The mid-nineteenth century Ordnance map shows the area between All Saints Church and the East India Dock to be densely built up with many dwellings in cramped courts off the streets. The worst of these were cleared under the Artisans and Labourers Dwellings Act and replaced by the speculative Grosvenor Buildings in 1885. By the end of the century Cotton Street had been extended to the south, making the direct link to the Isle of dogs and the docks, and the Blackwall Tunnel was open. The difficult context of Robin Hood Gardens, busy roads to west, north and east, docks to south and east, had been established.
Grosvenor Buildings, initially a fairly handsome block and housing nearly 1400 people soon became overcrowded. After a history of neglect by owners, severely deteriorating conditions, activism by tenants and changes of ownership, the building was finally bought by the GLC and evacuated prior to demolition in 1965.
Before the intention to demolish was confirmed a commission was given to the Smithsons to design new housing on Manisty Street, just south of Grosvenor Buildings.
The Smithsons, Alison and Peter, were northerners, meeting while studying architecture in Newcastle. Married, they went to work for the London County Council, then one of the most influential architectural offices in the country, before setting up their own practice in London. Reputation came early as a result of their first major commission, a school in steel, brick and glass in Hunstanton, Norfolk, completed in 1954, and a prodigious output of writings. These reflect the interests of Team 10, a small but widely scattered group of architects devoted to re-thinking modernism in a less deterministic, abstract way, more responsive to society and individual needs.
The writings and unbuilt projects show them investigating in several different directions: urban structure, inclining towards the fascination for post-war reconstruction with pedestrians elevated above vehicles; the futuristic house; and the matter of ordinary living. In this last they were influenced by their friendship and collaboration with the photographer Nigel Henderson who lived in and documented the East End.
It was, perhaps, a fusion of these traits which brought them to propose ‘streets in the sky’ where the social life of the East End street could re-appear in the multi-storey block. The idea first appeared in their competition design for Golden Lane but the first and most successful building of the idea was by their ex-students Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith at Park Hill in Sheffield. Robin Hood Gardens was the last exercise in ‘streets in the sky’ in this country and the Smithsons’ only social housing project to be built.
The term ‘brutalism’ is relentlessly applied to their work, particularly to Robin Hood Gardens. Maybe it originates in a play on their names, maybe (more credibly) in a reference to beton brut, Le Corbusier’s term for rough-shuttered concrete. The range of materials they used in their work was, though, far wider and they showed little interest in developing a ‘style’. Concrete dominates RHG but little, if any, of it is rough-shuttered.
Inception & Building
The Smithsons’ first commission in Poplar was given in 1962. Their design for Manisty Street already featured streets in the sky and there was a high mound in its landscape. The demolition of Grosvenor Buildings allowed a rethink and the expansion of the Smithsons’ site to include where Grosvenor buildings had stood. The new commission was given in 1966, work started on site in 1968 and the buildings were occupied by summer 1972.
The overall layout was devised to shelter a quiet space from the noisy roads to either side, so two long blocks roughly following the street lines enclosed a landscape of grassy mounds and children’s play-pits. In each block the flats, accessed from decks at every third floor, were planned to place the decks and living rooms on the noisy side and bedrooms on the quiet, where dining-kitchens also overlooked the landscape where children played.
Garages were provided in a sunken moat half-under the outer side of each building. The two noisy roads were fronted with a ten foot high sound-shielding wall and care was taken with detail design to reduce sound entry at the windows. A system of colour coding of stairs, lift lobbies, front doors and balcony doors brightened the building and helped navigate it.
The construction was of reinforced concrete panel floors and cross walls with blockwork party walls and dry partitions between rooms within the flats. External elements were in smooth concrete. Space standards were superior to the then mandatory Parker Morris standards.
The Householders’ Manual issued to those moving in stated:
“The Greater London Council and its architects have been working on Robin Hood Gardens since 1963; its builders since 1968; it is now your turn to try and make it a place you will be proud to live in.”
Robin Hood Gardens was given a detailed presentation in the UK magazine Architectural Design, long sympathetic to the Smithsons and Team 10. Accounts appeared in France, Japan and the USA. There was little acknowledgement in other UK architectural publications. An American critic perhaps summed up the feeling that however good it was, Robin Hood Gardens didn’t live up to it grounding theory. He wrote particularly that the flat-entry lay-bys off the access decks were not of a character to be personalised. But Sandra Lousada’s unpublished 1972 photographs of the access decks show pot plants, washing and tennis practice.
That there was early vandalism is clear though the reasons are not. The Smithsons were taken aback by this. Alison’s 1974 article ‘The Violent Consumer’ reads as a rather outraged attempt to fathom public attitudes which moves slowly towards calling for a closer engagement with the public. Stories of life in Robin Hood Gardens are ambiguous. Early residents speak entirely positively about the first ten years. Recent on-line essays by Delwar Hussein contain accounts of near-idyllic childhoods in RHG even while acknowledging that there was at the same time drug dealing and violence. Accounts both read and told to us highlight the stairs and lift lobbies as places of potential danger.
Alongside the close-up story of Robin Hood Gardens there has been a history of governmental indifference, sometimes seeming hostility, to social housing. Since 2008 policies of austerity have been applied and the resources available for maintenance of social housing severely limited. And 1972 saw the publication of Oscar Newman’s ‘Defensible Space’ a book of enormous influence both among planners and architects and among the lay public and which, rightly or wrongly, condemned such modernist experiments. These influences have greatly affected popular judgement of Robin Hood Gardens.
Despite the malign popular reputation, Robin Hood Gardens seems now to be at peace. It was noticeable that when it came up for discussion with visitors to Transition’s last exhibition, it was condemned by those who had never lived there and much liked by those who had. Was this typical?
In 1995 LBTH responded to the security situation by first resolving to construct a concierge office adjoining the west block and later to enclose the access to the stairs and lifts. An architect approached to undertake this work informed Peter Smithson, as is normal when an architect is engaged to work on a building by another living architect. Shortly after, the idea of listing RHG was first mooted in the architectural press. The modifications were eventually designed by LBTH in-house architects and the call for listing was premature as the building was substantially less than thirty years old.
Over the years the landscape of the central space has changed. When the four little play-pits disappeared we don’t know but the addition of steps to the larger mound with trees and shrubs planted and a crude sundial laid out on the floor of its summit was a Millennium project. Without the resource to manicure it, it has gone wild - perhaps to the distress of some and surely the delight of others. But children no longer play there.