Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
East London’s Robin Hood Gardens, designed by Peter and Alison Smithson, were once the future of public housing.
Nearly half a century ago, Robin Hood Gardens, a concrete housing project in east London, appeared to be the future of affordable urban living. In 1970, BBC TV featured the complex’s architects, Peter and Alison Smithson, in The Smithsons On Housing.
The married couple were much admired by contemporaries looking to break away from the clichés of the International Style; critic Reyner Banham praised their work in his 1955 essay The New Brutalism. In the BBC documentary, the Smithsons explain how Robin Hood Gardens, which welcomed its first tenants in 1972, would provide Londoners with a new type of living arrangement. “It will be, to outsiders, something they can immediately see as a new form,” Peter says. “And to the people who live in it, it offers a place with a special character which will release them and change them and be capable of being lived in generation after generation.”
In a period of sweeping postwar urban renewal, architects like the Smithsons could find socially minded (but financially constricted) work through big government projects. Even before the doors at Robin Hood ever opened, the highly philosophical duo seemed aware that their work may all be for naught.
“Society at the moment asks architects to build these new homes for them but, I mean, this may be really stupid,” Alison says in the documentary. Contemplating the wisdom of replacing old, occupied houses with new structures, she continues, “It may be that we should only be asked to repair the roofs and add the odd bathroom to the old industrial houses and just leave people where they are to smash it up in complete abandon and happiness so that no one has to worry about it any more.”
Despite the architects’ inventive layout—including long corridors facing the surrounding roads and an elevated green space in-between the two buildings to keep out noise pollution from nearby roads and create a peaceful environment within its boundaries—neglect has taken its toll on the still-occupied Robin Hood Gardens. After a failed preservation effort backed by several world-famous architects, including Richard Rodgers and Zaha Hadid, the Brutalist complex is slated to be razed as part of the five-phase Blackwall Reach redevelopment. No official demolition date has been announced yet.