Robin Hood Gardens was a residential estate in Poplar, London designed in the late 1960s by architects Alison and Peter Smithson and completed in 1972. It was built as a council housing estate with homes spread across ‘streets in the sky’: social housing characterized by broad aerial walkways in long concrete blocks, much like the Park Hill estate in Sheffield; it was informed by, and a reaction against, Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation. The estate was built by the Greater London Council, but subsequently Tower Hamlets Council became the landlord.
The scheme which was the first major housing scheme built by the Smithsons, consisted of two blocks of 10 and 7 storeys; it embodied ideas first published in their failed attempt to win the contract to build a scheme at Golden Lane Estate.
A redevelopment scheme, known as Blackwall Reach involves the demolition of Robin Hood Gardens; as part of a wider local regeneration project that was approved in 2012. An attempt supported by a number of notable architects to head off redevelopment by securing listed status for the estate was rejected by the government in 2009. The demolition of the western block began in December 2017. The eastern block still with tenants in is to be demolished later. The site will contain 1,575 residences.
The Robin Hood Gardens estate was on a tight site, in Poplar, in east London. To the south is Poplar High Street, and then the A1261, to the north Woolmore Street then the A13 East India Dock Road, to the west is Cotton Street that links the A13 to the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf, while to the east is Robin Hood Lane and the A102 Blackwall Tunnel Northern Approach Road. In 1885 the unsanitary back-to-back slums, were replaced by seven tenement blocks known as Grosvenor Buildings. These were demolished in 1965, and 5 acres became available linking other brownfield space.
The complex was 200m north of Blackwall DLR station, with its direct links to the City of London and separated by a bus terminus. It is within sight of the nearby Balfron Tower; both are highly visible examples of Brutalist architecture
(Above) The west side (inner side) of the 10 storey east block
The west side (outer side) of the west block
Streets in the sky
The estate consisted of two long curved blocks facing each other across a central green space, and in total covered 1.5 hectares (3.7 acres). The blocks were of ten storeys (east) and seven storeys (west), built from precast concrete slab blocks and contain 213 flats. Construction began in 1968, the first flats opened in 1971, and the scheme as a whole was completed in 1972 at a cost of £1,845,585. In the central green area was a small man-made hill. The flats themselves were a mixture of single-storey apartments and two-storey maisonettes, with two to six bedrooms. The maisonettes were designed with the bedrooms facing inwards shielding the residents from the traffic noise. Another design feature was the wide balconies (the “streets”) on every third floor, the concept being that public space that would encourage interaction. Alcoves called “pause spaces” were provided next to the entrance doorways on the “streets” which the Smithsons hoped the residents would personalise and where children would play. As with many other council housing blocks in the UK, tenures diversified somewhat and included social housing tenants, leaseholders who exercised the right to buy and subsequent private owners, and private tenants of leaseholders.
The Council declared the site to be part of a larger regeneration area named Blackwall Reach, bounded by East India Dock Road to the north, the Blackwall Tunnel Northern Approach (A102) and East India Docks to the east, Aspen Way to the south and Cotton Street to the west. It plans to provide 1,575 new homes across an expanded area along with improvements to the primary school, a new park and other community facilities. Only 698 of the units (45%) will be “affordable”
In April 2010, Tower Hamlets shortlisted groups of architects, housing associations and developers to undertake the £500 million project. Before the final announcement, the designs for replacement buildings were condemned in The Observer as “generic developers’ fare, with… no sense of place”.
Swan Housing Association was selected, with a plan to replace the current estate of 252 homes with up to 1,700, of which 700 would be for social housing and shared ownership. It would also include open space, community facilities, and better connections to the surrounding area.
The demolition plans were passed by Tower Hamlets Council on 15 March 2012. Final planning approval for the redevelopment scheme was given in December 2012.
There was a lengthy period clearing the flats of their residents — both tenants and owners who had taken advantage of Right to Buy. A case studied published in the Big Issue magazine shows one owner was offered £178,000 by the council for her two-bedroom flat at Robin Hood Gardens when an equivalent property in Poplar would cost £347,000. If she accepted an shared ownership proposal, it would be seven years before she regained full ownership.
The Smithsons were influential architects from the Architectural Association group, who had failed to win the Golden Lane Estate contract, but published and promoted their radical design. They proposed that the building was not the fundamental unit of architecture but it was the network of pathways that was. They did not place buildings on a fixed rectilinear grid as was normal for modernist buildings but on pathways used by the residents. They saw the need for the pedestrian was different from that of the motorist and the service vehicle. Pathways in the sky had been used before by architects, such as Michiel Brinkman’s Spangenblok Housing (1912), Rotterdam, but it was tied to the existing street pattern, and the pathways the Smithsons proposed to use in Golden Lane were independent and non-rectilinear. Robin Hood Gardens was a physical implementation of these earlier principles.
A campaign was mounted in 2008 by Building Design magazine and the Twentieth Century Society to get Robin Hood Gardens listed as a historical landmark in order to save it from destruction, with support from Richard Rogers and the late Zaha Hadid; the latter counted it as her favorite building in London. However, English Heritage did not back the proposal, with its commissioners overruling the advice of its own advisory committee. This was because it did not fully meet the strict criteria for listing post-war buildings, and because the building had suffered serious shortcomings from the start, as the designers had been forced to compromise on issues including the width of the access decks.
The campaign to save Robin Hood Gardens drew very little support from those who actually had to live in the building, with more than 75% of residents supporting its demolition when consulted by the local authority.
In May 2009 the Minister of Culture, Andy Burnham, reiterated an earlier government decision not to list the estate and also granted a Certificate of Immunity from listing, meaning that the structure could not be reconsidered for listing for at least 5 years. This ministerial decision endorsed the recommendation of English Heritage that Robin Hood Gardens “fails as a place for human beings to live” and did not deserve statutory heritage protection, leaving the way open for Tower Hamlets Council to proceed with its demolition and redevelopment.
Drone footage captures brutalist Robin Hood Gardens ahead of imminent demolition
A resident’s own survey, published in Building Design in June 2009, found that 80% of residents wanted it refurbished. In October 2009, opposition Councillor Tim Archer accused the Council of ignoring maintenance problems to encourage residents to move out.
After the expiry of a five-year listing immunity, a second application to have it listed was made by the Twentieth Century Society and again was supported by many architects, including the Smithsons’ son Simon Smithson and this was rejected by Historic England in 2015. Demolition of the western block began in August 2017. The eastern block still has tenants and is to be demolished later.
The V&A museum has salvaged a three-storey section of Robin Hood Gardens. They have added two sections of the estate’s garden and street-facing facades, including one of its elevated walkways that were central to the Smithsons “streets in the sky” concept. The section of the facade reaches almost 9 metres in height and 5.5 metres wide, representing a full section of the repeating pattern of prefabricated parts that form the buildings’ faces. Also included are the original fittings, including cabinetry that forms some of the interior walls.
The Smithsons on their work
The project was the subject of a BBC documentary The Smithsons on Housing (1970), made by B.S. Johnson, in which both Smithsons are interviewed. The Smithsons reflected on the role of the architect, and how in the twentieth century they have been required to implement several visions. In the 1920s, the need had been for garden cities isolated from the industrialized city, this was followed for the need for sun filled high rise flats isolated and separated from the services on the ground. To reconnect families with each other they (the Smithsons) designed streets in the air, that would emulate the terraced housing of Georgian period. They would, by design, block out the noise and look over a green central communal area.
Although Peter Smithson admitted he had been driven by a combination of urgency, practicality and idealism, he claimed in a 1990s interview that the project had failed, although he largely blamed social issues rather than architectural ones for this failure.
“In other places you see doors painted and pot plants outside houses, the minor arts of occupation, which keep the place alive. In Robin Hood you don’t see this because if someone were to put anything out it people will break it.”
Asked why he felt this was the case, Smithson cited ‘social jealousy’.