Architects: Alison and Peter Smithson
Location: London, England
Architects: Alison and Peter Smithson
References: NYTimes, Wikiarquitectura, The Guardian
Project Year: 1972
From the architect. Robin Hood Gardens is a social housing complex in East London in the residential area of Poplar. It was designed by architects Alison and Peter Smithson and completed in 1972. The Brutalist buildings stand as an example of the Smithsons’ theories in practice. Practices that today face an uncertain future.
Robin Hood Gardens was built in post-war Britain when residential towers were being built as a symbol of progress after the war. Many were developed with concrete in the Brutalist style including Robin Hood Gardens and the nearby Balfron Tower.
Built within a decade of one another, the two buildings stand today with one major difference. The Balfron Tower’s status as a listed building protects it from demolition as an important architectural work, whereas Robin Hood Gardens has been denied.
By the 1970s British architects Alison and Peter Smithson had established themselves as leaders in post-war architecture. They had built a handful of their designs prior to Robin Hood Gardens, including the Economist Building, and were well know theorists. The Smithsons’ preached modern architecture designed with low cost, and easily available materials.
They were categorized as Brutalists, and sought for each building to be designed according to its location and its use. From these ideals also came their utilitarian aesthetic, reflecting all of these conditions in their buildings’ form.
Robin Hood Gardens was built with panels of pre-cast concrete and is comprised of two horizontal structures which include a total of 213 apartments. There are one and two story apartments in both buildings, which bend slightly inwards, hugging the urban garden between them. In order to allow in more southern light, one of the buildings is ten stories high, while the other is seven stories.
The garden is the center includes a rising hill created by the remnants from construction. This communal space for the residents is an essential part of Robin Hood Gardens for the Smithsons who were intent on improving people’s lives through design. Robin Hood Gardens was seen as their chance to prove this vision for progressive social housing.
Another example of the Smithsons’ social intentions is integrated through the concept of “streets in the sky.” Every third level of the buildings includes a wide concrete balcony jutting off towards the center of the site, overlooking the garden. The balconies are wide enough for multiple people to walk and for children to play. They were proposed by the Smithsons as a new neighborhood street for these housing units.
From the beginning, Robin Hood Gardens has been at the center of a debate concerning its success. Initially, structural issues raised the cost of the building. Once lived in, critics blamed crime within the buildings on the Smithsons’ design, but there have been many issues contributing to the less than ideal conditions of Robin Hood Gardens today.
A serious denial in upkeep has made the apartments less desirable places to live, and developers are eager to demolish the buildings in order to expand their own visions of the future. If London intends to keep Robin Hood Gardens it will need to invest in renovations to liven the building, but renovations would come at a much lower cost than the current plan to demolish it.
No matter the final outcome, Robin Hood Gardens embodies Alison and Peter Smithsons’ vision for a new form of social housing. With both successes and failures within its concrete walls, the Smithsons’ radical vision will always exist within Robin Hood Gardens. It is an undeniably important piece of Great Britain’s architectural history and a monument of British modernism.