Robin Hood Gardens

Round the corner from Balfron Tower there is another (in)famous social housing complex – Robin Hood Gardens. They were built around the same time as the Brownfield Estate in the early 1970s, and designed by Brutalist power-couple Alison and Peter Smithson. Unlike the listed Balfron Tower, Robin Hood Gardens does not have any special status – and predictably demolition is in progress. Tower Hamlets Council have earmarked the site for a new development, with the second phase headed by a trio of architects.

The Smithsons on Housing (1970) was a BBC documentary on the architect’s rationale for Robin Hood Gardens. It’s a unique insight into their social theories and the ways in which they wanted to inscribe them into architectural form. After watching it I delved into reading a seminal article on mapping by James Corner (in Denis Cosgrove’s Mappings [1999]), and by sheer coincidence he retells David Harvey’s argument on spatial structure and socialization. Here is a snapshot of that argument, as told by Corner:

…[A]s David Harvey has argued, planners and architects have been barking up the wrong tree in believing that new spatial structures alone would yield new patterns of socialization. The struggle for designers and planners, Harvey insists, lies not with spatial form and aesthetic appearances alone (the city as a thing) but with the advancement of more liberating processes and interactions in time (urbanization). Multiple processes of urbanization in time are what produce ‘a distinctive mix of spatialized permanences in relation to one another’; hence the urban project ought to be less about spatial determinism and more about reshaping those urbanization processes that are ‘fundamental to the construction of the things that contain them’.

Thus, in criticizing the formalism of both the modernist utopia and the sentimental, communitarian ‘new urbanism’, Harvey argues that the dynamic multiplicity of urban processes cannot be contained within a singular, fixed spatial frame, especially when that frame neither derives from, nor itself redirects, those processes moving through it. He writes:

The issue is not one of gazing into some crystal ball or imposing some classic form of utopian scheme in which a dead spatiality is made to rule over history and process. The problem is to enlist in the struggle to advance a more socially just and emancipatory mix of spatio-temporal production processes rather than to acquiesce to those imposed by finance capital, the World Bank and the generally class-bound inequalities internalized within any system of uncontrolled capital accumulation!

Harvey’s point is that projecting new urban and regional futures must derive less from a utopia of form and more from a utopia of process -how things work, interact and inter-relate in space and time. Thus, the emphasis shifts from static object-space to the space-time of relational systems. (pp. 227-228)

What is interesting, of course, is re-watching The Smithson on Housing with this passage in mind. The failure of many Modernist housing projects was down to this faith in a ‘utopia of form’ – i.e. that bricks-and-mortar structures, or more appropriately, concrete-and-rebar structures, would solve all social ills. This blind faith – propagated by total designers such as Goldfinger and the Smithsons – was exposed when the essential circulations of everyday life within these structures broke down.

Compare, then, the above documentary and Harvey’s critique with Jonathan Glancey’s short video for the Guardian: