With the sea blowing its salt into our nostrils, nothing can be more stimulating than to watch the ships coming up the Thames- the big ships and the little ships,

Fig. 1.3 The marine and industrial character of the Docklands till after WW2 credits: london/docks.html [Accessed on 4/11/13] Fig. 1.4 The marine and industrial character of the Docklands till after WW2 credits: london/docks.html [Accessed on 4/11/13] Fig. 1.5 The marine and industrial character of the Docklands till after WW2 credits: london/docks.html [Accessed on 4/11/13]


the battered and the splendid, ships from India, from Russia, from South America, ships from Australia coming from silence and danger and loneliness past us, home to harbour. But once they drop anchor, once the cranes begin their dipping and their swinging, it seems as if all romance were over. If we turn and go past the anchored ships towards London, we surely see the most dismal prospect in the world. The banks of the river are lined with dingy, derelict-looking warehouses. […] They huddle on land that has become flat and slimy with mud. The same air of decrepitude and of being provisionally stamps them all.” […] Behind masts and funnels lies a sinister dwarf city of work men’s houses. In the foreground cranes and warehouses, scaffolding and gasometres line the banks with a skeleton architecture.’ (The London Scene, 2004) The 19th century slum areas were still present in 1930’s that forced the local authorities to initiate a more systematic effort to replace them with new housing. Slum clearance was supported by government funds, as well as with subsidies for new housing schemes. This strategy expressed the belief that ‘unless working class aspirations are quickly met after the war, Britain might experience a revolution similar to Russia.’ (Survey of London, 1994) Since 1924, the first Labour Government was in power and local authorities worked together to reallocate more than 5.650 people that were living in documented insanitary areas. (Survey of London, 1994) The main problem though was the extreme housing shortage that delayed the process. The authorities could not easily go on with clearance as there were only few alternatives for displacing the low-income population while waiting lists for homeless families were becoming enormous. At the beginning, some low-rise garden city developments were built, but soon it was realized that the demands of housing were only to be met with high-rise blocks of flats. Overcrowding rates showed as early as 1929 that more than 2 people were living per room. In 1933 the Architects’ Journal published a survey concluding that in the Borough of Poplar alone 7.992 people were living at over 3 per room and about 63.000 at over 1.5 per


Fig. 1.6 Children of an eastern suburb of London, who have been made homeless by the random bombs of the Nazi night raiders, waiting outside the wreckage of what was their home. credits: New York Times Paris Bureau Collection., 09/1940, National Archives at College Park, USA. by U.S Information Agency. Available online at http://research.archives. gov/description/541920 [Accessed on 15/09/13] Fig. 1.7 Heinkel He 111 bomber flying over the Isle of Dogs in the East End of London, at at the start of the Luftwaffe’s evening raids of 7 September 1940. credits: Air Ministry Second World War official Collection. Picture taken by german air force photographer. Available online at http:// object/205022027 [Accessed on 15/09/13]


room. It was estimated that 9.000 new homes were required to overcome this situation. All efforts concluded to a total number of 1.567 houses built during the interwar period by LCC and Borough of Poplar, plus the reallocation of about 7.000 families outside the borough. (Survey of London, 1994) WWII disruption


London, and especially the East End, were heavily bombed during WWII. The so-called “Blitz�, was one of the most destructive aerial raids of German Air Force that started in September 1940 and continued without disruption for almost 8 months. The German strategy was to make the UK surrender after destroying its main military, marine and industrial infrastructure, as well as demoralizing civilians by targeting public and residential areas. The East End was one of the key targets and the first to attack. It is estimated that more than 5.300 tons of explosives were dropped in London during the initial attacks. (The Blitz: Sorting the Myth from the Reality) The outcome of those raids combined enormous casualties, but also the loss or damage of around 1.4 million of houses (about one third of London’s residential stock) (Exploring 20th century London). It was estimated that in Poplar alone there was a loss of about 10.000 houses. The initial efforts were focused on repair, for making damaged houses habitable again, as well as temporary housing schemes, to accommodate returning population. The situation presented most of the aforementioned challenges of the prewar period, plus the emergent reconstruction needs that had to be met with a shortage of material and poor economics.

1.3 Post-war reconstruction and port decline The reconstruction after WWII finds its origins in the County of London Plan, a planning document published in 1943 by Sir Leslie Patrick Abercrombie (1879-1957) and John Henry Forshaw (1895-1973). This document was set up to give the main guidelines for redevelopment of the city in the prospect of the end of the war. The focus was given among other things, to traffic arrangements and housing, influencing the East End of London. The introduced core idea of comprehensive redevelopment is to be found in many later official planning documents. The original plan that was advisory stated clearly that ‘the decentralization area (including Poplar) comprises those parts of London which, because of obsolescence, congestion, bomb damage and lack of repairs, are considered to be ready for comprehensive redevelopment. Even though there may be in these areas a number of dwellings which are not yet sufficiently decayed as to appear to warrant immediate demolition, we consider it would be wrong from social, practical, and economic points of view, to redevelop obsolete areas in any other way than comprehensively.’ (Survey of London, 1994) Due to the extensive bombing of the area, larger sites were then available for redevelopment. Most of the ruined buildings were demolished, as well as the ones that were considered unsuitable for the current living standards, leaving large areas empty.

Reconstruction strategies

This new situation required strong political action, as well as the financial capacity to realize those comprehensive redevelopment plans. In 1951 a governmental target was set of 300.000 homes to be built per year in the UK by both private and public sector. In Poplar, both the Borough and the LCC managed to construct 1.078 houses from 1946 to 1955 and more than double (2.364) in the next 10 years. (Survey of London, 1994) In terms of administration, important changes were made at that time. The LCC was in 1965 superseded by the Greater London Authority, incorporating a large metropolitan area of the city to its jurisdiction. Accordingly, the Boroughs of Poplar, Bethnal Green and Stepney merged to per-

Large production of new public housing


form as the unified London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Those authorities gradually started employing private practices to perform in collaboration with their in-house scientific staff. The administrative and political ‘optimization’ progressed parallel to a number of other parameters that greatly influenced the dwelling construction activity of that time. Density of population formed the basic requirements of 136 people housed per acre. Additionally, new standards for living were implemented. The Parker Morris Report issued in 1961 provided greater flexibility to residents to accommodate their living as they wished, in larger and more rooms per individual unit. Minimum dimensions standards were widely used. Standardization in construction methods reduced the delivery time and increased the height of the new residential blocks. Central heating slowly replaced other means of energy use. Furthermore, modern lifestyle introduced fitted cupboards, domestic electric appliances, and parking spaces for the growing number of car-assisted Londoners. Under this frame of development, a series of housing estates appeared in Poplar. Lansbury Estate, started being constructed in 1951 was one of the earliest and best examples of that strategy. Robin Hood Gardens though became the most famous council estate of Poplar, completed in 1972. This post-war housing reconstruction reached its peak during late 1960’s and early 1970’s. ‘Up to about 1980, most of the older, 19th century private terraced housing was swept away and replaced by a series of large council estates.’ (Survey of London, 1994) De-industrialization


During that time, post-war financial developments had also a great impact in the de-industrialization of the Docklands. During the ‘50s and ‘60s more and more companies were willing to change their attitudes towards manufacturing and production by incorporating the rapidly evolving technology. Mechanization and modernization of the industrial processes would significantly lower the cost and number of labor force, improve the production time and generate more profits. Under those conditions, the Docklands started to de-

Fig. 1.8 Plan for ‘London at Work’ from the ‘The County of London plan explained’, 1945 credits: RIBA Library Photographs Collection. Available online at http:// [Accessed on 1/9/13] Fig. 1.9 Canary Warf in the 1960’s credits: http://www.canarywharf. com/aboutus/Who-We-Are/Our-History/1960s/ [Accessed on 4/11/13] Until mid 1960’s, Canary Wharf was a cargo warehouse at the centre of West India Docks. Fig. 1.10 Canary Wharf London, 1970 credits: Chorley Handford Aerial Archive at Skyscan. Available online at http://www.photoarchivenews. com/2012/04/page/2/ [Accessed on 3/11/13] West India Docks at the front. Poplar and Blackwall are on the left, and Greenwich peninsula on the background.


cline. The reasons for such a change are though more complex, and in need of a broader perspective. UK was historically in control of many of its former colonies, most of which gained independence after WWII. Since then, UK was transporting raw materials from the colonies to England in order to process and place in the market. By independence, those places gained their right not only to produce but also to process their goods. Dockland’s warehouses started to be inappropriate for this reduced amount of incoming products. Furthermore, the rest of the European countries developed their ports after the war in a much greater extent than the UK. The Marshall plan, the financial aid from the United States offered to Europe, was used by many other countries to rebuilt and upgrade their infrastructure, including the ports. UK on the other hand did not invest in the London Docklands, but on international ports all around the country. Competition became therefore harder for the former unshakable dominance of the Docklands. The biggest impact though was the use and development of containerships. After the 1950s, the widespread use of longer ships that transport mostly standardized containers demanded bigger and different port facilities, like cranes and truck roads. The London Docklands were simply insufficient. (Museum of London) The Docklands’ final performance


In just over a decade, the Docklands were facing irreversible financial problems. The Docks started to close one after the other. East India Dock was the first to close down in 1967, followed by St Kathrine’s Docks in Wapping, Surrey, Limehouse Basin and Poplar Docks, all ceased work before 1970. By 1980 West India and Millwall Docks were also closed. The Royal Docks in Beckton were the last to go down in 1981. (Exploring 20th century London) The Port of London had now moved downriver to Tilbury to accommodate the new containerships. At the same time, traffic measures were taken to ease the access from the east to central London, such as the new Blackwall tunnel. By the 1980’s most of industrial and commercial activity was gone and unemployment and dereliction

were shaping the place’s character. Overall, and despite the fact that Docklands and the surrounding area had their fair share in recession and decline through history, the changes happened at the end of 20th century were so decisive that would never again allow the area to reach its past state.


1.4 Canary Wharf development The re-birth of the Docklands, as we know them

The following re-development of the Docklands during the two last decades of 20th century is maybe the largest regeneration project of that time in Europe. 8.5 square miles of East London were completely transformed into what we know today as the ‘Canary Wharf’. This last and most recent building boom of the area cannot possibly be compared with anything else, even if taking into account the former historical changes that the Docklands have undergone. The area’s landscape is so much transformed that earlier characteristics are no longer recognizable. It all started with the establishment of the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) in 1981. Created by the Government Planning and Land Act, this new authority, funded by the British government, aimed to purchase the land and encourage new financial activities in the area. According to the current State Secretary for Environment, the Docklands represent ‘a major opportunity for the development that London needs over the last twenty years of the 20th century: new housing, new environments, new industrial developments, new architecture - all calculated to bring these barren areas back into more valuable use.’ ( A year later, in 1982, the Docklands are designated as Enterprise Zone, which basically offers financial incentives, like tax exemption or simplified planning procedures, for businesses to invest. The former industrial Docklands started to seem more attractive for new investments.

Major investments in buildings and infrastructure

In order to accommodate the development plans, a new transportation networks had to be implemented, to replace the traditionally poor connections with central London. In 1987 the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) opened, the first automated rail system in the UK. High-tech free-of-drivers trains run today mainly on elevated tracks across the Docklands from the City (Bank station) to the south (Lewisham) and the south-east (Woolwich and Becton). London City Airport also opened the same year in a location close to the Royal Docks on the east of the Docklands. Daily Telegraph and The Guardian are the first companies to move to the area from their


Fig. 1.11 The view of Canary Wharf from the other side of Thames credits: wiki/Canary_Wharf [Accessed on 4/11/13]


2. After the Shard, completed in 2013

traditional Fleet Street offices. The Canary Wharf development agreement was signed in 1987 between the LDDC and Olympia & York, Canadian developers. The ambitious project started in 1988 and was master planned by the Americans Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. By the early 1990’s the highest One Canada Square building stretching up to 235 meters above ground level was completed. The UK’s second tallest building2 hosts since then a big variety of private companies, mostly banking experts and financial consultants. Skyscrapers one by one started to fill the land around One Canada Square. Most of the national and international banks soon rented offices in the area. In 1993, the construction of the Jubilee tube line extension started, only to be in full operation in 2003 including a shopping mall, many restaurants and a public space around the station, at the heart of Canary Warf. The list of businesses that reached the Docklands until this day is enormous, and includes apart from top financial and business companies, banks, media, etc. a big number of international retailers, restaurants bars and five-star hotels. Today the area is the working area for around 90.000 employees.

New housing schemes and policies

The LDDC did not only reclaim land for business development, but predominately for a mixed use scheme that incorporated large areas for residential use. The area around the Canary Wharf consist mainly of high-rise luxury residential buildings and some local amenities, like grand super markets, dry-cleaners etc. The re-development strategy was indeed quite different from the ones implemented by GLC and local Boroughs. It is a fact, that after 1983 no more public houses were being constructed in Poplar. The Borough of Tower Hamlets became the principle owner of the area’s council housing stock in 1985, after the GLC transferred its ownership. Later, and under the governance of Margaret Thatcher as the Prime Minister of the conservative party, housing associations became the chief managers of public housing in the UK. This strategic decision was one of the greatest changes in housing ever happened in the


Fig. 1.12 Canary Wharf from above in 2009. credits: wiki/Canary_Wharf [Accessed on 4/11/13]

Fig. 1.13 Canary Wharf Jubilee line tube statio designed by Foster&Partners credits: wiki/Canary_Wharf [Accessed on 4/11/13]

Fig. 1.14 DLR train at Heron Quays. credits: wiki/Canary_Wharf [Accessed on 4/11/13]


Future perspectives

UK. It had a huge effect in ownership status of individual units, as it gradually allowed the housing associations to act according to the free market demands and not the social low price housing concepts of the former decades. Additionally more freedom was given to the local councils to adapt to partnership arrangements with private developers in order to proceed with their housing schemes. Financial cuts from governmental level ‘helped’ boroughs to find their way into the free market economy. Poplar did not though attract huge investments as the Docklands area, transformed with riverside luxury housing on the surroundings of its business district. Tower Hamlets housing policy focused largely in the maintenance of the existing blocks. The land and property values therefore vary hugely for each neighbourhood. As any large city in the world, London has its fair share of diversity. The new international business centre with its luxury housing units is located right next to the under-developed Poplar and between high-tech transportation networks. The area is still growing today due to the Olympic Games of 2012. East London was further transformed, with new sport and commercial activities (Stratford Olympic stadiums and malls), transportation networks (Overground), and new residential developments (Borough of Newham). The existing building stock has to further comply with those ongoing changes and find its way into the 21st century.



Introduction to P&A Smithson

Fig. 2.1 Peter and Alison Smithson credits: Times Obituaries, online at comment/obituaries/article1117998. ece [Accessed on 4/11/13] Profile picture during work.


2.1 Biography The role of P&A Smithson in architectural history

Alison and Peter Smithson are very accurately considered two of the greatest English architects of the 20th century. It is evident throughout their work that they very much influenced postwar architecture on a local and international level. Pioneers of the New Brutalism and TEAM 10, Alison and Peter Smithson’s legacy includes a huge amount of publications, and several UK-based architectural masterpieces. Both have a long record of academic lecturing in several schools of art and architecture, predominately in the UK, and have become targets of innumerable critical articles, reports and books.

The birth and establishment of their carrier

Peter Smithson -born in Stockton-On-Tees in 1923- started his studies at the school of architecture in Newcastle in 1939. Due to his obligation towards the Royal British Army during WWII, Peter had to interrupt his studies, and continue only after the end of the war. It was then, that he met Alison Margaret Gill -born in Sheffield in 1928- who had begun her studies at the same school in 1944. The couple got married shortly after graduation in 1949, and moved together in London, where they worked for the architecture department of the London City Council. While still in their 20s, they won the design competition for the Hunstanton Secondary School in 1950, their first ever built project. Since then, they established their own private practice in South Kensington, London. They had three children, Simon, Samantha and Sorava, and worked equally and with no disruption on architectural design and theory until their death in 1993 and 2003, for Alison and Peter respectively.


Fig. 2.2 Hunstanton Secondary School credits: Malty (As Found, p. 114-5) Honest use of material and structure. Central Hall. Fig. 2.3 Hunstanton Secondary School credits: Malty (As Found, p. 117) Visible installations in toilets. Fig. 2.4 The Economist credits: As Found, p. 153 Three towers of different height are positioned in such way to offer an elevated public platform for the circulation between two streets. Fig. 2.5 Robin Hood Gardens credits: Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions, p. 42 One of the most ambitious council housing scheme of the late 60’s. Here, pictured shortly after completion.


Main built work


Their built work consists of just a few examples, which made though a huge impact in post-war architecture. Hunstanton School (1950-54), their very first project, based on the ‘As found’ idea was an innovative and anti-conformist approach towards modernism, and was therefore heavily criticized. The widespread attention that they gained was responsible for their next commission a few years later. In 1959, Peter and Alison Smithson were assigned to build the new headquarters of the Economist magazine, in the heart of London. Inspired by the existing urban fabric, The Economist towers (1959-1964) meant to be their most famous built work, and an internationally acknowledged project. Despite their intense experimentation on public housing since the beginning of their carrier it was only till the late 1960’s that the Smithsons got the opportunity to actually built a housing project of that scale, as the Robin Hood Gardens (1962-1972) in the East End of London. Their initial ambitions were huge, but they were well aware of the scale of the challenge they were undertaking.

Fig. 2.6 The Independent Group credits: ‘This is tomorrow’ exhibition catalog (As Found, p.182-185) From left to right: Peter Smithson, Eduardo Paolozzi, Alison Smithson, Nigel Henderson. Fig. 2.7 Parallel of Life and Art exhibition credits: Photos of the exhibition (As Found, p. 34-35) Picture from the exhibiton at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1953 Fig. 2.8 Patio and Pavillion credits: Peter and Alison Smithson (As Found, p.189) Page from the catalogue of the exhibition This is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Gallegy in 1956. An overview sketch. Fig. 2.9 House of the Future credits: Design Museum collection, online at http://designmuseum. org/design/alison-peter-smithson [accessed on 4/11/13] Picture from the Daily Mail Home exhibition in 1956. View of the hosue in use.


2.2 The origins and development of big ideas The reasons behind the Smithson’s success

The consistency of the built work to their theoretical ideas is one of the most valuable assets of the work of Peter and Alison Smithson. Their architecture was developed in direct compliance to their theories, and vise-versa. The reason for such a relation was partially due to their intense occupation with writing. Both Alison and Peter would regularly express their thoughts on paper, comment on their work and criticize and discuss ideas of others. Another factor is their effort to widen the scope of influences from people and projects originating from other fields of art. Their exploratory, open-minded and critical spirit is responsible for the production of meaningful architecture.

Early influences: interdisciplinary collaborations and pioneering in art

Supreme role in Peter and Alison Smithson’s’ development were their early interactions and investigations in many different fields of cultural expression. From the beginning of the 1950’s the Smithson’s collaborated closely with the artist Eduardo Paolozzi, photographer Nigel Henderson and historian Peter Reyner Banham, who greatly influenced their way of thinking. Together they formed the Independent Group3, and curated exhibitions like the ‘Parallel of Life and Art’ in 1953 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and the ‘Patio and Pavilion’, part of ‘This is Tomorrow’ exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956. Both exhibitions were investigating life aspects of post-war deprived society and expressed a highly critical spirit against growing contemporary consumerism. The article ‘New Brutalism’ initially published in Architectural Review in 1955 by Banham set their work as exemplary to post-war architecture, and them as pioneers of this new design approach. What was first declared by Le Corbusier as ‘beton brut’ based on the extensive use of concrete in its pure and honest materialization was now transferred through ‘art brut’ to the shoulders of those young architects. In 1956 their design of the House of the Future for the Daily Mail Ideal Home exhibition integrated technology-driven, mass production design, and the up-and-coming pop culture of the 60’s. The Smithsons started to shift from their initial interest

3. The Independent Group was a weekly “cross-cultural discussion group which met at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, over dinner at the Smithsons’ house, Sunday lunch with the Banhams’ in Primrose Hill and drinks at the French Pub in Soho.” (Design Museum)


Fig. 2.10 Bethnal Green pictures credits: Nigel Henderson, London, 1949-1952 (As Found, p86-90) Children playing at the doorstep of Henderson’s house. Fig. 2.11 Bethnal Green pictures credits: Nigel Henderson, London, 1949-1952 (As Found, p86-90) Street life. Children were among the protagonists of Henderson’s pictures. Fig. 2.12 Urban Re-identification credits: Panels made by the Smithsons (As Found, p140) Panel made for the 9th CIAM using Henderson’s pictures.


in the authenticity of working class living conditions towards the shiny middle-class dream of consumerism and car use. (Frampton, 1985) Nevertheless, their collaboration with people from different art fields was incorporated in their social life and became crucial to their innovations in urbanism and architecture. Kenneth Frampton will later state that much of the ‘existential character’ of ‘New Brutalism’ was extracted by the creativeness of Henderson and Paolozzi. (Frampton, 1985) The importance of Bethnal Green pictures to the development of urban theories

4. Abstract from the final text of the 9th CIAM (Frampton, 1985)

Criticism to CIAM and Urban Re-Identification


Those early preoccupations highly corresponded to their attitude towards architecture. When Peter and Alison Smithson participated in the CIAM conference in Aix-en-Provence in 1953, they expressed a quite militant criticism on the mainstream modernism ideas. The origins of their approach were indeed in the pictures taken from their friend Nigel Henderson during 1947 to 1952 from the East End of London. Henderson moved in Bethnal Green in 1945, to accommodate his wife’s anthropological research on neighbourhood life. (As found, 1993) His photographs were very much inspired by the street life of this working class area, and the way people of all ages interact and use public space. Bethnal Green streets and back gardens became his stage set, where he documented the very essence of urban life. The Smithsons were deeply motivated by those brutally honest representations of London, the identity of the place and the social interactions captured by Henderson’s camera. One could even claim that this was the very beginning of the story of the Robin Hood Gardens. Those early pictures and the reflection on them built up the Smithsons’ theoretical ammunition for their future housing concepts. (Frampton, 1985) Their criticism towards established urban planning policies was indisputably the solid outcome of the effect of Henderson’s pictures. ‘The small, narrow alley of a poor neighbourhood succeeds where the spacious developments often fail.’ 4 (Frampton, 1985) The Smithsons were members of a new generation of architects

Fig. 2.13 Roads on the ground credits: Peter and Alison Smithson (Ordinariness and light, p.98-99) Golden Lane Housing competition concept drawing Fig. 2.14 Ground elements credits: Peter and Alison Smithson (Ordinariness and light, p.98-99) Golden Lane Housing competition concept drawing Fig. 2.15 Space elements credits: Peter and Alison Smithson (Ordinariness and light, p.98-99) Golden Lane Housing competition concept drawing Fig. 2.16 Complete overlay credits: Peter and Alison Smithson (Ordinariness and light, p.98-99) Golden Lane Housing competition concept drawing


5. 4th CIAM conference in Athens in 1933, ‘the Charter of Athens’

that needed to distinguish themselves from the ‘mistakes’ of their ancestors. 1930’s ‘Rationalism’ was simply not enough for them to keep exercising the same ideas and built forms. The pre-war modernism dogma for the cities was articulated around well-defined functional zones designated for living, working, moving and relaxing.5 This idea for Alison and Peter Smithson seemed inadequate to correspond to the changing needs of the post-war society. ‘It is not surprising that while the well documented ‘space-time’ concept of the Modern Movement in architecture is an academic

commonplace, the real space problems of the 20th century are unrecognized and unsolved’. (P&A Smithson, 1970) For them the problems of city planning had shifted, and the design solutions of their masters that were much respected and inspiring, were in need of reconsideration. ‘In the 1920’s geometric pattern was to be the salvation of our cities. […] Cities must remain organisms that each age can make its own while it inhabits them.’ (P&A Smithson, 1970) Alison and Peter Smithson invaded this former unshakable approach by placing more importance to what they have seen in Henderson’s pictures: street life and ‘ordinariness’. Their aim was to accommodate social cohesion and interaction and the way to do this ‘is the looseness of grouping and ease of communication rather than the isolation of arbitrary sections of the total community with impossibly difficult communications, which characterize both English neighbourhood planning and the Unite concept of the Le Corbusier’. (P&A Smithson, 1970) ‘Human associations’ became the driving force in urban planning that dictated careful arrangement of interrelated spaces from the doorstep to the street, from the street to the district, from the district to the city. Their concept of Urban Re-identification was presented to the 9th CIAM conference, where Henderson’s pictures were used to illustrate those connections between the house, the street, the district and the city. This inquiry of a more precise relationship of the built form with the socio-psychological needs urged the debate at the last CIAM conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia, in 1956. (Frampton, 1985) The old


Fig. 2.17 Unite d’Habitation credits: Panoramio picture, available online at http://www.panoramio. com/photo/3544210 [Accessed on 4/11/13] Fig. 2.18 Golden Lane housing competition credits: Peter and Alison Smithson, (As Found, 2001, p143) Perspective drawing with photo montage including Marilyn Monroe. Fig. 2.19 Golden Lane housing competition credits: Peter and Alison Smithson, (Ordinariness and light, p58) Perspective drawing with photo montage for Golden Lane competition. Fig. 2.20 Berlin Hauptstadt project credits: Peter and Alison Smithson, (As Found, 2001, p151) Perspective drawing for Hauptstadt Berlin competition.


6. For more information visit

7. ‘It is the idea of street, not the reality of street that is important’ (P&A Smithson, 1970)

The Cluster City: Golden Lane and Berlin Hautpstad competitions


masters were officially superseded by the preceding formation of the TEAM 10, a group of young international professionals including Aldo van Eyck and Jaap Bakema (Netherlands), Giancarlo de Carlo (Italy) and Georges Candilis (France).6 Together with Peter and Alison Smithson, they explored the primary principles of urban development beyond the rationalistic approach of the past, and produced a number of diverse proposals, which all traced down to the life expected outside the family house. The English part of TEAM 10 named their vision the ‘Cluster City’. The Smithsons had been busy exploring the aforementioned ideas as early as 1952 -a year before the 9th CIAM conference- during their Golden Lane Housing competition entry. In contrast to the ‘rues interieures’ of the Unite d’ Habitation (completed in 1952) by Le Corbusier, their groundbreaking idea was a network of open-air external pedestrian corridors that would not only offer access to private houses, but also connect building blocks to surrounding neighbourhoods and facilities. Their proposal was actually one of urban importance. Multistory apartment blocks were placed along an elevated, horizontally layered network of circulation, called ‘street decks’ that spatially expressed the idea of the street.7 Golden Lane competition was their ‘pilot project’ that initiated their involvement in urban thinking and public housing. Consequently, Peter and Alison Smithson kept on developing those ideas for their Sheffield University design in 1953, but didn’t win the competition either. Reyner Banham commented later on their design that ‘the connectivity’ of the circulation routes is flourished on the exterior and no attempt is made to give a geometrical form to the total scheme.’ (Banham, 1966) The Smithsons were actually trying to come up with an idea able to compensate the rising use of cars. Therefore they turned their backs to the geometrical clarity of pre-war modernism, and focused on the enhancement of social mobility by the creation of independent connection routes. Kenneth Frampton argues that in order to achieve their aims, the Smithsons finally fell

into a sort of rationalization of their urban concepts, similar to the one of the heavily criticized CIAM. (Frampton, 1985) Their project for Berlin city centre that acclaimed the third price of the 1958 international design competition, expressed a much elaborated idea of a ‘Cluster city’. The Smithsons actually transferred their concept from the small and medium scale of the two aforementioned projects to the large city centre of ‘pre-wall’ Berlin. Their drawings illustrate the idea of two parallel networks, one for cars and one for pedestrians, organized in two different levels. The perspectives deploy the view of the pedestrian on this elevated level, which offers both the optical relation to high rise buildings above, and the constant traffic of cars underneath. It might be that the starting point of such an approach is the human, but the overall outcome of their Berlin work could be potentially argued as a demonstration of an exclusive motor-dependent modern lifestyle. After all, their aim was to accommodate modern living in dense cities.


2.3 Criteria for mass housing8 Social cohesion in both urban and housing concepts

8. ‘Criteria for mass housing’ is originally the title of an article written by the Smithsons for the purposes of Team 10. It was first published in 1957, and revised in 1959. P&A Smithson, Criteria for mass housing, Architectural Design vol.37, September 1967, p. 393-4

Housing estates as the backbone of urban development


Smithson’s urban ideas developed hand-in-hand with their housing vision. One didn’t exclude the other, but on the contrary, it seems that both scales of design were correlating each other, supplementing and feeding their main reason of approach: social cohesion. Peter and Alison Smithson’s primary interest was to retain and enhance the community dynamics, against the dominant modernist approach for the initiation of completely new ones. (Clement, 2011) According to them, this desired ‘community structure’ ‘cannot be done unless the architect has a more or less completely conceived general idea of idea towards which all his work is aimed. The general idea which fulfills this requirement is the concept of the cluster’. (P&A Smithson, 1970) It was among the Smithson’s strong believes that the key problem in the post-war UK is the council house. It was inevitable that The Cluster City concept would perfectly accommodate their idea of family life in cities: dwellings became the keystone of their urban vision. It was their strong conviction that living would happen on upper layers, leaving public facilities and motor assisted mobility on the ground. Connections on vertical and horizontal level for pedestrians ordered their rhetoric: ‘Let us therefore start our thinking from the moment the man or child steps outside his dwelling. Here our responsibility starts, for the individual has not got the control over his extended environment that he has over his home.’ (P&A Smithson, 1970) They identified housing estates as the backbone of the development of contemporary cities, and they became their principle element to exploit the sequence derived from the ‘housestreet-district-city’ concept. Housing estates embody in their design the essence of their vision, which unfolds from the private rooms to the public street and their interrelation: ‘The approach to a house is the occupants’ link with society as a whole’ (P&A Smithson, 1970) The density those buildings offer support the Smithson’s main effort to urbanization.

Fig. 2.21 Published pictures of the ‘ideal’ RHG housing scheme in 1972. credits: Alison and Peter Smithson (Architectural Design, vol. 42)


Organization of individual units


Under that frame of thought, Peter and Alison Smithson paid equal attention on the organization of the individual housing unit. ‘The house is the first definable city element’, (P&A Smithson, 1970) they claimed. For the Smithsons the house had to incorporate two different functions: a purely private one, and a relatively public one. Therefore, this first ‘city element’ is required by design to reflect ‘this duality of orientation’. Peter and Alison Smithson came up with a four-point house that consists of a parent’s unit, a children’s unit, a unit for eating and preparation, and a family unit. They opted for a highly flexible house, which would accommodate all modern comforts and a certain degree of flexibility for the user’s needs. ‘More and more fixtures are being included in the house. They spread out from the kitchen till the house is totally cupboarded and shelved.’ (P&A Smithson, 1970, p. 76) All those new fittings had another function apart from storage: it allowed the user to organize the space left in this own way. The Smithsons therefore perceived the dwellings as enclosures that their ‘exact internal use’ is ‘left open to interpretation to reflect the interchangeable use of rooms that ordinary dwellings require.’ (P&A Smithson, Signs of occupancy) But along those interpretations of dwellings, Peter and Alison Smithson had a quite solid idea about their responsibilities towards post-war housing. They claimed that hygiene standards had by that time been achieved and therefore, the basic rules for living should be enhanced with regulations, which protect mental health as well. ‘The general raising of living standards in Western Europe and USA suggests that it is time to take another step forward and set up additional standards to safeguard mental health.’ (P&A Smithson, Criteria for mass housing). It is evident and indisputable that both Peter and Alison Smithson were ahead of their time. They could foresee as early as the 1960’s that stress would be a result of rapid urbanization and were investigating ways to offer home comfort.


Envisioning and building a dream

Fig. 3.1 Robin Hood Gardens with adjacent heavy traffic roads credits: Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions, p. 53 One of the biggest challenges of the site was to overcome the noise caused by heavy road traffic.


3.1 The challenges of the site Introduction to the location

The Robin Hood Gardens is a council housing estate located in Poplar, London, just at the north of the Docklands, and right next to the Blackwall tunnel that crosses underground the Thames to Greenwich Peninsula. The position of the building complex adds to its complexity and value, taking into account the intense transformations the area has faced.

Commission and LCC

The story of this diverse project starts in 1963, when the London City Council (LCC) made three small sites in Tower Hamlets available for redevelopment. The Smithsons immediately saw the opportunity and submitted their design proposal. The whole project remained inactive for almost three years, when the Greater London Council (GLC), which replaced LCC in 1995, initiated a new brief for a larger site, following the demolition of Grosvenor buildings. The new updated brief was set up according to the Parker Morris standards, a list of design rules for public housing in the UK, which became mandatory a few years later. 9 The Smithsons were required to reconsider their design in the spring of 1966.

9. Space in the home, Design Bulletin vol.6, Ministry of Housing, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1963

Complexity of adjacent road networks


For the architects the assignment was getting even more clear: ‘In the interval a clearer picture of the future road network around the site had emerged, which together with the enlargement of the site area has led to a quite new variant of deck-accessed housing’. (P&A Smithson, 1970) The biggest challenge of the site was indeed the complexity of road networks in the area. The new larger site of the RHG was at that time surrounded by 4 large road arteries. On the east, the A102 national highway or Blackwell Tunnel Nothern Approach starts to descend in order to offer access to the other side of the Thames through the old and new Blackwell Tunnels. The new enlarged supplementary tunnel started to be constructed only in the 1950’s and was completed by 1967. On the direct surrounding of the site, and adjacent to the A102, there is a small one-lane side road, called Robin Hood Lane. This is also where the name of the project comes from. Woolmore Street, a small residential street

Fig. 3.2 Visual connections of the people to their district credits: Alison and Peter Smithson (Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions, p. 67) Another challenge of the site was the fast changing surrounding area of the Docklands.


separates the RHG to a school complex on the north. East India Dock Road, a six-lane busy road, is situated right at the north of the bigger area and connects the Royal Docks with central London. On the West there is Cotton Street or A1206, which predominantly provides road access to the Isle of Dogs. Poplar High street, a really old but lower traffic road, is on the south, which was functionally replaced by the parallel East India Dock Road after 1802. Consequently, the site was located at the heart of vital road arteries for the city of London: the connection to the East, the crossing under Thames and the ‘entrance’ to the Docklands are significant networks of traffic. Residential history of the site

The RHG were though not the first housing project initiated on this site. The history of this part of Poplar demonstrates a clear continuity of residential use of space. East India Dock Company that originally owned the area parceled it out and sold smaller plots for private housing, as early as 1802. The area was built up quite densely, occupied by working class families. By 1870’s the area was generally considered a slum (as the rest of Poplar - see chapter 1) and public investments had to be made. Manistry Street was built as well as the Gosvenor buildings, a series of ‘ideal’ housing units, in 1892. (Powers, 2010) Those new rejuvenating ‘injections’ didn’t succeed to survive for more than almost 100 years, as became eventually part of the bad reputation of Poplar by the 1960’s. The Gosvenor buildings were purchased by LCC, and demolished in 1965.

Absolute changes of the urban fabric

The Smithsons had to deal with the coming ‘extermination’ of the industrial Docklands. The view from RHG included the East and West India docks, but where both completely empty of cargo and ships by the time of its completion. Peter and Alison Smithson were very much attracted to the current surroundings of the site from the very beginning: industrial activities, the river and boat traffic, the railway and the docks were considered to be historical ‘fixes’, with


which the design had to relate. Their study of visual connections of the residents to their district was consequently based on the 1960’s situation. (see image p.67 / RHG Re-Visions – also in Ordinariness and Light p. 191) The magnitude of the absolute changes of the coming years was absent from their initial vision, only to be recognized later during the construction process. ‘When we started work three and a half years ago, and you could still walk up to the fifth floor of the now demolished tenements, you could look over the upcoming roar of the tunnel traffic into the East India Dock. Calm sheet of water, a few ships. Now when we have reached the fifth floor level again, it’s being filled, and when you should be able to see it from the houses, you won’t be able to. [..] We realize we are in a situation of flux and change. The life has gone from the two historical fixes on site, and the ships on the Thames are literally passing.’ (BBC broadcast, 1970) But for the ambitious Smithsons, the situation was to be tackled by their big gesture: ‘We realize you have to be strong enough to be self-supporting, that you have to carry full responsibility for the renewal of your part of the district and ultimately of the city.’ (BBC broadcast, 1970)


3.2 Design analysis of the Robin Hood Gardens The brief

‘What the Smithsons did at Poplar was to give life to their theories of concentrated housing schemes for the working classes in a region that was very much home ground to them.’ (Clement, 2011) In deed, Peter and Alison Smithson had a quite challenging task to accomplish. The GLC was the London’s biggest housing provider with high standards and a specialized force of officers. The brief was clear: 4.922 acres of gross area, with a density of 142 people per acre, giving a site population of 698 people, accommodated in 214 dwellings in total.

Dealing with high levels of noise due to traffic arrangements

One of the most important parameters for the design of the RHG was the sound insulation due to the location of the site. In order to reach the desired noise standards for the residential units, the Smithsons used different methods to overcome noise pollution. First, they positioned the two independent building volumes along the busiest surrounding streets: Cotton Street and A102. They differentiated their height, so that the tallest one is located at the east end of the site, forming a huge acoustic barrier against the extremely busy A102 that runs under the Thames. The shorter one on the west allows sun penetration in the inner courtyard. On the contrary, they kept the south side ‘open’ due to the relatively low traffic of Poplar High Street. In this way the managed to use their very own buildings to create a ‘stress-free zone’ in-between that is accessible to all the residents and viewed by all housing units. The next step against traffic noise was the division of functions in the flats. The space organization orders all the bedrooms to be placed towards the inner courtyard, leaving the ‘public’ living functions facing the busy roads. ‘On the outside, we put the noisy next to the noisy.’ (BBC broadcast, 1970) (see figure 3.3) The access decks are therefore placed on the outside, also acting as a sound baffle. The challenge was more complicated though, as the Smithsons had to comply with English regulations, like the Wilson Report, and had to cooperate with GLC officers in order to reach those requirements. According to the standards, they needed a 5dBA reduction in their


Fig. 3.3 Reasoning behind the disposition of accommodation. credits: Alison and Peter Smithson (Ordinariness and light, p. 190) On the noisy side the accesses to the flats are located. On the quite side, the living areas are, looking over the stress-free garden. Fig. 3.4 Acoustic boundary wall credits: Alison and Peter Smithson (Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions, p. 62) The study of the defence wall along the road.


scheme, and designed with the scientific officers a protecting window sill and head. (P&A Smithson, 1970) The windows ‘can check in a position that admits air at the top but prevents the entry of direct noise at the bottom.’ (BBC broadcast, 1970) Moreover, the Smithsons placed concrete mullions that run the complete façade of both buildings, and break up the noise as it hits the façade. Finally, they implemented 10 ft high concrete walls on west and east sides to directly block the traffic noise at street level. The ingenuity of the architects is clearly visible on their study for this acoustic barrier. The wall is actually next to the pavement line, slightly higher to the cars and trucks, and reflects the noise back to the street. ‘But to stop it looking like a prison, the wall panels have angled gaps between them. So if you walk along, you can keep seeing through, but there is no direct path for sound to pass through.’ (BBC broadcast, 1970) (see figure 3.4) Trees were planted right behind those barriers to further reduce the noise and make them visually appealing from the inside. Street-decks and access to the flats


Peter and Alison Smithson implemented the idea of elevated ‘street decks’ in the RHG design, as the main access routes to the individual housing units. The Golden Lane project (see chapter 2) was still active in their thinking for handling urban density and networks. The brief clearly offered them this opportunity, since they were initially required by GLC to accommodate 136 persons to the acre. The density was finally raised to 142 persons to the acre, which strengthen their idea of interconnecting RHG with surrounding future building blocks from the air. A more ambitious plan for new blocks at the north of the site was never achieved, but the aim is still visible through their drawings. Nevertheless, the street decks were placed on the outside façade of both realized building blocks. From there the residents and visitors have an uninterrupted view of the adjacent docks. (see figure 3.5 and 3.6) ‘The deck itself is wide enough for the milkman to bring his cart along or for two women with prams to stop for a talk and still let the postman by.’

Fig. 3.5 Photomontage of Cotton street Block with maisonette section. credits: Alison and Peter Smithson (Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions, p. 29) Fig. 3.6 Photomontage of Blackwall Tunnel South Block with maisonette section. credits: Alison and Peter Smithson (Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions, p. 30) Fig. 3.7 Street deck and recessed entrances to individual housing units. credits: Alison and Peter Smithson photographic archive (Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions) Fig. 3.8 Street deck and portico type communal staircases. credits: Alison and Peter Smithson photographic archive (Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions) Alison Smithson is photographed on the street deck of the RHG shortly after completion.


(BBC broadcast, 1970) The entrances are situated along those long open-air corridors, but are not placed parallel to them. Since those corridors are mainly intended for circulation and social interaction, the Smithsons pushed the entrances to the back offering an intermediate space, and placed the doors perpendicular to the main route creating a recessed wider ‘doorstep’. ‘There are what we call eddy-places outside the front doors, where the dwelling takes a piece of the deck for itself, so your doormat is not kicked aside by the passersby and you can put out a few pots of plants or leave parcels.’ (BBC broadcast, 1970) Most of the housing units are maisonettes, split over two storeys with cross ventilation and view towards both the inner courtyard and the surrounding city. This arrangement is clear on the facades, as one can distinguish those interruptions of the main volume on specific locations (every couple of floors) along the whole building. For the Smithsons the identification of architectural elements from the ‘ordinary people’ was equally important to their design. They organized both vertical and horizontal movements in a way to be self-explanatory for its intended function. Stairs and elevators are carefully placed on the edges of the blocks and clearly express the entry points for each floor. On the overall scale, the Smithsons tried to produce equivalent symbols to the portico in order to indicate those entrances. ‘The buildings themselves explain how they are intended to be used. These long horizontal recesses can only be decks for walking along, and the entry points to them, by way of lifts and stairs, the vertical movements, are clearly indicated by change of scale and volume.’ (BBC broadcast, 1970) Following the same frame of thought, the architects organized the motorized access to the blocks respectively. Parking spaces, covering 70% of the flats, are situated along the east and west traffic zones on an underground level. The driver faces those entrances while driving along the adjacent roads, while the pedestrian can reach the buildings from different points. The vehicle access does not therefore interfere to the pedestrian one, as they are spatially separated.


Fig. 3.9 Published plans for the Robin Hood Gardens in 1972. credits: Alison and Peter Smithson (Architectural Design, vol. 42) Fig. 3.10 Axonometrics of a maisonette. credits: Alison and Peter Smithson (Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions, p. 32) The lower level of the maisonette is on the left, and the upper level on the right. Fig. 3.11 Interior of kitchen area credits: Ioana Marinescu (Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions, p. 125) This picture was taken in 2010 and the interior looks in good shape.


New living standards and construction methods


The RHG became among others, the chance for its architects to re-identify modern living conditions and offer a new style of life for its residents. They aimed to a design that responds ‘to the way people want to live now with their equipment, their domestic appliances, and their cars.’ (BBC broadcast, 1970) The Smithsons clearly had a vision for contemporary living, originating from their early carrier, which allowed them to draw specific requirements for a standard family house. (see chapter 2) For them, the house had to be set in such a way, to accommodate on one hand all new appliances, like fridges and cupboards, and on the other hand be flexible enough for the owner to arrange his living space according to his own needs and style. At the RHG is they additionally had to comply with the Parker Morris space standards. Following their own investigations on living conditions, they placed attention on noise levels, ventilated and not-polluted environments as well as spaces suitable for social activities. Children had a distinctive value in their scheme. All apartments had spaces for children to play, were cross ventilated and embodied a specific strategy for reaching acceptable noise standards. At the RHG, the kitchen and living room are placed on separate levels, with the first overlooking both the access corridor through a lobby area, and the interior courtyard. The Smithsons imagined and planned the kitchen so ‘that a mother can keep an eye on a two to three year old child playing out on the access deck on one side, but also from time to time look down on the other side, into these play spaces which were intended for the somewhat older children.’ (BBC broadcast, 1970) The living room is always placed on the outside, along the busy roads, and the bedrooms are arranged mainly on the back side, the one of the communal garden. Mental health was also among their interest and tried to eliminate the hazards by orienting the main ‘living’ spaces towards this quiet ‘stress-free’ zone. Moreover, the Smithsons offered a large variety of flats on the new complex that corresponds to their idea of interconnecting different

Fig. 3.12 Workers on scaffolding during construction credits: Alison and Peter Smithson photographic archive (Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions) Fig. 3.13 Physical model credits: Alison and Peter Smithson photographic archive (Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions) Fig. 3.14 Physical model credits: Alison and Peter Smithson photographic archive (Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions) The two buildings act as barriers to protect the internal stress-free zone from noise and enhance privacy of residents.


types of single or family life. The maisonettes occupied most of the RHG, placed one on top of the other. The ‘trick’ was to keep the access points on the same level and offer internal access to lower or upper levels depending on the type of apartment. Two, three and four – bedroom maisonettes were organized in such a way. Single-storey flats were also introduced on the ground level for the elderly. Last but not least, Smithsons were highly concerned with the structural application of their vision. ‘We need a structural idea for our multi-level dwellings’ (P&A Smithson, 1970, p. 79) Their initial scheme was a reinforced concrete box-frame construction, which used cross walls as cantilevers over the corridors, and lightweight plastered concrete internal partitions. During the working process, the architects were convinced by the engineers to use prefabricated cast concrete elements that would allow higher quality of finishes and faster implementation due to standardization of the construction method. When the building went on site in 1986, the Swedish SUNDH casting construction system had been chosen. The contractors further advised for a dry-partition system for the internal walls, which forced the architects to completely revise their initial drawings due to the reduction on the thickness of the walls. Peter and Alison Smithson did in deed collaborate with a variety of scientific advisors and therefore were able to achieve a high quality result in many aspects of their design. The final cost of construction was estimated at 1.845.585 pounds. (Survey of London, 1994) Landscape and stress-free zone


The internal ‘stress-free’ zone was although the backbone of the RHG designs. Once they managed to isolate it from the intense noise of the surrounding road arteries, the Smithsons treated this space in respect to communal life of the residents, and as a unique natural element within the dense city fabric. They admitted without any hesitations that this concept of a quiet inner garden has a long tradition in London and is applied in various cases including the Royal Crescent and the Inns of Court. The principle of those 18th century offices for lawyers was a row of buildings placed on

the site boarders in order to allow and protect the existence of a quiet inner green area. The RHG’s inner courtyard is ‘the size of that at Gray’s Inn, which as near as anything can be is the model for this whole operation.’ (P&A Smithson, 1970, p. 194) The Smithsons claimed that this single element distinguished the RHG project to its ancestors. Rethinking on their Golden Lane idea, almost 15 years later, they placed the importance in the operation of a quiet green zone between the buildings. ‘To achieve a calm pool in this particular place, we have played down the idea of ‘linkage’ which was the main theme of the earlier ‘Golden Lane’ studies. In a sense we have replaced the image of the city in which connectedness was stressed, with one in which the survival of the ‘person’ and the ‘think’ within the ever changing communications net is held to be pre-eminent.’ (P&A Smithson, 1970, p. 194) In terms of designing this empty space, Peter and Alison Smithson created an artificial hill, as high as a two storey building, close to the northern side of the courtyard. This mound had many different principal functions. Initially it is made out of the waste from the demolition of the previous buildings on site. Recycling and construction waste management was therefore included in their thinking as early as the 60’s. Furthermore, the hill prevented ball games that would consequently cause sound disturbance. For this reason, there is a designated football area located at the very end of the south side of the plot, along the Poplar High Street. Smaller hills scattered around the large courtyard correspond to play needs for younger children. Finally, it is worth noting that the late 60’s was the beginning of the experimentation with Land Art as an Avant grand practice, from which the Smithsons were influenced. (Powers, 2011, p. 37) Overall, this ‘gap’ between the building volumes of RHG is one of the best architectural solutions for ‘open-space deficiency’.




It should be noted that the Smithson’s project attracted much criticism from the very beginning. Kenneth Frampton did not hesitate to acknowledge that ‘the practicalities of living in a work of art soon showed their shortcomings; the access galleries, while wide, did nothing to engender a community spirit as was visualized, the communal stairs and parking areas were prone to vandalism and petty crime, and the balconies were too small to be much of use beyond the ornamental.’ (Clement Alexander, 2011) Peter and Alison Smithson were aware of all the implications of their dream and had to deal with criticism and vandalism even during construction. On their BBC interview they clearly stated though that ‘we still feel under an obligation to give the best possible quality irrespective of what people expect and what treatment it is going to get’ (BBC broadcast, 1970)

Fig. 3.15 Drawings of RHG credits: Alison and Peter Smithson Architectural Design, vol. 38 (left) Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions (right)




The debate of listing


Fig. 4.1 Future perspective of the RHG after replacement credits: Building Design, available online at http://www.bdonline. article [Accessed on 4/11/13] Fig. 4.2 3D of proposed redevelopment. credits: Horden Cherry Lee Architects proposal, available online at php?id=122 [Accessed on 4/11/13]


4.1 Future scenarios Demolition

Today, the Robin Hood Gardens stand on unstable ground. Their life is running short due to local regeneration plans that just started to be implemented. The debate of listing that came as a response to those plans is still on.

Blackwall Reach Regeneration project

The story of the demolition of the Robin Hood Gardens begins in 2007 with the establishment of the Blackwall Reach Regeneration Project, a public-private company that was set up to regenerate the buildings and the surrounding area. BRRP is a partnership between the London Borough of Tower Hamlets (local authority), the SWAN (developers) and the Homes and Communities Agency (housing association). Their initial proposal is to deliver up to 1575 new homes and local facilities in the greater area, where the Smithson’s buildings stand. The BRRP claims that through the construction of high-quality flats, the upgrade of commercial and community facilities and the improvement of links with surrounding areas, the site of the RHG will revive to serve the local social, housing and business needs. The first planning application for the masterplan of the BRRP has been approved by the planning authorities of the Tower Hamlets, and the relevant authorities (Greater London Authority and London Thames Gateway Development Corporation). The project is now on track with the planning applications for the first phase of delivery also approved this year.

A larger site

In August 2007 the BRRP published a report describing the challenges and potentials of the site in Poplar, while setting the development framework for the area. In more detail, the investigated area covers almost eight hectares of green space, residential and business functions. It lies between East India Dock Rd, Aspen Way (A1261), Blackwall Tunnel Northern Approach, and Cotton Str. The chosen location actually includes the land on the north and south of the RHG. There are in total 252 houses in the site, most of which are in RHG, but also in Anderson House and along Mackrow Walk and Woolmore Street. The largest open space is the one


between the RHG, the Smithson’s ‘stress-free’ zone. According to the BRRP report, the area is currently dominated by low-quality housing, low-density of space and poor facilities. The vision is to combine different functions and stress the area’s density and diversity. High-quality houses are planned to replace the existing, which will come in many types and sizes, as well as in a variety of tenure options, in order to include a wide range of potential residents (families, single, high and low-income people). New shopping and business areas are also included in the scheme. Finally new health, educational and religious facilities will be introduced in the site. For the implementation of this vision it is seriously considered to demolish the RHG. The main argument of demolition is supported by the estimation that maintenance costs for refurbishing the existing buildings would reach the amount of £20 million, that makes this option financial not feasible. The refurbishment costs were calculated after a survey in 2006 that showed significant malfunctions in the facades, roof, kitchens, bathrooms and service infrastructures of both buildings. Another report from the Tower Hamlets reveals a figure of £77.000 for refurbishment of each unit.

High maintenance costs

Instead, the BRRP will build up a large amount of new flats in highrise residential blocks. The new blocks will be in the same place of the RHG, parallel to the adjacent roads, overlooking the main green area, now called the ‘Millennium Green’. For the delivery of the project several private companies and architectural offices are involved, offering services regarding public consultation, urban and architectural design, finances, etc. The whole project follows the standards set by the Docklands regeneration project and the surrounding residential high-rise developments. The reality of this new scheme reflects the market-driven need of making profit out of housing developments. The neighboring areas have heavily invested in this policy, while Poplar is still behind.

The ‘Millenium Green’


4.2 The listing campaign Apply for listing

The future redevelopment plans didn’t proceed without interruptions. The prospect of demolition of the Smithson’s buildings raised doubts from a share of architects and of the press. From the beginning of the announcement of the BRRP in 2007, there was a request for a ‘Certificate of Immunity from listing’ for the RHG. The response was fast with The Twentieth Century Society (C20) initiating and formulating a clear listing request for the buildings. C20 is an independent organization that focuses on protecting postwar heritage in the UK. Building Design magazine led the press campaign against demolition, which was supported by a growing number of mainstream media. The first move was therefore to apply for listing to English Heritage and the ministerial Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

Refusal for listing

The Certificate of Immunity was finally granted in May 2009, which guarantees that the RHG will not be listed for the next five years. Consequently, the listing request was turned down by the relevant authorities. This decision was made twice, as the first decline of listing came in 2008 from English Heritage. The Twentieth Century Society made an appeal to review the decision the same year, but was rejected as well with an official response from Barbara Follet, the minister for Heritage at the Department of Culture, Media and Sports. English Heritage that is the advisory panel for the ministry clearly stated that there is no evident reason to list the Smithson’s RHG, despite the fact that Park Hill and the Barbican have been actepted for listing by the same body. ‘RHG was judged against a set of standards represented by a different imaginary ideal building.’ (Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions) In principle, the experts of English Heritage argued that the buildings fail in both social and design terms. Since then, no official efforts are made to consider again RHG for listing. Next year, in 2014, the Certificate of Immunity will not be applicable anymore and the issue of listing will probably rise one more.


During those years, there was an intensive effort to highlight this issue, raise public awareness, and gain official support. Media besides the Building Design magazine, like the Architectural design, the Guardian, and the Times have spent considerable amounts of ink to support the campaign. An online petition from Building Design managed to collect around 1.000 people supporting listing. Additionally, in March 2009 the Ecobuild exhibition panel discussed the burden of demolition waste that the replacement of the Smithsons buildings would cause. Star architects and critics from all over the world, like Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers, Robert Venturi, Toyo Ito, Richard Meier, Kenneth Frampton, Peter Cook and Norman Foster have publically offered their opinion against demolition, declaring the RHG one of the best examples of late modernist urban projects in London. (Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions) Furthermore, in summer of 2009 the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) organized an exhibition in London called ‘Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions’. The Twentieth Century Society, photographer Ioana Marinescu, and the school of architecture of the University of Greenwich joined forces to present their case for listing also through student projects of reuse. One of the most interesting ideas that came out at that time was to convert the buildings to student housing, without implementing the high maintenance costs. Unfortunately, those plans remained visionary student projects and the campaign failed to list the buildings.

Support for the campaign

Finally, the listing campaign was also supported by Dick Robinson, a housing expert of CABE and Peabody Trust, who visited the RHG and gave his view on the possibilities of refurbishment. His opinion is more than clear: ‘While it has suffered from all the trials and tribulations of any social housing estate, […] it is entirely feasible to refurbish it to meet modern standards within the level of budget.’ He further states that ‘there is little of no real evidence to suggest that it has been more or less popular with residents’. According to his opinion, the views of the residents vary in relation to their hous-

Feasibility of refurbishment


ing needs. Location and flat type are in reality more important to families when given a house from the Borough. Therefore, the dissatisfaction expressed by residents during all BRRP surveys reflect multiple factors but not the design failure of the RHG. The Smithson’s project is indeed ‘a socially responsible architecture from the era of Utopian thinking’. (Zaha Hadid)


4.3 Conclusions The future of the RHG is actually dependent on the fluctuations of the housing market of east London. If profit margins are high it is likely that the developers will proceed with the demolition and replacement of the RHG. And if such thing happens then it might just express the same effort of the Smithsons. In the 70’s they were dreaming of a modern world while they demolished the old terraced houses on the Poplar site. They applied a different and new vision on a site that apparently had life before them. Today, the developers would do the same: apply another vision, one of financial profit from housing sales and rentals for the workers of Canary Warf. The aim might be different in both cases, but the mean to achieve it is the same: to wipe out what is already there. Comprehensive redevelopment was in deed a policy initiated at the Smithsons era. This research is not about taking place on the debate of listing or demolition, but it is about the lessons that we can learn from such a case. History of cities is dynamic and it has and will always develop upon the existing fabric, especially when talking about places like London. The shift of housing developments from the social politics of the post-war era to the global economics of 21st century has deeply changed the role of local authorities. The Tower Hamlet acts evidently as the business partner of the developers instead of accommodating primary needs for the neighbourhoods. Furthermore, heritage has been gaining more and more commercial value nowadays. The scope of financial benefits in conservation practices is a crucial aspect for the involved stakeholders, whereas social or historical aspects are sometimes just for the experts to consider, and the public to appreciate. Moreover, attaching monumental status to buildings and sites requires a high degree of collaboration between local initiatives, design institutes, heritage committees and state authorities, and a solid framework of classifying the values that need to be preserved in every case. It is visible in the case of RHG that despite the involvement of experts on such matters,


like the English Heritage, there was a clear dispute of the values the RHG carry. On the aesthetic point of view, it is true that Brutalism does not appeal to many people. ‘I have long held a fear that a great many important examples of British architecture could be lost to history simply because they have been misunderstood and dismissed as unfashionable and unsightly.’ (Clement Alexander, 2011) It is also true that without proper and regular maintenance buildings decay and are no longer suitable for their use. But how can it be that Park Hill in Sheffield or the Barbican in London are eligible for listing and not the RHG? And what exactly are we going to lose if the RHG is no longer there? Is it the reminder of a vision that failed in delivery? A masterpiece of architecture that needs to become a monument? An evidence of social housing that must be remembered for the future generations? No matter what the point of view is, the need of change and reflection on the existing is still there. Our society will be as responsible for the impact of the changes and progress it will make as all its ancestors.





Books Clement, Alexander (2011) Brutalism. Post-war British architecture. London:The Crowood Press Ltd. Powers, Alan. (2010) Robin Hood Gardens: Re-Visions. London: Casemate UK Ltd. Heuvel, Dirk van den. Risselada, M. (2004) Alison and Peter Smithson; from the house of the future to a house of today. 010 Publishers Lichtenstein, Claude. Schregenberger, Thomas. (2001) As Found. The discovery of the ordinary. Switzerland: Lars Mueller Publishers. Webster, Helena. (1997). Modernism without rhetoric; essays on the work of Alison and Peter Smithson. London: Academy Editions. Vidotto, Marco. (1997) Alison and Peter Smithson: works and projects. Gustavo Gili. Smithson, Alison. Smithson, Peter. (1994) Changing the art of inhabitation. London, Zurich, Munich: Artemis Ltd. Frampton, Kenneth. (1985) Modern Architecture: A critical history. London: Thames & Hudson. Smithson, Alison. Smithson, Peter. (1982) Alison and Peter Smithson; The Shift. London: Academy Editions, Architectural monographs 7. Smithson, Alison. Smithson, Peter. (1981) The heroic period of modern architecture. London: Thames and Hudson. Smithson, Alison. Smithson, Peter. (1970) Ordinariness and Light: Urban Theories 1952-60 and their application in a building project 1963-70. London: Faber & Faber. Banham, Reyner. (1966) The new Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? Documents of modern architecture vol.5 London: Kraemer.

// Alison, Peter Smithson // Brutalism // Robin Hood Gardens

Hobhouse, Hermione (1994) Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44 – Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs. London: English Heritage. [Online] Available at source.aspx?pubid=369&page=1&sort=1 [Accessed on 01/09/13]

// History of London and Poplar


Articles // Alison, Peter Smithson // Public housing // Robin Hood Gardens

Smithson, Alison. Criterial for Mass Housing. Architectural Design, vol. 37, September 1967, p 393-4. Smithson, Alison and Peter. Preview: GLC housing, London. Architectural Design, vol. 38, October 1968, p. 452 Robin Hood Lane. Architectural Design, vol. 44, July 1970, p. 375 Smithson, Peter. Simple thoughts on repetition. Architectural Design, vol. 41, August 1971, p. 479-81 Smithson, Alison and Peter. Signs of occupancy. Architectural Design, vol. 42, February 1972, p. 91-97 Eisenman, Peter. Robin Hood Gardens London E14. Architectural Design, vol. 42, September 1972, p. 557-73, 590-92. Smithson, Peter. Collective Design. Initiators and Successors. Architectural Design, vol. 43, October 1973, p. 621-3

// Listing // Demolition

Allan, John. Robin Hood Gardens, Poplar, London. English Heritage Conservation Bulletin, issue 59. 12 December 2008. Autumn 2008, p. 30-31. [Online] Available at publications/conservation-bulletin-59 [Accessed on 02/03/13] Klettner, Andrea. Planners approve new school for Robin Hood Gardens site. Building Design. 1 March 2013. [online] Available at [Accessed 01/03/13] Winston, Anna. Deadline looms for Robin Hood Gardens. Building Design. 21 November 2012. [Online] Available at http:// [Accessed on 01/03/13] Rotten Utopia: residents of Robin Hood Gardens on their love for the estate. 12 November 2012. Building Design. Available online at [Accessed on 22/02/13] Woodman, Ellis. Robin Hood Gardens deserves better. 2 November 2012. Building Design. Available online at http://www. [Accessed on 01/03/13]


Articles Klettner, Andrea. Aedas puts in ‘banal’ Robin Hood Gardens scheme to planners. 2 November 2012. Building Design. Available online at [Accessed on 01/03/13] Klettner, Andrea. Aedas reveals first phase of new Robin Hood Gardens. 31 October 2012. Building Design. Available online at [Accessed on 01/03/13] Wilding, Mark. Robin Hood Gardens compulsory purchase plans approved. 15 August 2012. Building Design. Available online at [Accessed on 01/03/13] Rosenfield, Karissa. Robin Hood Gardens to be Demolished. 26 March 2012. ArchDaily. Available online at or [Accessed on 01/03/13] Klettner, Andrea. Council approves plans to demolish Robin Hood Gardens. 16 March 2012. Building Design. Available online at [Accessed on 01/03/13] Beanlend, Chris. Robin Hood Gardens: An estate worth saving? 24 February 2012. The Independent. Available online at [Accessed on 01/03/13] Wilding, Mark. Cabe slams Robin Hood Garden plans. 16 February 2012. Building Design. Available online at article [Accessed on 01/03/13] Klettner, Andrea. Wilding, Mark. Finch calls for energy audit of Robin Hood Gardens. 23 January 2012. Building Design. Avail-


Articles able online at [Accessed on 01/03/13] Architects call for boycott of Robin Hood Gardens competition. 18 January 2012. Building Design. Available online at http:// [Accessed on 01/03/13] Kvist, Else. 1960’s housing estate, Robin Hood Gardens, to be transformed. 9 January 2012. Docklands & East London Advertiser. Available online at news/1960s_housing_estate_robin_hood_gardens_to_be_transformed_1_1172764 [Accessed on 02/03/13] Klettner, Andrea. Robin Hood Gardens poised for demolition. 10 January 2012. Building Design. Available online at http:// [Accessed on 01/03/13] Balters, Sofia. AD Classics: Robin Hood Gardens / Alison and Peter Smithson. 18 August 2011. ArchDaily. Available online at or [Accessed on 01/03/13] Klettner, Andrea. Robin Hood Gardens design panel axed. 11 March 2011. Building Design. Available online at article [Accessed on 01/03/13] Moore, Rowan. Robin Hood Gardens: don’t knock it…down. 5 December 2010. The Observer. Available online at http://www. [Accessed on 01/03/13] Powers, Alan. Why Robin Hood Gardens deserves to be listed. 27 July 2009. The guardian. Available online at [Accessed on 22/02/13]


Articles Hurst, Will. New Robin Hood Gardens residents survey challenges demolition. 26 June 2009. Building Design. Available online at [Accessed on 01/03/13] Rose, Steve. Don’t knock brutalism. 26 June 2008. The Guardian. Available online at artblog/2008/jun/26/dontknockbrutalism [Accessed on 02/03/13] Row over ‘street in sky’ estate. 7 March 2008. BBC news. Avail-

Audio-Visual The Smithsons on Housing. 10 July 1970. Johnson B.S. UK: BBC 2. Duration: 28 min 19sec. [Online] Available at http://www. [accessed 30/03/13] Robin Hood Gardens. 9 July 2009. UK: Sound Delivery, commissioned by the Twentieth Century Society. Duration: 5min 30 sec. [Online] Available at [Accessed on 23/02/12] Is London’s Robin Hood Gardens an architectural masterpiece? 27 July 2009. Glancey J, Fernando S. UK: The Guardian Online. Duration: 8min 16sec. [Online] Available at http://www. [Accessed on 23/02/12] Rotten Utopia. 2012. Collective student work from St. Martin’s College. [Online] Available at [Accessed on 23/02/12]

// Alison, Peter Smithson // Robin Hood Gardens // Listing


Exhibitions // Robin Hood Gardens

Robin Hood Gardens: Re-Visions. at the RIBA, 4 July – 26 August 2009. Info at: News/2009/RIBARobinHoodGardensExhibition.aspx [Accessed on 22/02/13] Also at [Accessed on 22/02/13]

Selected web links // Unsorted