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Foster tells minister: 'Robin Hood Gardens should be listed and recycled'


Norman Foster calls on government to consider the ‘sustainability factor’ of flattening and replacing Robin Hood Gardens when weighing up whether to list the 1972 estate

The founder of Foster + Partners has joined a growing list of world-famous architects who have responded to Richard Rogers’ and fellow RSHP partner Simon Smithson’s last-ditch bid to to save Robin Hood Gardens.

Renzo Piano, Moshe Safdie, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Rafael Viñoly, Ted Cullinan, Robert Stern, Will Alsop, Amanda Levete and RIBA president Stephen Hodder have already written to heritage minister Tracey Crouch MP asking her to list the Alison and Peter Smithson-designed east London estate.

In Foster’s letter, he asked the minister to think of the environmental consequences of bulldozing the 45-year-old blocks, adding that a full refurbishment would be both feasible and ‘more responsible ecologically’ (see document attached).

He wrote: ‘With a growing public awareness of issues of sustainability there are powerful environmental arguments in favour of recycling existing structures whenever possible, rather than razing them to the ground and building them afresh.

‘This principle is true whatever the merits of the work in question.’

Foster added that Robin Hood Gardens could, in this way, become an ‘important modernist monument for future generations’.

Rogers’ campaign is the second attempt to get statutory heritage protection for the estate in Poplar. An earlier, high-profile bid was rejected on the recommendations of Historic England (then English Heritage) in 2008.

In March this year Heritage lobby group, the Twentieth Century Society, put in a fresh application to have the ‘streets in the sky’ buildings listed after its certificate of immunity from listing - granted by then Culture secretary Andy Burnham in 2009 – expired.

Others to have given their backing to the campaign include Thom Mayne, Luis Vidal, John McAslan, Renato Benedetti, Paul Monaghan, Peter Barber, Malcolm Reading and past RIBA presidents Sunand Prasad and Angela Brady.

Incoming institute president Jane Duncan has also backed the bid, as has Stephen Bates of Sergison Bates (see letter to Tracey Crouch below).

Meanwhile the AJ has uncovered a letter from CABE which also supports listing, claiming that the architectural interest of the buildings remains ‘considerable’ (see document attached).

In its recent response to Historic England, the design watchdog also argues that pulling down the estate would make no sense from an environmental view point. CABE said: ‘Solely in terms of sustainability the benefit of the doubt should be for the retention as these buildings contain considerable embodied energy.

‘In our opinion the scheme should be listed Grade II.’

Letter from Stephen Bates to the heritage minister (19 June)

Dear Tracey Crouch

I am writing in strong support of the efforts of the 20th Century Society to list the seminal building Robin Hood Gardens.

The Robin Hood Gardens residential estate, built between 1966 and 1972 in Poplar by Alison and Peter Smithson, is representative of both social and artistic ideas that were being explored in the 1960’s as the conditions of housing and the understanding of how London (post Second World War) could find its appropriate structure were central concerns for architects, planners and politicians. It was intended as an exemplar of community living and the Smithson’s made reference to the social cohesion evident in the London terrace house structure but reinterpreted this in a multi-storey building. The well-used quotation of ‘streets in the air’ refers to this ambition of recognising that the ‘street’ forms an important social space in the lives of inhabitants. The need for greater density and pressure on land values meant that the older terrace model was not sustainable and that multi-storeyed buildings needed to form the basis for future city development.

Some critics of the building declare it as a dense block epitomising the characteristics of “Brutalism’ suggesting that it is of high density and poor internal quality. In fact the density calculated as habitable rooms per hectare (hr/h) is 459 as compared to standard values suggested for central urban areas of between 650 and 1100 hr/h. The area of a standard three bed/four person apartment in the building is approximately 82m² which is well above the London Design Guide target area of 74m².

The negative associations surrounding the project are centred on social problems and vandalism but this is the consequence of the high levels of social and economic deprivation among residents rather than the fault of the architecture.

As a Professor of Housing and Urbanism at the Technical University of Munich I refer to the project as a fine example of social and meaningful architecture designed by two of the UK’s most important post war architects. With some careful restoration and considered thinking about tenure and occupation I believe this building can be significantly transformed to once again be recognised universally as a fine piece of urban, social architecture.

I urge you and your department to assess the request to list the building with a broad and carefully considered view.

Yours sincerely

Stephen Bates, partner of Sergison Bates architects



Foster tells minister: 'Robin Hood Gardens should be listed and recycled'


Readers' comments (2)

  • Recycling is a good idea. The scrunched-up concrete could be used in the foundations of flats fit for people to live in, rather than encasing this filthy eyesore no architect would permanently inhabit.

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  • Nor is it 'sustainable' to waste land in the way Robin Hood Gardens currently does. If the architectural profession wants another memorial to a bit of failed modernism, go ahead and list it.

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