Saturday, March 1, 2008

Robin Hood Robin Hood, With Your Band of Men

Am I alone in being, at best, agnostic about Robin Hood Gardens and Building Design'scampaign to save it from demolition. A few things worry me about this campaign, some of which are:

1. I’m always suspicious when architects rally together. It always spells nepotistic self interest. Witness Denise Scott Brown (who I’m a big fan of otherwise) suggesting Robin Hood Gardens should be saved in order to initiate a reappraisal of the Smithson’s legacy. The canon of architecture and the Smithsons’ place within it are therefore more important than the residents who live there. Note to architects: it’s not always about you!

2. BD’s ‘statistics’ that residents want to keep the building are, if anything, even more unjustified and dubious than English Partnerships’ ‘statistics’ that those same residents want to demolish it. I can’t help but think that the resident’s genuine wishes are being manipulated by both sides.

3. Richard Rogers apparently objects to the over densification of EP’s proposals (do these exist? Are they real?) which is a bit steep coming from someone who has been preaching the gospel of inner city densification for the past decade.

4. Were the Smithsons actually that good? I know I know, I am a big fan of the Independent Group and the Smithsons definitely said some interesting things but the buildings? I’ve visited a few of them in my time, went to the exhibition of their work at the Design Museum and mostly they strike me as pretty strange rather than actually all that great.

5. Weren’t the Smithson’s and their generation quite against the preservation of old architecture for the sake of it? I’m not pro-demolition of anything, quite the opposite, but I find it a bit rich being lectured on conservation by tabula rasa Modernists.

6. The comparison of Robin Hood gardens with Bath’s Royal Crescent is bollocks.
Modern architects went through a phase of making comparisons to classical architecture, usually on the most spurious grounds. This has always seemed to me a particularly crass and pointless example of it.

7. What is being protected here? The failings of the architecture profession?

8. I’ve nothing against streets in the air. I live in a pre-fabricated block of flats with open deck access. It’s considerably less horrible than Robin Hood Gardens though.

9. Next door to Robin Hood Gardens is Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower. It’s better in every conceivable way.

10. I have never met anyone who isn’t an architect who likes it. Now, that could either mean than all my friends are philistines or that Robin Hood Gardens isn’t actually very nice.


owen hatherley said...

1 and 2 are very fair points, and I'm a little uncomfortable reading lots of the contributions on that petition (the Brunswick or Keeling being held up as models, rather than exemplars of class cleansing for instance) - the unspoken implication being 'well, what if architects lived there rather than these ungrateful Bengalis?' However you surely know how incredibly skewed these sort of consultations are. I'd imagine that the likely opinion of most residents would be that they'd rather be in a place with facilities, decent upkeep, without grimy concrete. However what follows RHG will almost certainly have smaller, much more badly planned flats, less blockage of traffic noise (a major factor indeed on that site), less space - and I somehow doubt that'll be on the consultation balance sheet. That's if they're not shipped off to the Thames Gateway whichever option gets ticked, which would not be atypical.
3. Don't be gauche. This is a building which contains within it a huge open space, right next to Canary Wharf. If that space isn't filled in in English Partnerships' proposals then I'll eat my floppy fringe.
4. Why does 'strange' negate 'good'?
5. the Smithsons were active in the campaign to save the Euston Arch, so were lacking in this kind of Marinettian fervour.
6. it's semi-bollocks. It does twist around in a crescentish shape around an open space.
8. Cripes, you're not in the Barbican are you? Now if RHG had that kind of upkeep and money sloshing around...
10. I'm not an architect, and I like it a lot.

Eamonn Canniffe said...

‘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 Princeton 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.

Charles Holland said...


some fair comments I guess and yes I am normally a fan of strange buildings, more so than I am of great ones really, so its an odd comment for me to make but I just don't think its a very good building and i question it's iconic status within the profession. those b/w images of french film stars standing moodily on balconies over bombed out east london get me too but i suspect its these that everyone wants to save and not the (grim) reality. and its the rallying around one of our chaps that i find so problematic and myopic about this campaign. as you say, turning it into another keeling house merely pushes away the problem of decent housing for non affluent people unable to choose to live in retro moderne splendour. it extends the idea that social housing and architecture are for the aesthetic pleasure of architects (and non-architects ok)and 'our' preferences should be shared by all right thinking people. and no, i don't live in the barbican!

and Eamonn, i'm not sure BD loses credibility for covering both Princeton and RHG. are you suggesting that buildings by 'privileged' institutions should not be written about!?

owen hatherley said...

no, i don't live in the barbican

Good, I thought that would have been an aesthetic inconsistency!

I was really surprised by the campaign as it happens - I'd always assumed that The Profession regarded RHG as a failure, and it gets far less attention than Economist, Hunstanton or all the unbuilt things: when I wrote about it a couple of years ago the only decent discussion of it I could find was by some Dutchman whose name I forget...Certainly I didn't think it ever became 'iconic', but then I only know a couple of architects.

Eamonn Canniffe said...


The loss of credibility derives from BD's inability to appreciate the different agendas they apply to different social classes. Are we supposed to believe that there's no party line lurking beneath their campaign?

Charles Holland said...

heaven forbid there should be aesthetic inconsistency!

it raises an interesting point though. wasn't one of the criticisms of the Smithson's generation that they all lived in Bloomsbury and designed places like Runcorn? perhaps the opposite is the case today.

owen hatherley said...

I always thought the 'they live in Georgian terraces and design brutalist monsters!' argument a bit misbegotten - after all, in the '30s Modernism in Britain was an almost exclusively bourgeois phenomenon. It was more a question of space and place, really, viz the argument that Goldfinger should have stayed in Balfron Tower rather than moved back to his house in Hampstead. Generally most people who have the choice of living there or in Poplar aren't going to choose the latter. Now it's a question of it going full circle I think, after an interregnum of social housing and socialist aspirations (which needless to say I think more noble than what preceded and succeeded it).

Molly Steenson said...

The Smithsons *were* strange and in many ways were outliers in terms of their work. It's also worth considering Alison Smithson's suppression of other architects with whom she worked -- she effectively struck James Stirling from CIAM and Team X's record (see notes in the Team X catalog to this effect). And yet, they were utterly compelling, I think, in the way they communicated their thoughts on design.

Goldfinger's Corb-influenced, prefabricated legacy has longer fingers than you might expect -- he was a mentor of Cedric Price, who happened to date his daughter Liz for several years. Price assisted Goldfinger on his contribution to This is Tomorrow in 1956 (he was 22 or so at the time), the same show in which he met engineer Frank Newby, a lifelong collaborator.

I'm not British, I don't know Robin Hood Gardens in its context. I wonder about Stirling's Runcorn, which was by many accounts awful (and yet its images also weirdly compelling -- the third time in this comment I'm using that word). Would we want them in another decade? In the US, we're destroying Paul Rudolph's and Kevin Roche's work because of taste -- is that something different? Or is the Robin Hood Gardens insidious in a Pruitt-Igoe kind of way?

Charles Holland said...


that's interesting. i think, incidentally, that the implications of individual friendships and personal dislikes highlighted by your comment is something that architectural criticism usually ignores, or thinks trivial. the who knew who, who dated who stuff. i can only think of Charles Jencks' book on Corb as being one that takes the personality of the architect seriously as something pertinent to their design activities. and beatriz colomina's stuff on Corb too I guess. something to do with architectural insecurity over being seen as trivial i suspect.

and incidentally i saw paul rudolph's car park in new haven recently and was blown away by it. totally knock out! never really been into him before but he is king of the brutalists for me now. as a fan of the venturi's it was interesting to see how good rudolph's work was despite the kicking it gets in their learning from las vegas etc.

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