1: Robin Hood Gardens estate, Poplar

The Robin Hood Gardens estate in Poplar, east London, is the final, built reality of nearly 20 years of urban theory that began with Alison and Peter Smithson’s competition entry for the Golden Lane estate, Barbican, in 1953. From the beginning, a ‘low-rise snake of housing’ with a network of ‘streets in the air’ was imagined.

At an architectural conference in Aachen, Germany, in 1953, the couple came across as the young Turks of their time, strongly criticising the housing ideas of Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius as too functional and simplistic. Their architecture is the stuff of intelligence and conviction. They wrote: ‘Belonging is a basic emotional need … from it comes the enriching sense of neighbourliness. The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where spacious redevelopment frequently fails.’ Theirs was a concerted attempt at humanising Modernist urban theory.

They rejected Le Corbusier’s generation of ‘wipe the slate clean’ Modernism. Rooted in a pre-1939 optimism (as they saw it) irrelevant to a 1950s generation shattered by War War II, the International Style was building ‘yesterday’s dreams, while the rest of us have woken up today.’

‘Only through construction,’ the Smithsons wrote, ‘can utopias of the present be realised.’ They wanted to use their anger to stimulate this more ‘real’, less utilitarian modern culture, plugged directly, more democratically, into the consciousness of the people.

One commentator wrote: ‘The Smithsons believed in thoughtfulness, and nobility, and allowing space and time to contemplate and consider your place in the world. They were conscientious and wanted to create buildings not only for the moment, but also for an unknown future. They were extremely serious people, staring gravely at the camera in almost every picture known of them. “Our ultimate responsibility is the creation of noble space,” they said.’

Their influence was felt in Park Hill, Sheffield (built 1957-1961) on the remains of a Victorian slum. They had the laudable idea of demolishing the slums while at the same time building on their better qualities. By 1960 they were even rediscovering the merits of medieval streets and alleys.

In 1962 they made a collage of a housing scheme for Manisty Street, which eventually became Robin Hood Gardens. Prominent in one of Peter Smithson’s drawings of 1963 is the demolition ‘spoil’ piled into a hillock in the foreground.

In 1966 construction work began on the estate. Their final design was a challenge to what had become the orthodox Modern creed, promoted by Le Corbusier: that ideal, affordable mass housing should rise in aloof, detached towers on stilts high above urban parkland. He imagined his city order as being rational, noble, healthy and clean-minded, a ‘democracy of Platonic guardians’. In contrast, the Smithsons argued in favour of housing that responded to local communities and local climates.

Of their plan for Poplar, they wrote: ‘The site has been organised to create a ‘stress-free’ central zone, protected from the noise and pressure of the surrounding roads by the buildings themselves. In this stress-free zone there is no vehicular movement whatever. There is a quiet green heart which all dwellings share and overlook.’ At this ‘quiet, green heart’ is the artificial hill, formed out of the rubble from demolition and excavation of the site.

Peter Smithson wrote, in a grand manner: ‘The theme of RHG is protection … To achieve a calm centre, the pressures of the external world are held off by the buildings and the outworks … This building for the socialist dream was for us a Roman activity and Roman at many levels – including state bureaucracy, heroism, aqueductal engineering, dealing with repetition, bold statement working with landforms, it provides a place for the anonymous client, it wants to be universal, greater than our little state – related to greater law.’

The estate finally opened in 1972 and, despite praise from the architectural profession, it soon attracted criticism. Its reception wasn’t helped by a shift in public mood against Modernist planning, due in particular to the collapse of the Ronan Point tower block, barely two miles away, in May 1968 when five people were killed directly as a result of poor construction techniques.

Keeping in mind the grandiosity of Peter Smithson’s utopian predictions for the estate and his confidence that all details, especially at a social level, had been carefully thought through, it is shocking to read some of the more general comments: ‘The planning of the flats is unsatisfactory and unresolved’; ‘It is a matter of some debate as to whether this particular style of design is suitable for social housing’; ‘The lift lobbies are sordid in the extreme. One wonders why the architects did not group the lifts together thus giving the occupiers a greater choice of lifts (especially when one is out of order), and above all increasing the casual contacts between neighbours and fostering a community spirit’: ‘It is simply not the best place for poor families to live’; ‘It is a vision of the future, by architects who thought they were saving the world’.

At a more theoretical level, the criticism is just as damning: ‘On the aesthetics of the facades, there is conflict between the intellectual desire for order and the artistic desire for expression. This conflict has not been successfully resolved … To compare these buildings with Georgian terraces, as Peter Eisenman does, may be justified by the intellectual aims of the authors, but the minor elements used are, in general too poor for a real comparison to be justified.’

But the more polemical, gut reactions, often by respected architectural critics, are almost unique in their exasperation and disgust: Robin Hood Gardens ‘is like a face scoured by the raw winter wind. It is hard to imagine the sun shining here, ever. It is notorious for the violence it attracted even before it was completed. At a time when some buildings of its generation are finally being appreciated, the estate has defied rehabilitation.’

‘Robin Hood Gardens is an all too brutal example of the style of architecture that proudly called itself the New Brutalism.’

‘This is where it all started to go wrong. It was disastrous. The brutalist concrete structure turned out to be defective, but the social aspects turned out to be worse: Robin Hood Gardens became a hotbed of crime. The Smithsons were exposed as being both arrogant and fallible.’

‘The Smithsons pretty much invented the postwar Britain we’ve been taught to hate; high-rises, walkways, the city of cars, megastructures, nasty, brooding concrete jungles roaming with rottweilers.’

However, while regularly being cited as an example of Modernist folly, the estate seems to have generated an undercurrent of unintended reference to the main themes of this work, to the First World War and its long-term psychological impact in terms of memory-image projection. [In the quotes below I have added my own italics to point these out.]

One writer opens up this thread of comment with the nagging question: ‘One still wonders why Robin Hood Gardens had to look so grim?’ The answer is perhaps hidden in the subconscious layers of the place…

‘Two long, cranked slab buildings of rather drab pre-cast concrete address each other across a no-man’s land of common gardens, distinguished by a large artificial mound. It must be a depressing place to live in, severed as it is from any connections with the existing city by its almost manic defence system of walls and moats … This scheme is an example of the late modernist avant-garde determination to realise a theoretical position at all costs.’

‘The estate fails because the Smithsons never found a satisfying architectural form that could be mass-produced for the ‘anonymous client’ of the welfare state [a figure who overlaps in quasi-mythological terms for me with the Unknown Soldier] without being as dully utilitarian as the classic Modernist predecessors they attacked.’

‘There is no clear access, but this may be deliberate in order to make the gardens private for the residents. However, if this is so, there is a curious lack of incentive for the residents to use the gardens, since the paths and play areas are rigidly defined around the perimeter by ‘rules’ established in a printed ‘householders’ manual’ – a little totalitarian to say the least. One concludes that the park is to be looked at from above and nothing more.’

‘These decks have been designed as though one was always meant to be on them, to look down (psychologically as well) on the neighbourhood, but never to arrive or leave it.’

From these last quotes, I take a starting point for my own re-reading of the site.

The decayed GLC map for visitors to the Robin Hood Gardens estate in Poplar summarises my thoughts on the site. Looking at the patterns made on the metal sign, it seems that the no-man’s-land between the two jagged housing lines has been attacked, bombed, obliterated.

RHG sign

To give an impression of this estate, almost sealed-off from the city around it by major roads and by its own boundaries and despite its being situated close to Canary Wharf, I will first present some early images of it from the Sixties and early Seventies.

rhg axonometric
This axonometric shows how the pair of housing lines enclose the green space, one of the few in the area. No clue is given of the form the boundary will take.

rhg drawing

Looking within, the Smithson’s drawing shows how the flats overlook the mound. What has been transformed from a spoil-heap is humanised by the girl sitting on it.

RH 1960s
Once built, the mound is clearly visible (looking south, towards Canary Wharf).

RH 1960s b
Inside the estate, the little relaxation/play areas take on a prominent status, as does the hill. Available for gazing upon.

More recent photographs of the Robin Hood Gardens estate in Poplar indicate its air of other-worldliness. From outside, the outer walls rear up with astonishing aggression (on first approaching the estate, I didn’t recognise where I was and thought this might be a nearby prison).
Robin Hood Garden, outer wall

On the other side of the wall is a place for reflective contemplation, cut off from the world except for the roar of distant engines and the pressing sight of rough concrete walls.
Robin Hood Gardens patio

Within the walls, a rearward trench cut deep below the surface allows supplies and personnel to arrive at the front and waste to be removed.
RHG trench

And within the front, looked down on from the flats, the bare hill.
Robin Hood Gardens hill

Juxtaposing these contemporary images and descriptive words, deliberately suggestive of past significance, with maps and images from the Western Front may indicate a link between war and its aftermath.

By changing the form in which we perceive the Robin Hood Gardens estate, from photographic images to graphic illustration, an uncanny convergence becomes perceptible with one of the iconic battles of the First World War, that of Hill 60 in the Ypres Salient:

Hill 60Robin Hood Gardens
Hill 60, Ypres Salient, 1917 Robin Hood Gardens, Poplar

Now, the image of the battle-scarred hill that so impressed the painter William Orpen and the soldiers who survived its horror seems to achieve greater significance, as an object for gazing upon.

Hill 60Robin Hood Gardens