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Shock new bid to save Robin Hood Gardens


Richard Rogers welcomes new listing bid after certificate of immunity expires

Seven years ago it became a cause célèbre following proposals to knock it down.

But Robin Hood Gardens, the Alison and Peter Smithson-designed housing estate in east London, is still standing and now a fresh attempt is being made to preserve it for the nation.

Heritage lobby group the Twentieth Century Society has put in a new bid to have the 1972 ‘streets in the sky’ buildings listed after its certificate of immunity from listing - granted by then Culture secretary Andy Burnham in 2009 – expired.

A new report by the Society sent to English Heritage argues that the heritage quango’s advice to government not to list the estate was flawed.

The report said: ‘We believe that none of the reasons given for not listing Robin Hood Gardens is convincing or properly evidenced according to listing criteria, and that the previous decisions not to list were unsound.’

Richard Rogers, who in 2008 compared Robin Hood Gardens to the ‘great crescents and squares’ of Bath and argued that its demolition would be a tragedy, said he was delighted by the new listing attempt.

He said: ‘I can only say “three cheers”.

‘Robin Hood Gardens is one of a handful of great low-cost housing estates. It was a world-shaking building but it’s been looked after appallingly. Whatever anyone says, I don’t know of better modern architects than the Smithsons: they were certainly outstanding.’

The report argued that English Heritage misunderstood or misrepresented key aspects of the scheme’s design intent and level of success including its landscaping and street decks.

Robin Hood Gardens was a world-shaking building

The society also claims the global reputation of the Smithsons has grown in the past five years, adding: ‘No other British architects of the post-war era have the same international reputation as the Smithsons, save for James Stirling – who built widely abroad.’

And it questioned English Heritage’s assertion that the building is suffering from spalling and concrete decay.

‘The building has had no maintenance since 2000 while its future has been debated…The spalling is relatively minor and there is not known to be any other form of decay, either visible or invisible that cannot be readily rectified with modern repair techniques,’ the report said.

A spokesperson for English Heritage said the Twentieth Century Society had submitted its report following an application for a new certificate of immunity put in by Tower Hamlets council last year.

They added: ‘We are currently in the process of considering all consultation responses before making our recommendation to the Secretary of State.’

Robin Hoods Gardens is set to be replaced by the second phase of the 1,575 home Blackwall Reach regeneration project, masterplanned by Aedas. It is understood architects have yet to be officially appointed for the work.

In a joint statement, Tower Hamlets council, the Greater London Authority and development partner Swan Housing Association said: ‘A thorough heritage impact assessment was carried out as part of the planning application and environmental impact assessment process…We do not believe listing the buildings now would be in the best interests of residents or the wider local community, or in keeping with the changing nature of the place.’

A council spokesperson added: ‘As a council, we have a duty to provide housing that is of a decent standard for local residents. Our plans for the Blackwall Reach area will meet that duty and also bring much-needed benefits to the area.

‘Further to extensive consultation by English Heritage, the Secretary of State will decide whether the building should retain a certificate of immunity.’

Source: B.S. Johnson

Previous story (AJ 08.01.15)

Planning victory for latest phase of Robin Hood Gardens overhaul

Karakusevic Carson Architects has won permission for this 242-home, three block scheme at Robin Hood Gardens, east London

The ‘robust brick buildings’ – officially phase 1B of the Blackwall Reach Regeneration – will replace warehouses to the south of Alison and Peter Smithsons’ famous Brutalist housing estate.

The first of the 1972 ‘streets in the sky’ buildings – the west block – will not be flattened until after permission for phase 2 is approved. Demolition work has been scheduled for late 2016.

The scheme, which also includes a new public square, is backed by Swan Housing Group, the GLA and the London Borough of  Tower Hamlets (AJ 06.06.13). 

Last year Metropolitan Workshop Architects and Jestico + Whiles were appointed to review and ‘refine’ the Horden Cherry Lee and Aedas-designed masterplan for the wider 7.7-hectare site, which won outline planning in March 2012.

Karakusevic Carson Architects Robin Hood Gardens

8 then architecture minister Margaret Hodge refused to list the Smithsons’ buildings, agreeing with English Heritage that the concrete housing estate was not a fit place for people to live in.



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Readers' comments (5)

  • Although coherently argued, the EH decision not to list was a mistake. Robin Hood Gardens was a flawed project, but it is undeniable that is of profound architectural and historic interest. The mendacious proposition that it was beyond repair was the same argument used to try to demolish Denys Lasdun's Bethnal Green apartments, now beautifully restored. RHG should be the subject of an exemplary retrofit and sold to the market, apart from those units which should be re-occupied by the many tenants who enjoyed living there. The waste of embodied energy and finance, and the cost of decanting and replacement, never made much sense. We should celebrate an estate which is world-famous, instead of focussing on its faults. the space standards are far higher that those in the ghastly hutches delivered across London in recent decades. Paul Finch

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  • I have a friend who lived in one of the Duplex flats and we came to visit. It was so well designed and she really enjoyed living in it - but found the public spaces less easy to deal with. (the lifts were appalling...) With the right care and monitored access it would be a lovely place to live in.

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  • chris Dyson

    This is absolutely great news for this most distinctive scheme we must carefully restore and renew and build upon the original concept - what wonderful news !

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  • I have lived in Robin Hood Gardens since Feb !982 in a one bedroomed flat, and from inside these properties in the western block from the sixth floor, I have found these homes a breath of fresh air from the first I moved in.

    What has bedevilled the blocks is the quality, and the snobbery of the Housing Management of the structure. The probable ascetic values of these people would be a 1930's suburban dwelling that proliferate our suburbs across the Country. [And very practical they are too! With gardens front and rear; plus frequently a parking space.]

    Basically Management has been virtually absent; a typical example of a recent expensive TH Homes Management Fire Escape issues travesty; led to making the rear of flats insecure to impulse theft should someone choose to move behind. And still are! The LDDC (circa 1986-90) renovated the separating doors at the rear of flats; new 1hr fire doors, single directional escape mechanism from a central flat, which was the only one where either direction could be a choice. The Council Officers misunderstood how the concept functioned; believing the system was unsafe, as movement in two directions was not possible. But this very fact of only one direction meant security from theft or voyeurism, "Peeping Tom's", as it was simple to detect from where an intruder had begun their journey. TH Homes officials chose to act alone; failed to consult with long resident occupants. and conducted an expensive waste of taxpayers resources, using labour intensive removal of the expensive Union thumb turn locking mechanism and system. Later due to complaints about the fire doors banging in the wind; they agreed to install push button catches, which are nonetheless insecure and allow anyone to move behind secretly, either of theft or anti-social behaviours. This ineffectual Management series of decisions, is just one example of how they poorly deploy resources; and misdiagnose problems, and the poor decision management processes that they deploy.

    Actual maintenance ceased a long time past, I do not know when; although I do remember men on ropes being deployed from the roof, in order to inspect the concrete quality, and aspects of deterioration. The Smithson's had long sightedly specified stainless steel joint connectors, to reduce aspect of what I understand is 'spalling', a term I have never heard discussed, not have I read, except in this Article in the Architect's Journal.

    Flats like these were designed with the thought that working class people, as had been the tradition, culturally would be in each other's houses [flats] in sociable communication. Sociological studies of the East End (1950-65) spoke generously of the open doors during WW2, and not only in London. These were the purposes behind the Architects Peter and Alison Smithson, who designed/planned this estate, "Streets in the Sky", from liaison with the LCC/GLC Housing Department, and the preliminary work probably was done late '50s early '60s, and public money had to be found during the sixties, and then Planning approval sought, once a site guaranteed. Consequently, much of the substructure could have been designed, to adapt to more hi tech, and geared towards changing technological innovation which was much more evident by the time the scheme was scheduled to commence construction. An example is we use more electrical devices, and use more water to wash clothes, and many want dishwashers, though I hate them.

    This lack of Technological innovation and expectation is at the heart of opposition to living in the block in recent times. This could and should be 'redacted' and some flats could even be knocked into one for example. The point is the Estate has been an innovation, which European, possibly, further afield students have been visiting this building all the period of 33 yrs in which I have occupied these flats. Clearly their Professors have/had a different opinion than TH Council, even Mrs Thatcher who dismissed the GLC; or other small minded, less collegiate, or sociably minded individuals who seek luxury and isolation.

    It is true the lifts are a lesser specification than one would find in a modern office complex. Perhaps this is due to restrictions Government, or Housing Planning demand, due to problems in initial funding outlays.. Another example of penny wise pound foolish. Also the rubbish shutes, chutes, were poorly specified to allow for wider, waste bin plastic liners to fit, and consequently those not wishing to persist, they left them blocked.

    I shall be sorry to leave these walkways where the light from the afternoon/evening sun alters the colours not only in the sky, but upon the shrubs of adjacent estates. The western views could be sought after angles for private flats, above the pollution from vehicles below. The interesting views of the Canary Wharf business and shopping high spec infrastructure should be the example of quality, in so many details, like gates, railings, seating, landscaping, quiet areas, general joinery of window, and elsewhere.

    In the longer term perhaps Govt and Local Auhorities, will realise we live in a World of diminishing returns; we cannot continue to build for obsolescence; construct to destroy with a 25yr turn around. It is just to wasteful. Take the more recent flats being built by developers. Rather sterile, and beige, middle of the road, so as not to offend; lacking personality versus the brutalism of the Smithsons'. How well will these newer, modern facilities last on the landscape; how will they wear, and appear in 20yrs.

    You know, had the Authorities chosen to paint the exterior of Robin Hood Gardens, a Nash magnolia, or a Corboursier white, the brutality of the concrete, which originally was a slight golden colour, not the dirty grey of now, as is true of the South Bank buildings and staircases. Sometimes one has to live long enough to have a perspective through time.

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  • I also am a long term resident of Robin Hood Gardens and agree with everything Nicholas has just stated. The way in which the council carried out its consulatation of residents about regeneration is highly suspect in my opinion. As the intial surveys and resultant reports showed that most 95% of those who chose demolition were under the impression that they would retain council tenancies in the new blocks.

    But the council only report the 80% of residents who chose the demolition option. At the time the option of maintaining the blocks was sold to residents as an option that would mean residents would suffer as a result of this.

    My community was everything to me at one time as it was my home, where my friends lived and were brought up in such a vibrant community.

    What our council and successive politicians have done to some of the poorest residents in England, virtually cleansed an entire community that was safe and happy is a travesty. Now we have crminal lack of basic services leaving the estate now with an increase in ASB, burglaries from people either coming onto the estate or squatters now plaguing the estate.

    Our security systems are now a joke with anybody just able to walk through open security systems that cost tens of thousands to maintain, left now neglected.

    People are now scared on the estate, and I feel after watching other regenerations that the absense of any and all security is just another policy of the regeneration/gentrification bandwagon. Ultimately to remove the last remaining residents.

    Please, please, please all you people in the field put pressure on the government to list the buildings and save our homes and our remaining commjunity.

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