Don’t be brutal to Robin Hood Gardens

solar pavilion

Some suggest that Alison and Peter Smithson were the first examples of starchitecture, as Norman Blogster calls the “more PR than architecture” careers of stylists like Hadid and Liebeskind. But when our reader Kristian Seier challenged us to find something bad to say about the Upper Lawn Pavilion (later known as the Solar Pavilion), their holiday house built in the early 1960s, we realised we’d simply forgotten that it existed.

solar pavilion

Which is inexcusable because not only is it one of the most admirable of the 20th century’s many glass box houses, it is also a rare example of adaptive reuse by great modernist architects whose attitude we admire even when we find their large projects unlovable.

Writing about the restoration of the Solar Pavilion, Jane Withers in The Observer tells us:

The Smithsons bought the property in 1958, part of a group of farm buildings including a stone cottage that had been served with a demolition order. Instead of razing the existing building, the new two-storey pavilion is superimposed on parts of the old structure. The old stone doesn’t just give texture to the new building – it also makes us look at the past with fresh eyes, as old parts are found in surprising places. A massive chimney wall – once the end wall of the cottage – now cuts through the upper and lower living spaces. The outdoor terrace was once inside the old house, so that a cottage window is now set in the garden wall to playful and slightly surreal effect.
The remains of the original cottage not only provide a framework to anchor the new wood and glass structure, they also root the new building in the local history. It is a wonderful illustration of the Smithsons’ ‘as found’ theory, where instead of the earlier modernist pursuit of gleaming newness, the architects reuse and reinvent the existing….
The startling aspect of Solar Pavilion is its utter basicness.
A few years earlier, in 1956, for the seminal pop art exhibition This is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, the Smithsons contributed Patio and Pavilion, a shed made of second-hand wood and a corrugated plastic roof. They intended it to be read as a symbolic habitat embracing what they considered basic human needs – a piece of ground, a view of the sky, privacy, the presence of nature. Solar Pavilion embodies such thinking about the fundamentals that nourish not just man’s physical but also spiritual needs.

“Reuse and reinvent the existing’? Doesn’t that sound like the perfect description of what we are on about?

solar pavilion
Ioana Marinescu)

During the restoration in 2003 Sergison Bates had to add a kitchen and heating – apparently man’s physical needs did not extend to heating, stoves (they cooked on a fire outside) or beds (they slept on mattresses on the floor upstairs), a lifestyle Allison Smithson described as “camping in the landscape”.

solar pavilion
Ioana Marinescu)

She documented their trips to the house in her solipsistic book AS in DS (ie Alison Smithson in her Citroen DS). Wendy, who hates camping, is horrified by this while I find it incredibly admirable, it appeals to some deep spiritual need of mine. Or maybe I’m just a jaded dilettante and so were they, but I don’t think so. The point is that unlike the starchitects they were never about style, they were about solutions to problems of living.

And that led to their theory of “streets in the air”, based on their opposition to modernist planning that carved cities up into quarantined functional areas.

As younger members of CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne) and, by 1956, as founding members of Team 10, they were at the heart of the debate on the future course of modern architecture, demonstrating a broad concern in the social environment and advocating for buildings that were specific to their location and purpose. Rather than the CIAM understanding that cities should be zoned into specific areas for living, working, leisure, and transport, the Smithsons argued in favor of mixed use within the same area. They conceived mid-rise housing as ‘streets in the air’ to encourage sentiments of belonging and neighborliness, rather than isolated slab-like towers. They believed these goals could be achieved at differing levels of human association: house, street, district and city. (Harvard University Library Smithson Archive)

Unfortunately, when they tried to put it into practice the result was Robin Hood Gardens.

robin hood gardens

Doomed from the start by a bad location, poor construction and dysfunctional welfare tenants, the streets in the air only facilitated criminal activity. The project turned into a high profile disaster and their careers crashed.

robin hood gardens

But looking back on it, the theory still seems sound.

And now Robin Hood Gardens is threatened with demolition. If it goes, their only remaining major projects will be Hunstanton School and the Economist Plaza.

Robin Hood Gardens looks shabby but so do Zaha Hadid’s buildings already,

robin hood gardens

that’s what happens to buildings if you don’t maintain them.

Since Erno Goldfinger’s equally dysfunctional Trellick Tower has now become a fairly desirable residence could a similar outcome be possible with Robin Hood Gardens? The current residents love it even if it is noisy, run down

robin hood gardens

and generally intimidating in its grimness. It’s a potentially divisive question even in this household on the other side of the world, Wendy says knock it down, I say no. And since I’m writing this and she’s not, I’ll commend BD’s on-line petition to you where you can sign up with your fellow luminaries to petition for its listing and preservation.

And just remember this quote, at CIAM’s 1953 Congress the Smithsons wrote:

“Belonging’ is a basic emotional need – its associations are of the simplest order. From ‘belonging’ – identity – comes the enriching sense of neighbourliness. The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where spacious redevelopment frequently fails.”


  1. David Hicks
    Posted 7 Mar ’08 at 3:17 am | Permalink

    Of course Robin Hood Gardens must be saved. Not only because the Smithsons were brilliant (and my heroes when studying in the 50s) but because it is simply unecological to destroy housing stock and rebuild. This causes huge pollution and waste. Look at Corb’s Unite at Marseille. Previously widely condemned, I learnt on a recent visit it is now the place for professionals to live!

  2. Harry
    Posted 2 Dec ’08 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Certainly would be wasteful to demolish it, but I don’t like it as it is.
    Brighten it up in the spirit of Hundertwasser!

  3. Andrew
    Posted 27 Mar ’09 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    Demolishing it is a travesty. Why? It doesn’t have to be ugly. Give it some color, accentuate the architectural highlights, let it stand out as a beacon rather than a blight. Label it blight, and that’s what people will think. Lend it some illumination and thinking changes. The place needs a light color scheme, so that at night it isn’t just people’s yellow-lit windows. See for painted color, see for illumination.

  4. Markitect
    Posted 26 Nov ’09 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    “But looking back on it, the theory still seems sound.”

    Well if your theory doesn’t work it isn’t sound.

    They said:
    “Belonging’ is a basic emotional need – its associations are of the simplest order. From ‘belonging’ – identity – comes the enriching sense of neighbourliness. The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where spacious redevelopment frequently fails.”

    Slums are so-called because they are dirty, cramped and unsafe…just like Robin Hood Gardens! The idea that streets could be detached from the urban infrastructure and transplanted several stories up could never work in a social welfare scheme…were they planning on housing local bobbies on their “streets in the sky”?
    It smacks of the usual middle-class-architect-preaching-to-the-lowly-worker; CIAM with a poorly developed notion of how communities actually function tacked on. Modernism + populism = winning entry!
    To even compare it to the Unite is pretty unfair to Corb, who I’d consider a bit of a chancer anyway. The Unite is pretty, and it works. RHG is ugly and doesn’t work at all!

  5. colin oakford
    Posted 16 Aug ’10 at 2:39 am | Permalink

    Now that there are intelligent (a bit more) politicians around why not get at that original
    decision to demolish It must be saved.
    As one comment says the UNITE of Corbusier in Merseille, was built as a council housing
    project and now is at the top end of the private ownership market. Reze in Nantes is the
    same history only it keeps a part as social housing and is well loved.
    Nobody is asking the Council officials to live at Robin Hood but let those who do make the
    decisions. and quick.

  6. dave
    Posted 29 Nov ’10 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Swan Housing have entered the race to regenerate Robin Hood Gardens. Residents on other Swan Housing estates are not always happy with this RSL. See link below.

One Trackback

  1. By The Grinning Smithsons | on 10 Sep ’08 at 12:33 am

    […] The whole project is near to, and reminiscent of, their own weekender, the refreshingly ascetic Upper Lawn Pavilion. It’s hard to imagine a more exciting prospect for adaptive reuse – beautiful (in a rustic […]

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