During the early 1950’s Architectural duo Alison and Peter Smithson established the philosophy of the ‘New Brutalism’- an Architecture focused on ethic and aesthetic. New Brutalism was achieved through low-cost modularity; material focus; purity and most importantly a reflection of a specific location and complexities of inhabitation- ‘modernism with a human face’ Brutalism would reframe the interaction of society, Architecture and Urbanism.
Throughout the 1960s the Smithsons published a series of essays on urbanism, largely made up of sociological studies of working-class communities and in collaboration with street photographer Nigel Henderson- who had heavily documented Bethnal Green. The recognition of the importance of these studies gave Alison and Peter an international reputation, one almost out of proportion in consideration to the small portion of realised projects.
In 1966, the Greater London Council commissioned the Smithsons to aid in the clearance of sub-standard Victorian tenements in East India, Poplar through the provision of new housing. The Smithsons were aware of the transitional and experimental period in which they were working and ethical questions of the gentrification of the then Victorian slums were raised from the outset.
‘Society at the moment asks architects to build these new homes for them. But, I mean, this may be really stupid, we may have to rethink the whole thing. It may be that we should only be asked to repair the roofs and add the odd bathroom to the old industrial houses and just leave people where they are to smash it up in complete abandon and happiness so that nobody has to worry about it anymore.
The design for Robin Hood Gardens was described by the Smithsons as:
‘we regard it as a demonstration of a more enjoyable way of living, in an old industrial part of the city, a model, an exemplar of a new mode of urban organisation’.
Upon its completion in 1972 Robin Hood Gardens became an internationally recognised icon of Brutalist Architecture and still attracts academic interest. It provided accommodation for 214 families, predominately as maisonettes, but with some single storey apartments at ground floor.
The estate is formed of two blocks, ‘split like a kipper’. The external facade featuring concrete fins, designed to reduce sound transmittance, thereby reducing the impact of the site's proximity to the Blackwall tunnel and the East India Dock. The central protected space is raised to form a two storey mound which creates a central ‘stress’ free zone, a green oasis. The mound was designed to discouraged children playing football, accommodation for ball games was provided elsewhere.
Raised external walkways provide circulation at every three floors. These ‘Streets in the Sky’ are wide enough to permit the creation of semi-private spaces where residents could place plant pots or patio furniture - a deliberate design feature in the hopes of fostering interaction between neighbours and to create a stage for the theatre of everyday life. The living accommodation was designed so that bedrooms face onto the mound to avoid nighttime disturbance, original windows were designed so they could be opened at the top but remain fixed at the bottom as a further passive measure. In addition, a 10ft acoustic wall was constructed against the eastern block.
Robin Hood Gardens was eventually transferred to the Local Authority of Tower Hamlets, the borough was formed in 1965 following the merger of former metropolitan boroughs of Stepney, Poplar and Bethnal Green.