There’s an extraordinary - and rather British, I must say - kerfuffle going on over the future of the Robin Hood Gardens estate in London at the moment. Essentially, the building, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson (aka The Smithsons) and completed in 1972, is in danger of being pulled down. Margaret Hodge, a UK culture minister, appeared to back the demolition of such buildings, suggesting a digital model could capture the essence of a building in its stead. She said:
“When some concrete monstrosity — sorry, I mean modernist masterpiece — fails to make the cut despite having expert opinion behind it, let’s find a third way. This is the 21st century — a perfect digital image of the building, inside and out, could be retained forever.”
In rides Building Design magazine on a white horse, and they launch a campaign to instead have the building renovated and cared for, for perhaps the first time in its existence.
I left London before I got to experience Robin Hood Gardens in the flesh, but work of The Smithsons is fascinating, for both their thinking and practice (such as the Economist building in central London, which I have experienced), as well as their ongoing influence. Along with Cedric Price, Reyner Banham, Archigram and a few others, they provide a historical framework for much of the technologically-enabled and culturally-informed best practice of today.
Robin Hood Gardens (RHG), in an area of East London so historically rich you can almost hear the psychogeographers whispering, is essentially a concrete megastructure housing project that’s been in need of such attention for most of its life. Carelessly built and serviced, the design never stood a chance.
Long before the GLC disappeared, TLC for buildings like RHG had disappeared. Recently, a handful of property developers have discerned the public appreciation of brutalism moving in the right direction, but at glacial speed. Here, demolition plans appear to be moving a little too quickly, nosing well ahead of public opinion and this critical rearguard.
But Building Design is quite right to point out the importance of the building in terms of design history, and also its latent opportunities for re-development (and the problematic process going on around the building). There’s nothing inherently flawed in such structures—and of course Hodge’s line about concrete is extremely revealing, as is the subtle giveaway of a very British insecurity over ‘expertise’. With some of that expertise, allied to willpower and a smarter framework that sees the development as an ongoing bit of work, Robin Hood Gardens can be turned around, and should provide a counterpoint to some of the lazier development blighting that part of London.
Listen to one of the current residents, admittedly thrust forward by BD, on the RHG’s units:
“When this was first built it was very modern and people were fighting to get in here. It was very cleverly built,” she says. The way it has upside down maisonettes, you never hear noise from anyone else. And the nice thing is that every room has plenty of light — one wall is all windows and you’re not looking into someone else’s house. I don’t think these people who are proposing thousands of new homes for this site have a clue.”
RHG needs a lot of work but it is an eminently saveable building.
I’m not in favour of preservation for the sake of it. We should demolish buildings that have outlasted their use, and replace with better or more suited to the needs of the time. These new buildings should have a sense of their likely life-span. (Cedric Price was once asked what to do about York Minster, and he replied “flatten it”. Buildings that have outlasted their use should be disposed of “like a worn-out pair of Hush Puppies”, he suggested.)
But RHG is important is in at least three ways, particularly in the context of Britain: an example of British modernism (and local culture needs more working examples of this), ambition and optimism (ditto, described by Peter Cook as “strange English romantic”) and apartment-based, high-density, affordable housing (ditto again, and that passes the CP test, as many cities need good examples of this more than ever.)
Building Design’s campaign has already drawn in an extraordinary list of support, almost a who’s who of contemporary architecture and urbanism. While their simple comments-based petition system is not exactly watertight, it appears to be hugely successful in terms of garnering a groundswell of opinion.
It’s odd to see one’s name alongside that of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Zaha Hadid, Tony Fretton, Alain de Botton, Patrick Keiller, Benedetta Tagliabue, William Menking, Peter Cook, Iain Borden, William Mitchell, Joel Sanders, Stefano Boeri, Joseph Rykwert, Hugh Pearman, M Christine Boyer, Toyo Ito, Richard Meier, Ricky Burdett, Ted Cullinan, Kenneth Frampton, and hundreds of others. (You can sign the petition here, before March 7th) (See also Richard Rogers, who has written to the culture secretary Andy Burnham, and BD's and The Guardian's Jonathan Glancey.)
Sensing they’re onto a winner in terms of their relevance and influence, and maybe saving the building while they’re at it, Building Design is ramping up their activity, publishing article after article. It’s great to see an architectural magazine trying to make a difference in such concrete (ahem) fashion. Given the issues with existing built fabric in our cities—far more problematic in terms of sustainability than new building stock—you almost wonder whether campaigns such as these are the contemporary equivalent of Arts & Architecture’s pioneering Case Study Home program of an earlier age. I wonder what The Sesquipedalist will make of it?
Alan Powers presents the most informed view on the issues of listing and renovation of such buildings, so allow me a lengthy quote:
“On most counts, Robin Hood Gardens should be a prime candidate for listing. It is the only housing built by architects who devoted much of their lives to the discussion of dwelling at various scales. Among architectural thinkers around the world today, these architects are seen as the most important to have worked in Britain in their generation. This is heavy weight to put against counter-claims that the buildings were not built as first designed, and experienced social teething problems owing to the almost universal post-industrial problems of the early 1970s in Britain.”
“Emphasis should be put on the place-making quality of this housing, heroic towards the Blackwell Tunnel approach, embracing towards the nurturing mounds of the green space between the snaking block, where a big sky opens amid the scattered street patterns of the East End. As for resident satisfaction, the present Bangladeshi population seems to have no problem about inhabiting these monumental cliffs, in a way that the Smithsons would surely have recognised as a fulfilment of their intentions.”
“This is no Holly Street or Aylesbury Estate, best destined for the dustbin. The pressure is on, and someone must decide whether or not we are going to look like international idiots who let Robin Hood Gardens fall prey to the bland machinery that calls itself “regeneration”, while effacing the useable legacy of the welfare state.“
The Park Hill flats in Sheffield indicate a partial precedent for Robin Hood Gardens. Also inspired by similar precedents, they were built in 1961 from designs by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, on the site of tenements so rough they were known as ‘Little Chicago’ in the 1930s. Unfortunately, that malaise didn’t seep clear of the ground with the destruction of the tenements, and seems to have carried over into the new development. And particularly when the British lack of facility with delivering modernism—save a few shining examples—led inexorably to poor implementation, careless use of materials, and little ongoing servicing. And thus, the flats quickly gained an unsavoury reputation.
When I were a lad in the Sheffield of the early 1980s (cue Hovis commercial), the Park Hill flats were the stuff of legend. Playgrounds would buzz with lurid stories of what happened over at Park Hill—and the city’s other high-rise social housing, at Kelvin and Hyde Park. The story I remember is disappointingly tame: of a TV set being chucked out of a window from one of the higher storeys, my mind’s eye constructing the slow heavy fall and sudden implosion on concrete. It was as if simply living there was like being in a cold, damp Northern version of Beirut under siege, glancing nervously up at the silvery sky as you scurry between blocks, darting for cover and hoping not to see the silent, graceful arc of a television approaching your head. It wasn’t like that, of course, though it was certainly not pleasant (As with RHG, Ian R. Taylor, in a book I once reviewed, did find firm evidence of ‘community’ there nonetheless.)
Photo by Lee Gardland.
I visited once, going to see my first girlfriend’s grandmother, high up in one of the blocks. I don’t remember much detail, but I do remember how distinctly different it felt to the suburban late-1890s semi I was living in over the other side of the city. Not better or worse, just different way of housing, subtly reinforcing the importance of these developments in Victorian cities.
The OU’s From Here To Modernity site has a decent account of the history, if in need of an update:
“Park Hill was awarded a Grade 2* listing in 1998. Although an important milestone in the development of Modernist housing theory in post-war Britain, the public incredulity which greeted the award spoke volumes about the success of Park Hill and its 'streets in the sky'.”
Public incredulity knows no bounds of course, particularly when stoked up by an architecturally short-sighted British media. Ill-considered lists of Britain’s most hated buildings hardly help. (How is Channel 4's Demolition progressive broadcasting, exactly?). In this sense, Building Design’s primitive petition with its untidy collision of expertise and punter, is perhaps far more democratic form than Demolition, even given that it’s preaching to the converted?)
Now, the Park Hill flats are being ‘re-made in Sheffield’ (clever, that) by developers Urban Splash. Europe’s largest listed building—which is an odd honour really—will be re-vamped to provide nearly 1000 apartments close to the city centre, with a third affordable and two-thirds, well, un-affordable presumably. (It’s the presence of the latter that will shift public opinion round on the matter, you watch.) Lee Garland’s photography, if a little sombre, indicates the muscular presence of the building—even more so when you see it in situ, banked back on the hill overlooking the central train station and city centre. It’s a powerful building, and with the care and attention that Urban Splash could lavish on it, it’s easy to imagine the building transformed.
I’ve seen many of Urban Splash’s conversions, particularly their early work amidst Manchester’s former textile warehouses and mills in the mid-’90s, and its interesting to see them now taking on brutalism—perhaps instead of those rather 'easier' warehouse conversions (which may be desirable now, but were also marked for demolition a generation earlier, apparently beyond redemption.)
Elsewhere in Britain, the Brunswick Centre in London, covered here before, may need more careful curation in its choice of retail and services, and a little more openness, but is full of life for the first time in years and seems to be working. Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower has also gone from “eyesore” to “desirable” in the last decade. The Barbican and South Bank still feature in those ugly contests, but are increasingly being recognised as the gems they are.
Park Hill benefits from proximity to its city centre, a short walk away. As with the Brunswick, Barbican, Trellick and many others, being surrounded by good urban fabric helps. It’s a simple note, but absolutely key, and remains a problem in the case of Robin Hood Gardens. The surrounding context also needs to be addressed for the building to work—social, informational and physical—for this kind of high density living can easily reinforce an urban core, and is less well suited to the being sited on a periphery. East London has enough presence for it to work, and RHG is connected to the centre(s) of London fairly well but it will need careful local orchestration nonetheless.
Yet it can still work there. Wöhnpark Alt-Erlaa is situated outside the centre of Vienna, but with enough inherent density to anchor itself. That’s the promise of the megastructure. It’s on a different, more ambitious scale—it contains no fewer than 5 schulen, 4160 balkone and 7 schwimmbäder, most on the dach—and that, plus the integrated U-bahn, would make all the difference.
It does, of course, appear to be extremely well-built, benefiting from the Mittel-European comfort with aligning modernism and craft that was all but alien to Britain. Most of all, it will be well-run too, with a mix of residents (it's not strictly social housing). Again, the ongoing servicing and maintenance of these buildings—of both built and social fabric—will make the difference.
Back to RHG, and Stephen Bayley weighed in too, noting that “Robin Hood Gardens has been a social calamity” and reiterating that the Smithsons’ building was indeed flawed, but those flaws were embedded by the builders.
“Alas, their architectural reach exceeded the grasp of the builders and Robin Hood Gardens suffered from the start with a singular lack of commodity and firmness …”
He’s rather brutal himself, no pun intended, when apparently suggesting that the building rather suffered from its tenants:
“As Marx asked, does consciousness determine existence or does existence determine consciousness? Or to put it less correctly, do the pigs make the sty or does the sty make the pigs?”
Personally, I suspect the tenants were let down by the implementation of the building, and lack of ongoing service—as well as the post-industrial context Powers refers to—rather than any inherent piggery.
“(But) Margaret Hodge's remarks about concrete are ignorant prejudice. Concrete is a fine material, but needs maintenance and care as much as marble and oak need maintenance and care.”
Too right. And so to those comments of Margaret Hodge, and particularly her idea of preserving the building through a digital model. Here, again, is what she said (in Grand Designs magazine, an organ that could be considered the most influential British architectural periodical of its day. BD reproduced the article.)
“When some concrete monstrosity—sorry, I mean modernist masterpiece—fails to make the cut despite having expert opinion behind it, let’s find a third way. This is the 21st century—a perfect digital image of the building, inside and out, could be retained forever.”
Leaving aside her value judgement on modernism—which speaks volumes—and the cultural relativism elsewhere in the article that underpins her notion that modern architecture shouldn’t be judged in the same way that 'historical' structures are, it’s this ‘digital image’ comment I find fascinating.
First of all, that particular train of thought could obviously be applied to any building. If I decided, say, that Tower Bridge or all of Poundbury were particular eyesores, would they too be replaced by digital models? Bayley spots this a mile off:
“The minister herself declares that historical purposes may be served by a detailed digital record of the building, an argument which could, I think, with equal force be applied to Uppark, Windsor Castle or Stonehenge.”
So leaving aside Hodge’s peculiar notion that most of Britain’s heritage could instead be experienced as some kind of Second Life island, perhaps like Orange County’s ‘Wee Britain’ or ‘Thames Town’ in Shanghai, one also wonders whether she had lunch with someone from Autodesk that week.
You might expect City of Sound to be the kind of place that extolled the virtues of digital modelling, and indeed building information modeling (BIM) and computer-aided design (CAD) are revolutionising the practice of building, this before their benefits are yet to be fully realised. Increasingly tidying up the more inefficient and unsustainable practices of construction, once BIM truly extends into four dimensions, generating and broadcasting data about the ongoing use, servicing and adaptation of a building (incl. delivering the instructions for its ultimate de-construction and recycling) a more sustainable form of construction can be realised. And once the building becomes a platform for other communication, from personal to civic, and if that scales up to a neighbourhood and city level, then we’re really going places.
But I don’t think Hodge is talking about that. I think she imagines some kind of 3D fly-through. Perhaps wearing goggles. But she, and we, should be clear about the limits of models too. In no way do they—and we can even say, will they—approach the experience of a building. Simple as that. A cursory reading of Pallasmaa will make that clear. Few models can deal with the peripheral, never mind the multi-sensory experience of being there, and never mind the multi-layered historical weight of a place or space. Digging further into her Merleau-Ponty isn’t something I imagine Hodge does of an evening, any more than I do, but if she were to, she might reconsider her strategy of replacing buildings with “digital records”.
Experiencing a building in the flesh is so different to constructing and studying a digital model, that it’s frightening that Hodge —a culture minister—could even think to suggest it.
I recall walking into a small, very old cathedral in Milanese side-street, I think, lured by the sound of the choir, and once inside I hear their voices conjoin with the wails of black-clad kneeling women, rocking backwards and forwards near the altar, and sensing the sheer physical presence of that sculpted block of sound hanging in the rafters of the immense vaulted roof over my head, light puncturing the gloom through stained-glass windows and illuminating the sparkling motes of cool dust floating around me, some microscopic elements falling on to my tongue and fusing taste and smell with those being inhaled in my nostrils, the interior rushing away from my body as I begin to stand upright and breathe it all in, having ducked through the small threshold into its cavernous innards, my eyes adjusting to the gloom and slowly revealing the detail in the polished wooden pews that a million hands before mine had touched. All that, and more that I don’t have the words to describe, in a transition from outside to in, over a few seconds … And equivalent sensations might be enjoyed in a grain elevator, a converted power station, a public administration building, a swimming pool, a side street of SoHo at midnight, a small house in Tokyo in the early morning, a square in Melbourne at midday, a summer house in Finland at dusk, or in practically any kind of building. You will have your own examples.
Well, I’m sure a digital model will exist for that church in Milan, but I’m not sure I’ll get that same sensation when I click on it.
Let’s quickly put to bed this idea of digital models replacing a building. They can augment a building, and are certainly invaluable in design processes, ongoing running of buildings, education, heritage and a thousand other worthwhile pursuits. But they are not simulacra, for buildings exist.
Well done to Building Design for bringing this sorry bit of politics to the foreground of at least the architectural press, and good luck to them with their campaign. As a fan of the Smithsons’ thinking, and of several of their buildings, I'd like to see this pioneering architecture cared for.
Here’s the bullet-pointed version that cabinet ministers may be more used to:
- Park Hill, Brunswick, Trellick, South Bank, and Barbican all show that British modernist buildings that were once though beyond salvation can be turned around.
- Other high-density housing megastructures elsewhere indicate they can be done well in the first place, if carefully constructed and serviced.
- Concrete is one of the most useful, pleasing and thrilling of materials.
- Digital models have immense value, but not as replacements for buildings.