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BLOG BEING UPDATED - TRY AGAIN LATER This blog records the controversial era of British architecture, 1960's Brutalism. Many Brutalist buildings have been demolished and many still are under threat

Monday 9 June 2014

Robin Hood Gardens

Robin Hood gardens is one of the most iconic post-war brutalist council estates in east London. Built in the 1960's by the eminent husband and wife architectural duo of Peter and Alison Smithson, it was part of a new generation of projects which sort to rebuild the east-end from the appalling poverty and damage sustained during the second world war. The use of concrete was chosen primarily for its cheap and easy application, although it was at a time when concrete was increasingly becoming the material of use in construction due to its aesthetic characteristics. The estate like many others of era is out of fashion with the politicians in local town halls and as a result Tower Hamlets intends to demolish by the middle of 2015.   

The estate essentially is composed of two long facing blocks overlooking a central open park. The design complied with the aims of planners in the post war era to built high density living but ensure a larger number of greener and open spaces in the east-end, building high density allow for generous public space. The blocks which are even to a fan of the style, quite oppressive in their size (the price of large open spaces) are reached via the popular 1960's architectural notion of 'streets in the sky' with wide walkways run the length of the building. Most flats were built as maisonettes with internal staircases for council tenants but never-the-less were perceived to be spacious - not a luxury afforded to many new houses built.

Despite a recent attempt to have the buildings listed by the 20th century society and others in architectural circles including Lord Rogers - which goes to show the significance of the work- listing has been dismissed by English heritage and inevitably by the council who are desperate to demolish the estate. The council argue that the current buildings do not meet the same energy efficient standards as new homes would, which is a fair point although I can't see Georgian and Victorian houses which are unquestionably preserved as particularly energy efficient (similar arguments were used in the 1960's to justify demolition). It also argues that open space would be reduced but I think this too is questionable - the current blocks use space very efficiently with high density housing and large open spaces, how much more open space will be generated in a scheme which is undoubtedly motivated by developers greed is not clear. 

The estate is due to be demolished by 2015, at present the buildings are still occupied and work has begun on other sites (July 2015 is when their demolition notice runs out- they will have to demolish before then). The development is part of a wider, no doubt 'exciting' redevelopment, 'Blackwell reach', although as usual the replacement makes for depressing viewing (well depending on opinion and taste), some may argue that anything is an improvement but with the picture below in mind I beg to differ. I am in full agreement with the ever sharp Rowan Moore of the guardian in his scathing analysis, 'one proposal for Robin Hood Gardens involves a cluster of towers that is pure Hong Kong, minus the vibrant street life or dramatic topography'.

robin hood gardens
Hong Kong on Thames - One of the possible designs for its replacement

Although the estate was built cheaply in the rush to build houses in the 1960's they are essentially well designed, the current condition of the estate and many similar estates has been the lack of maintenance and investment in their upkeep. Indeed many have accused Tower Hamlets council of deliberately running down the estate in order to speed up the removal of the remaining residents and start demolition. The deterioration of the estate is clear for all to see and often see left (as the council well know) the poor state of the building (induced by the council) is the pretext needed to prevent listing and allow demolition, which is what has happened here and in countless over examples across the country. 

One of the main attractions of many of these council estates is the large open and public spaces which they make available due to high density living. Although many are uselessly wasted the central garden in the Robin Hood gardens estate is one of the better examples of how to use and develop the space. A man made hill gives the garden some interest with well developed trees and flower meadows creating a piece of the country in the heart of the east end. It was clear in my visit that people appreciate the space, I observed many residents using the gardens and enjoying one of the few days of sun. The space between the blocks also houses a playground and an area for raised beds for growing vegetables. Good management of the space has created a genuine area for the community in estates often characterized by exclusion. This space will no doubt be lost in the redevelopment and public access will certainly be restricted in the name of privacy and security. Whatever ones attitude to the architecture the estate is more than just the buildings, its also about the connecting spaces between them, most will I think find the gardens attractive whatever their architectural taste. 

the central mount of the garden  

Robin hood gardens - another one bites the dust


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