Is there anything left to say about Robin Hood Gardens? No other project by Alison and Peter Smithson – in fact, in recent years no other building in London – has been picked over quite so voraciously by architects, critics, heritage bodies, developers, councillors and residents. When this much-maligned housing estate in Poplar was first mooted for demolition in 2008, there ensued a two-year rugby match between believers and atheists. This frenzy of “should-we-shouldn’t-we?” ended – I almost wrote “predictably” but in fact it still came as a shock – with a victory for the non-believers and the promise of the wrecking ball.
As residents wait to be “decanted” out of their silty bottle into new buildings to the north of the site, I ask myself what Robin Hood Gardens represents. Is it just a high-profile victim of a process that has been underway for the last three decades? By which I mean, does it represent the tragic loss of a monument to a period when governments not only housed the poor but empowered architects to think visionary thoughts about the future? Or is it something much more equivocal? Because those who will mourn Robin Hood Gardens will do so partly out of their reverence for the Smithsons but also, presumably, out of nostalgia for the welfare state and all that it achieved. Instead, perhaps what this building really embodies is the onset of doubt among the architectural avant-garde about the welfare state itself.
In a BBC television documentary about the Smithsons from 1970, when Robin Hood Gardens was already under construction, the pair is clearly torn between a sense of obligation and despair. The building is not even up and already they are bracing themselves against its inevitable ruin by vandals and neglect by the council. Perhaps, suggests Alison, what society is asking them to do is “really stupid”. Four years later, in her extraordinary essay The Violent Consumer, Alison gives full vent to that thought. “[T]he architect-urbanist might well ask if the socialist welfare state is actually what is wanted by the very people for whom it was intended,” she writes. She rages against ungrateful tenants who are unwilling to defend “their rented bit of the socialist/democratic dream”. Her logic is that whatever she designs, it will always suffer in the eyes of the have-nots by comparison with the products of a consumer society. Therefore, the whole project of levelling society might be seen “as just as primitive” as the nationalism that tore Europe apart a generation earlier.
So much for all the utopianism we were busily projecting onto this landmark piece of social housing. Read in that light, the concrete brutalism of Robin Hood Gardens symbolises not just technical progress but something far more Ballardian, a shield against the blows of its residents.
This idea of the home as a defensive mechanism enters the Smithsons’ repertoire in the House of the Future, designed for the Ideal Home Exhibition in London in 1956. With its curved walls that simulate moulded plastic, this Space Age module conveys the idea of the home as a standardised product, like a car. It looks technically advanced and behaves as such, with motorised furniture that can disappear into the floor and of course a climate-controlled, fully sanitised environment that protects against pollution and germs. Similarly, the shell itself is defensive, encasing a central garden and shutting out the noise and the dangers of the outside world. It is in many ways a product of the Cold War, and although it was supposed to predict life in 1980, Beatriz Colomina has pointed out that more than one journalist thought it was meant to be 1984.
In style, nothing could be further removed from the House of the Future than Robin Hood Gardens. The one seductive and almost portable, the other forbidding and monolithic. Yet a similar logic pervades the Smithsons’ housing estate, which was designed to block out the noise and pollution of the A12 trunk road on one side and the industrial dockyards on the other. Within these barrier-blocks is a garden that, as in the House of the Future, is conceived of as a haven from the stresses of the modern world. Modelled on Gray’s Inn, Robin Hood’s layout is imagined as a new kind of Georgian square. The difference is the central mound, which belongs in a whole tradition of tumuli in housing estates but was also designed to prevent noisy games of football.
In that BBC documentary, Peter Smithson is the voice of optimism balancing out his wife’s fatalistic doubts. This new Georgian square, he posits, will be “capable of being lived in generation after generation”. The irony of that is almost unbearable given that, scarcely more than a generation later, the building has already been condemned.
Tower Hamlets council claims that 80 per cent of the residents supported demolition. That figure has been contested but the milk is already spilled. And either way, it is difficult to argue for its preservation without implying, patronisingly, that the residents simply don’t know what they have – that they are not educated enough to appreciate the cult of brutalism. But what we can say for sure is that today’s residents are not the violent consumers of Alison Smithson’s fears. They are largely Bengali, your classic East End immigrants servicing the textile shops and curry houses of Whitechapel and Brick Lane. My abiding memory of visiting the estate in 2011, at the height of the debate over its demolition, is of knocking on doors and having them answered by grinning children. This may have been coincidence or the Muslim protectiveness of a woman’s privacy or just linguistic shyness, with mothers sending their kids off to handle the strangers. Either way, they were kind enough to let me in.
Aside from the ground-floor flats, which are single-storey homes intended for the elderly, the rest are all duplexes. You walk in off the access decks into a vestibule with a staircase leading alternately up or down. The kitchen is always at entry level, often with one bedroom, while the majority of the flat, with the living room and bedrooms, are either downstairs or upstairs. This is a rather strange layout, since the kitchen is separated from the living room (I wonder how many meals have clattered down those steps) but, since the kitchen is of a decent size, it was perhaps supposed to serve as an occasional dining room. The staircase itself cleverly acts as a kind of buffer between the windows facing onto the access deck and the interior, adding privacy and noise protection. But the main thing to say about the split-level arrangement is that (although obvious if you really look at how the decks are positioned) it feels more generous than one is expecting from the rows of little windows animating the facade.
The apartments themselves rarely get much attention from those writing about Robin Hood Gardens. And it’s true that they are not where the bold gestures of this project lie. That is partly because much of the hard work had been done for the Smithsons already. In 1961, the government issued what were known as the Parker Morris standards, which set out the minimum space requirements for social housing. They were designed to make sure that new housing would “be adequate to meet the newly emerging needs of the future, as well as basic human needs which always stay the same.” Interestingly, this benchmark did not apply to the private sector, which meant that in some cases council flat residents were living to a higher standard than their more affluent contemporaries – you might call it socialism in action.
The Parker Morris standards were scrapped by Thatcher in 1980 (a blow to the Smithsons’ idea of a futuristic 1980) but Robin Hood Gardens and hundreds of other estates benefitted from them. Floorplans, however, were not specified and so the layouts here are the Smithsons’ own. They are either three- or four-bedroom flats, with the bedrooms on the outer side, next to the road but behind acoustic windows, and the living rooms and kitchens looking out onto the central garden through four consecutive windows.
For all their harking back to Georgian squares, the Smithsons embraced modern living. Peter Smithson was at pains to point out that the flats were designed to cater to modern residents “with their equipment, their domestic appliances and their cars”. That word “equipment” is almost endearing, like granddad referring to our iPad, but domestic life had changed far more drastically in his lifetime than it has in ours. Central heating, TVs and washing machines genuinely did change the way homes were designed, in a way that personal computers haven’t yet. Though designed for the modern consumer lifestyle, their flats today may be less cluttered than the Smithsons would have imagined. In the Bengali style, the living rooms I encountered were not overly furnished with equipment: a sofa, a mock Persian rug and a TV about covers it.
One has to wonder, then, what made a building designed for “generation after generation” reach its sell by date so quickly. Leaving aside the usual issue of its poor upkeep, my instinct is that it has to do with the façade, and those intensely repetitive little windows. It is hard not concede a certain grimness here. On the building’s completion in 1972, Peter Eisenman published an astute critique that accused the Smithsons of being unsure whether it was a skin or a façade, in other words whether to go for the smooth wrap or to reveal the interior layout. He accused them of vacillating between the classicism of Mies and the expressionism of Le Corbusier. To be fair, the facade is working very hard. On the roadside, the concrete mullions are there to break up the noise from the road below. The problem is that the pattern is more or less repeated on the quiet park side.
I would put it in slightly less formal terms. To me the choice seems to be between expressing the individual’s home or emphasising a collective occupancy – and the Smithsons chose the latter. The effect of that – of stressing repetition and standardisation – comes across as favouring the mechanistic over the humanistic. And in an age when one no longer talks about the masses, that is bound to be unpopular.
Eisenman is right that the Smithsons chose to privilege the public aspects of the project over the private realm (he gives short shrift to the actual apartments). But the terms in which they conceived of their project were deeply humanist. Take their much-trumpeted “streets-in-the-air”, the name they gave the access decks. In many ways these were a dangerous idea, poorly imitated around the world in ways that abandoned the ground floor to the car and killed the street with blind walls of garage doors. However, the way the Smithsons described their decks as “wide enough for two mothers with prams to stop and to talk and still leave room to pass” reminds you just how specific, how human and how social their vision was.
If we (or at least some of us) are nostalgic for Robin Hood Gardens now, it is because it represents a vision for housing – right or wrong. And we know that what will replace it represents no new project other than a political one, which is to dismantle the symbols of the welfare state and replace them with market-built, profit-oriented products catering mainly to those wealthy enough to cash in on 18% annual house price rises. What will replace Robin Hood Gardens is, architecturally speaking, no new proposition, but rather a compromise consisting of mid-rise blocks and towers serving a mixed-income community in which some will be more equal than others. There is no shame in that, perhaps, except that it services the social status quo and has neither the idealism nor the audacity to change it.
In her disillusionment, Alison Smithson bemoaned the violent consumer, but at that point she wasn’t to know that it was the inherent violence of neoliberal capitalism that would ultimately destroy her building.
[This essay was originally published as “Their Rented Bit of the Socialist Dream” in SQM: The Quantified Home, edited by Space Caviar]
 B. S. Johnson, The Smithsons on Housing (BBC 2, 1970), 28:18, http://youtu.be/UH5thwHTYNk.
 Alison Smithson, “The Violent Consumer, or Waiting for the Goodies,” Architectural Design 44, no. 5 (1974): 274-9.
 Peter Eisenman, “From Golden Lane to Robin Hood Gardens; or If You Follow the Yellow Brick Road, It May Not Lead to Golders Green,” Architectural Design 42, no. 9 (1972).
 Quoted in Alan Powers, “Robin Hood Gardens: A Critical Narrative”, Max Risselada (ed.), Alison & Peter Smithson: A Critical Anthology