Monday, July 20, 2015

Robin Hood Gardens

Another day, another endangered modernist building!

When I was on the Bleeding London photo walk a couple of weeks ago, I talked to another walker who's familiar with some of London's brutalist architecture. We talked about Balfron and Trellick towers, and he asked me if I'd been to see Robin Hood Gardens before its demolition.

I'd heard about Robin Hood Gardens, but I hadn't had a chance to visit yet. He said he thought it was already being torn down, so I was afraid I'd missed my chance. But I did some research and found that it's still standing, so I went to visit yesterday.

Robin Hood Gardens is a council estate in East London completed in 1972, the work of husband-and-wife architects Alison and Peter Smithson. It consists of two long, slightly zigzagging buildings bracketing a large central courtyard with a hill. The buildings are of seven and 10 stories, and contain 213 apartments.

I found the buildings very hard to photograph, partly because there were so many trees and other obstacles in the way. So forgive my wonky angles! Here's a satellite image from Google showing the plan of the estate:

Robin Hood Gardens is indeed slated to be demolished, though some preservationists and architects are working to save it. Architect Richard Rogers, in a recent appeal, called it "the most important social housing development from the post-war era in Britain."

The Smithsons drew on the concept of "streets in the sky" in developing the project. The two buildings parenthetically screen the courtyard from the surrounding city, creating an oasis amid one of London's busiest areas. (The entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel, which runs under the Thames, is just to the east.)

When I visited, I was surprised to find curtains in the windows and people evidently still living there. I'm not sure what the timetable is for demolition, but it doesn't seem like it's happening tomorrow.

From my standpoint as a layman, they're more difficult buildings to love than Balfron or Trellick, which are so immediately and obviously distinctive. The architectural appeal of Robin Hood Gardens is more subtle, and now we've also got to look past years of neglect by the local council.

But I do hope the push for preservation is successful. The architects who want to save the estate say the apartments are of a generous size and could be refurbished.

Also, the courtyard contains some quirky concrete sculptures. An urban Nessie!


Ms. Moon said...

I just can't love these. They remind me of prisons. I am too much a traditionalist I suppose.

Sharon said...

Very interesting buildings. If old factories can be saved and reused, I don't see why these can't. I can picture them with a bit of a futuristic spin on them.

Linda Sue said...

The courtyard is loveable, the idea is loveable, and, in a pinch, I would squat there. I agree with Ms. Moon adding that they look as though supplies for building attractive homes was limited, they had to make do , be pragmatic, and stack it high, using the best talent available, to satisfy the council and people seeking homes. Wondering what might replace it...probably more dense housing minus the essential courtyard, I would bet. Holla for the dolla!

John Going Gently said...

It looks remarkably like hyde park flats in sheffield

e said...

I hope the preservation is a success. Will you let us know?

It seems we knock down too much that should be re-done and used to create housing, which is always in demand...

Gary said...

They want to tear things down but what is planned to replace it?

Steve Reed said...

Ms Moon: You are not alone! The principle criticism of brutalist architecture is its cold, institutional aesthetic. (And you couldn't keep chickens there, I'm sure! :) )

Sharon: Exactly! And these poured concrete buildings are incredibly strong. I bet demolishing them would be a monumental task.

Linda Sue: I'm sure they did have requirements for how many units they had to build and that sort of thing. I haven't seen the new plan, but if it's anything like the newer housing I've seen go up elsewhere in London, it won't be nearly as interesting. I'd squat there too!

John: Wonder which came first? Maybe one somehow inspired the other.

E: I will let you know! This will probably take years to play out. I was astonished to find people still living in those apartments. I thought they were much closer to taking action that they apparently are.

Gary: It would be more housing, in newer buildings. I'm not sure about quantity, but these big blocks have gone out of style in favor of smaller-scale developments. (Same as in the states.) My guess is the site would be completely reconfigured.