Save Robin Hood Gardens? You must be joking!

Is the architectural profession really so flush with time and ennui that it has nothing more significant to work itself up into a lather about than indulging in nostalgic support for a failed urban idea and some of its more misery-inducing spawn? What credibility can there be in a publication such as Building Design which heaps attention on the (Woodrow) Wilsonian neo-gothic temporary university home for the privileged AND the (Harold) Wilsonian concrete deck-access permanent housing for the underprivileged in the same 29 February issue? It has long been my suspicion that the more self-regarding post-war British housing schemes were really a form of class war by other means conducted by the ideologically blinkered, and BD’s current campaign to ‘save’ Robin Hood Gardens has only served to confirm the detachment from reality which has long been the hallmark of the architectural press.

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12 Responses to Save Robin Hood Gardens? You must be joking!

  1. Pingback: CONTINUITY IN ARCHITECTURE » Blog Archive » Robin Hood Gardens again

  2. seier+seier says:

    what about continuity in architecture? the title of your blog might suggest that the modernist tabula rasa was a mistake, yet here you are, ready to repeat.

  3. seier+seier says:

    and what about heritage. your museums are full of other countries’ stolen heritage, and here you are, unable to take care of your own. how are we to trust you with ours?

  4. seier+seier says:

    coming from a very small country, I do believe there is such a thing as failing honourably. it comes with trying against all odds, applying all your talent, the impossible.

    it could also be known as social housing…

    I’ll take the brains and balls of the smithsons anytime against the blandness of british architecture today.

  5. seier+seier says:

    what would be built instead?




    well, congrats to london

  6. seier+seier says:

    i wonder what you guys would have said about lewerentz, had he been british…you would have seen right through him, you would.


  7. Eamonn Canniffe says:

    One at a time, please!

    Point by point replles –

    I often think tradition as tabula rasa is my particular genius loci. Well spotted.

    At what point did the Smithsons claim they were producing the heritage of the future. Why should we now regard it as so and require people to live in it?

    Its very much a London media problem. We in Manchester had the good sense to demolish most of our deck access housing more than 15 years ago.

    For habitation people need houses, not monuments to the architectural ego.

    Lewerentz is a god – the Smithsons are idols.

  8. seier+seier says:

    when you work with social housing and – more to the point – with the refurbishment of or reinvestment into areas of social housing, you learn that the residents don’t hate the projects: its their home. they have practical issues for sure, but the hating is mostly done by outsiders, men and women of taste, like yourself.

    what is equally interesting is that they don’t expect the buildings to solve their social problems, being well aware that their social problems are just that.

    it is really odd, though, this spiteful attitude towards your finest architects, which you find a lot in england. you also still tear down stirling buildings instead of fixing them. it is baffling to the outsider how provincial england sometimes becomes at the hands of the english.

    or maybe not so odd. and not so particularly english.

    utzon did hardly any buildings in denmark, and lewerentz withdrew from his career half way through having been met in sweden with an attitude much like the one you are presenting. in oslo, sverre fehn was deeply resented by his colleagues at the very school of architecture which he defined for decades.

    it is not as if england is overflowing with modernist masterpieces, but your so-called idols did at least two: the economist building and the upper lawn pavillion. these works are universally admired – outside britain, anyway. robin hood gardens is not, it remains instead a difficult and problematic work but one infinitely more ambitious and interesting than most of what you’ve got from that period and well worth standing up for, fixing, and keeping.

    I recommend maintenance, btw. it is a foreign concept, I know, but it works frightfully well with buildings.

    apologies for not replying point by point. I didn’t understand all your answers. the sheer resentment behind the words “a london media problem” and “we in manchester” came across well, though. I grew up in a small town too.

  9. Dominic Roberts says:

    May I offer my opinion from the safety of an even smaller city? I believe RHG is bad not only because it was badly constructed and maintained (even the roof of my Georgian house leaks, particularly around the chimney stacks) but because it is a failed model for housing. Worse than that it is a model for housing that was copied on other sites in Britain. These schemes were not chosen by their residents, they were generally filled by people with no choice. This is obviously a political and societal problem and I can understand that architects and urbanists can fail through the best of intentions to make a place better but do they really have to make things worse? Similar schemes in Manchester (a big city) had flats and maisonettes (duplexes) with brilliant internal space standards, but they were sink estates within 10 years of completion (and occupied by a transient population, including students like me who could choose to leave). Worst of all was the urban model; large green spaces with mounds (made using the rubble following the previous tabula rasa?), mechanistic separation of traffic and pedestrians, barren so-called ‘streets in the sky’ freely accessible only to criminals, non-defensible space; urine and disinfectant soaked stairwells, broken lifts. Bloody awful when you think about it.

    I have no problem with the idea of adaptive reuse of RHG if it can be achieved (these structures never struck me as being particularly adaptable). Because of the petitioning of 1000+ architects RHG may be ‘listed’ as a building of historical importance. If it is listed it could still be changed or demolished but only after official consent was given. But I really think the Smithsons are overrated (why were they never again commissioned to design public housing? Not even in mainland Europe). Stirling was an infinitely better architect despite his well publicised difficulties (the tribulations of his Runcorn and Preston housing are documented in two posts on this site). See also Preston Bus Station (by BDP), the only remaining building of any significance built in that town since the war. There are ironies and ambiguities in all these stories. Would I have liked to live in a city constructed by Asplund and Lewerentz? Their cities for the dead are some of the greatest places I have visited. I don’t know what their public housing would have been like.

    In the post above I’ve included some links to other sites sceptical about the push for canonisation. Hugh Pearman, who is quite scathing about the Smithsons, has signed the BD petition for listing!

  10. prettygirlsmakegraves says:

    I appreciate the question of RHG’s architectural design merit, and perhaps even its ability to function in 2008 as housing, but I am not convinced that it should be knocked down to make way for a bland scheme we architect will inevitably trash in 30 years’ time.

    IMHO, it’s not that much of an eyesore, or it wouldn’t be, on a sunny day with a lick of paint, maybe some planting. It’s far less offensive, in fact, than many of the social schemes currently kicking around Manchester. Can we not find a sustainable argument for its retention, rather than dismissing it as generally disliked?

    I don’t, however, think it should be listed at the architects’ say-so. Make them live in it and see how much they like it then. This I would do all-too-gladly, although it would be a bastard of a commute.

    Crux of my argument? Can we use less energy and money making a vast building effective and attractive, rather than knocking it down for anything resembling a gherkin, or covered in trespa cladding?

  11. Eamonn Canniffe says:

    The question of RHG’s potential sustainability is moot. It would surely require a very radical refit – expensive – and visually destructive of the original image of the buildings which the heritagistas are trying to achieve. Doesn’t this just take us back to the original conundrum – why pretend to ‘save’ something which you will end up obliterating. Of course Park Hill will provide us with a model to follow…doh!

  12. Dominic Roberts says:

    A good link to residents’ pictures and memories of Park Hill, Sheffield

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