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Former BDP chief attacks Rogers over Robin Hood Gardens rescue bid


Ex-BDP chairman Tony McGuirk has hit out at Richard Rogers for trying to save the ‘monolithic and failed’ Robin Hood Gardens housing estate

In a provocative essay written for AJ about the current ‘void in thinking’ about solutions to the housing crisis, McGuirk slams the Smithson’s estate in east London as a ‘failed housing model’ and questions why big names architects want to get the 1972 ‘streets in the sky’ development listed.

Last month Rogers wrote to more than 300 leading construction industry professionals asking them to support a new listing bid for Robin Hood Gardens which is earmarked for demolition.

However McGuirk, who worked with Ralph Erskine on the well-known Byker housing project in the 1970s, argues that Robin Hood Gardens was not a successful exemplar for other, large-scale residential schemes.

He claims that ‘antipathy to council estate design’, such as Robin Hood Gardens, led to the more community-focussed plans at Byker in Newcastle and that these ideas should be resurrected.

He says: ‘[At] a time when one of our most notable global architects proposes the retention of a monolithic Brutalist experiment and failed housing model by the Smithsons, it is important to rally to what Colin St John Wilson termed ‘the alternative tradition in modernism’ represented in Byker.

‘If we don’t, and we ever get the chance of designing large scale housing neighbourhoods again in our cities that significantly include for people in need, we will no longer have the sensibilities so important in the approach to designing with people’.

McGuirk, who became chair of BDP in 2006 before stepping down last year, adds: ‘Byker was not designed as a theoretical model for future copy across our cities as Robin Hood Gardens, but as an approach to designing for people within their communities and an approach to the particular setting within the city and its qualities for an enjoyable life for all those who lived there.’

McGuirk recently set up a new architecture and urban design partnership McGuirkWatson with ‘young architect colleague’ Keith Watson.

Read the full article in this week’s magazine or click here.



Readers' comments (5)

  • Hello Tony, I agree with your view on Robin Hood Gardens - it certainly is an example of failed modernism and should be demolished. Is this article not somewhat hypocritical however, coming from the lead designer of UNITE housing in Stratford? This carbuncle nomination surely leads the way in failed housing... http://www.bdonline.co.uk/carbuncle-cup-unite-stratford-city-by-bdp/5069328.article .

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  • Listing is about architectural and/or historic interest, not preservation. On that basis it is an absurdity that Robin Hood Gardens has not been listed, even if you wished to amend the design subsequently. Incidentally, all the same arguments about failed modernism were used by the same local planning authority and others in relation to Denys Lasdun's Bethnal Green housing. After some tender loving care it is doing extremely well. There is no reason to think the same would not be true at RHG.

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  • Exemplary as Byker is, it is not by any means the only solution, nor should it preclude recognition of other earlier approaches to housing, even one as didactic as Robin Hood Gardens. After all the "streets in the sky" model was followed in Sheffield where, after a similar period of neglect, sensitive renovation by Urban Splash is enabling its full potential to be realised. This could be achieved with the Smithsons' pioneerng work. At a fraction of the cost of its demolition.

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  • "Listing is about architectural and/or historic interest, not preservation"...The interest here is that Modernism has become indelibly associated with failed social housing sink estates in the national psyche. Ironically because architects got their biggest opportunities in the public / social sector. By a combination of form inappropriate to tenure and lack of maintenance it became aversion therapy to modernism as a housing form. Only relatively recently has modernism styled housing begun to be rehabilitated in expensive private housing and apartments, particularly in London. Therefore the possibility of a universal democratic form (style) hoped for by the Smithsons and the critics at the time of its construction could only be conceivable in either an idealised classless society or one which does not employ goods and the physical environment to signify its social structure. If the tenure can be changed to upowardly mobile middle class, and the open access can be changed to concierge, it may just become a smart trendy ghetto for architectural savants like the Goldfinger towers. But if it is to remain in the realm of social housing with its less opulent programmes and need for more robust and viable building forms to cope with tenants more inclined to neglect, disrespect and abuse their environment, no end of refurbishment will rescue it from the psychological and degrading physical stigma I have described. It may be better to film and record it as an interesting but failed experiment and then add it to the rubble under the grass mound in the garden. The jury is still out on Park Hill., which is a much better form to begin with.

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  • I should have said "This style of modernism......", which Byker is most certainly not, being a democratic style evolved from close collaboration with the community, that has proved to be an enduring success.

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