The deputy chief executive of the Swan Housing Group, Mark Thompson explains why the Smithsons’ ‘flawed’ Robin Hood Gardens has to be flattened for the sake of the local residents and the area’s wider regeneration
Who are the parties involved in the project, who is leading it and why is it coming forward now?
The outline planning application was submitted by the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) and Tower Hamlets Council. Swan Housing Group is the lead developer working with Countryside Properties and our architect Aedas. The application was developed in consultation between Swan, the HCA and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and its architect Horden Cherry Lee.
What are you hoping to achieve and how long will it take?
To end up with a place to live that’s an improvement on what already exists at Robin Hood Gardens and in the Blackwall Reach area. We’ve been working with Tower Hamlets and the estate’s 200 households to come up with a scheme that responds to their wishes and aspirations. But there are wider, more strategic goals. Tower Hamlets faces an acute shortage of affordable housing. The plans for Blackwall Reach are a contribution to easing that burden. Of the 1,575 homes planned, nearly 700 will be for affordable rent and shared ownership, including 566 for rent, nearly tripling the amount of affordable rented homes currently provided at the estate.
Critics refuse to engage with are the very real design flaws that exist at Robin Hood Gardens
More than 300 of the rented homes will have three bedrooms or more, for families. There will also be housing for private sale and shared ownership.
What are the biggest misconceptions about the scheme?
That this is just about Robin Hood Gardens. Robin Hood Gardens makes up 0.9 hectares of the the overall 7.7 hectare Blackwall Reach site. It occupies a small part of the Blackwall Reach site and the outline plan should only set the tempo and direction of our approach. The detailed architecture, environmental approach and treatment of amenity and public realm, will all be dealt with as part of the phased detailed application process.
What are your thoughts on the existing stock – is there any architectural merit in the Smithsons’ buildings?
The Smithsons leave an important architectural legacy. But that legacy does not exist in a vacuum. It has to be weighed alongside other public goods, such as the need to provide decent homes for people to live in. No-one is beyond critique. Peter Smithson himself, came to hold reservations about the estate’s design. But the debate among those who have campaigned to keep Robin Hood Gardens has at times had a narrow focus purely on design and the Smithsons’ legacy. At times it has felt that this has tended to crowd out any reasonable consideration of the other very pressing issues facing the Blackwall area, it has also tended to ignore the views of local people.
Robin Hood Gardens were never as spacious or successful as the wide decks of the Parkhill Estate
I’ve heard architects blame Robin Hood Gardens’ demise on a whole host of things: lack of proper investment; poor management; I’ve even witnessed comments that put the blame for the estate’s failure on tenants. What these critics refuse to engage with are the very real design flaws that exist at Robin Hood Gardens and that have affected its sustainability.
For example, the street decks at Robin Hood Gardens were never as spacious or successful as the wide decks of the Parkhill Estate, which were big enough to fit a milk float. The critics don’t quote the research of the Design Disadvantagement Team at King’s College that found a definite correlation between crime and the design of estates like Robin Hood Gardens.
They don’t cite the complaints from Robin Hood Gardens’ residents which at one time were more than twenty times higher than the norm for Greater London Council tenants.
In terms of legacy, I often wonder what these architects think about the Smithson’s post Robin Hood Gardens public housing legacy. Was the Robin Hood Gardens blueprint taken up elsewhere? People can draw their own conclusions.
Had you ever thought about refurbishment of the Smithson-designed buildings and if so why was it ruled out?
Refurbishment was never part of the procurement brief are there are a number of factors which make it a non-starter.
A 2007 study by English Partnerships and Tower Hamlets considered the options for the estate, including refurbishing the existing blocks. But the cost of refurbishment was, and remains, too high.
One way of making refurbishment viable would be by moving out the social housing tenants currently living at the estate, doing-up their vacated homes and putting them up for sale -perhaps to purchasers with a taste for mid-20th Century brutalist architecture. That’s fine, if you want to gentrify the estate, but not particularly palatable in an area with pressing housing and social needs such as the Blackwall area of Tower Hamlets. Nor would it address the needs of more than 100 residents and their families who have told us that they want to take up the ’option to remain’ in one of the new homes we will be building on site.
Are there any opportunities for other architects to get involved and would you invite those architects who have been critical of the proposals so far?
We are happy to work with any practice which can show it is committed to developing a scheme for Blackwall Reach that is an improvement on what already exists. That said, I have followed the recent ‘boycott’ debate with interest. What particularly interested me was the variety of opinions within the architectural community. Of course everyone knows about the vocal group of architects and commentators who take a militant position about Robin Hood Gardens based upon the value they place on it as an architectural example. But the debate has also thrown up an interesting number of voices who take a different view. Many of these are not in principle against the idea of demolition. Far from narrowing the options, the debate has opened things up.
You are about to publish a book about the estate and its history – why?
We have commissioned a historian to document the site’s history. It gives depth to our understanding of what we are trying to achieve. The site had an identity long before the Smithsons’ buildings were constructed.
What did you think to DC CABE’s criticisms of the proposals?
Many of the issues they raised were dealt with in the outline application. In terms of their criticism of the approach to open spaces, this aspect of the masterplan was developed with local residents who very clearly told us they wanted a green heart at the centre of the development.
The Design Code for the new scheme looks to ensure that as much emphasis as possible is given to activating Cotton Street, to the west of the estate, recognising however that it is a very busy road and it is important not to compromise the quality of and activity in the central park. Discussions are on-going with Transport for London on what could be done to and around Cotton Street to make it a more pedestrian friendly environment.
What are the current residents’ biggest fears?
More than 100 households have indicated that they want to return to the area once the redevelopment has taken place. That’s a huge vote of confidence when you consider there are only just over 200 households in total at Robin Hood Gardens.
It takes time to develop a scheme of this scale and there’s always the danger that residents will get a bit fatigued by the process. A major concern for residents is that things take any longer than they already have. Locally there is very much a feeling that we need to move on, get this new community built and thriving.
Can you guarantee that what you build will be of a better quality and have a longer life than Robin Hood Gardens?
I can guarantee that the new buildings will last longer than Robin Hood Gardens! I won’t guarentee that I’ll be around to pay out though.
Replacing Robin Hood Gardens - the developer's view