When one hears of a piece of architecture by Alison and Peter Smithson being altered, the worst comes to mind, particularly when developer Tishman Speyer promises a "wholesale re-imagining." With demolition photographs of the architects' Robin Hood Gardens splayed across every design publication and blog, this protective instinct is more than justified. Now, London firm Deborah Saunt David Hills Architects (DSDHA) has completed Phase One of such a "re-imagining" of the Smithsons' Economist Plaza. And if evidence of this first phase is a precedent for the rest, then we can breathe a momentary sigh of relief, for the project is in safe hands. Comprising a trio of buildings, all varying in height, the Economist Plaza off St James's Street is a quiet enclave in the city, a welcome respite a stone's throw away from the tourist throbbing bustle of Piccadilly Circus. It was designed by Peter and Alison Smithson for the Economist magazine and finished in 1964, a decade after the Smithsons first took to the architectural stage with the Hunstanton Secondary Modern School. Tishman Speyer's decision to employ DSDHA reflects a sensitivity to the project, something it is well-versed in through its management of other 20th century icons like New York's Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center. Its decision to rename the complex to "Smithson Plaza" in the original architects' honor embodies this ethos. The Smithsons' contribution to architecture is enormous. As teachers, writers and academics, they were prolific. But as architects? Not so, and today, their eponymous plaza is their last remaining work in London. DSDHA has refurbished the tallest tower, renamed "Smithson Tower," which rises to 15 stories and was once owned and fully occupied by The Economist. Here, the lobby has had a facelift and the tower has new elevators, double-glazed windows, insulation and services, replacing the Smithsons' unorthodox and outdated ventilation system. A new, 1,500-square-foot public cafe (yet to be finished) has been installed on the tower's ground floor. However, this, combined with a reinstated public art program on for the plaza, heralds the danger of the plaza losing its tranquillity as it becomes both visually and programmatically busier. "We found that many people didn't even know this was a public space," Deborah Saunt, co-founder of DSDHA, told The Architect's Newspaper. Inside the upper six floors of the tower, renovation work has created 21,500 square feet of office space. Who will inhabit that remains to be seen. To its previous tenants, the vistas were a source of empowerment. "Perhaps our height also gives us greater confidence in handing down Olympian judgments on world affairs," the Economist wrote in a 2016 farewell letter after it had sold the premises for $170 million. The tower's facade has also been cleaned to reveal its pitted Portland Stone and Roach Bed stone. On the ground, the plaza has been resurfaced with granite, a material which has been allowed to flow into the new lobby where it replaces what was once concrete flooring. If you ignore the impending planters, the plaza has since become a much lighter space in a show of pure materiality. And when washed in sunlight, the tower's almost gleaning beveled edges are as tactile as any imported verdure. Only now do Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's (SOM's) 1990s interventions, adding a canopy and extending the lobby into the colonnade with glass and travertine cladding, seem horribly hamfisted. DSDHA has done well to undo some of this work, replacing the travertine with Portland Stone, for example. With the lobby gaining a new concrete bench, akin to an original external seat and now sharing materiality with the plaza, the colonnade feels primed to realize its potential as the threshold it was originally intended to be. For the time being, however, the canopy and glass frontage, spaced awkwardly close to the colonnade, remain. More changes had been planned by SOM as well, with two further stories proposed for the plaza's tallest tower. On the 13th of June in 1988, though, the plaza and its buildings were hurriedly awarded Grade II listing (the equivalent of landmarking)—a move which makes you wonder, particularly in the aftermath of the Robin Hood Gardens demolition, where the spirit to preserve architecture has gone. The Smithsons, of course, were aware of change being around the corner. In 1965, they remarked that in 200 years' time, their work "may seem an error." "But in our situation," they continued, "there is no other course but to build and to demonstrate." Even DSDHA's proposals did not come without backlash when they were unveiled in 2016. "The Smithsons’ best and last remaining London building deserves better," wrote critic Ellis Woodman in February 2017, as other architects voiced their concern. Some of DSDHA's plans have been curtailed. A proposed spiral staircase will now be a much simpler slip stair, which will lead to a new gallery space—a conversion of the former car park. These changes are due to be made in later phases as part of the addition of 4,600 square feet of retail space.
Posts tagged with "Alison and Peter Smithson":
Few buildings are as quintessentially British and Brutalist as Robin Hood Gardens, a London housing estate designed by Alison and Peter Smithson in the late 1960s. And now, remnants of the complex are heading to Italy, where the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) will present a facade section of the demolished icon as part of the Venice Biennale. (It's actually a return to Venice for the late architects, who displayed billboard-sized images of the under-construction buildings at the Biennale in 1976.) The Robin Hood Gardens housing block has never been far from the center of the debate of social housing since the Smithsons first unveiled plans for a concrete mass of residences linked by "streets in the sky." And now that it's being demolished to make way for a new development—all while cities around the globe struggle to house growing populations—that controversy is more in the news than ever. Though Peter Smithson himself expressed his regrets about the failures of the design, Robin Hood Gardens found a legion of supporters, if not strictly for its Brutalist design, then for its place within the conversation about urbanism. In fact, an all-star lineup of contemporary architects including Richard Rogers, Robert Venturi, Toyo Ito, and the late Zaha Hadid, came together to protest the buildings' demolition. When it became clear that plans would move forward, the V&A stepped in—on the urging of London firm Muf architecture/art—to acquire a nearly 29-foot high by 18-foot-wide by 26-foot-deep cross-section of the housing complex. The museum will be presenting a fragment from the estate at the Pavilion of Applied Arts in the Sale d’Armi in the Arsenale, from May 26 to November 25, 2018. The segment will be displayed on a scaffolding system designed by Arup, the firm that engineered the original Robin Hood Gardens, while a film by artist Do Ho Suh will document the structure. Additional documents and interviews will give context to the social history of the complex. ‘The case of Robin Hood Gardens is arresting because it embodied such a bold vision for housing provision yet less than 50 years after its completion, it is being torn down," said pavilion curators Christopher Turner and Olivia Horsfall Turner in a joint statement. "Out of the ruins of Robin Hood Gardens, we want to look again at the Smithsons’ original ideals and ask how they can inform and inspire current thinking about social housing."
The Robin Hood Gardens public housing complex in East London has finally met the wrecking ball. After years of protests from locals, architects, and critics, local authorities at the Tower Hamlets council chose to ignore pleas for the Peter and Alison Smithson–designed project and demolish it to make way for a new development. Built in 1972, Robin Hood Gardens was the realization of the illustrious pair's "streets in the sky" concept. A Brutalist icon, its demolition was protested by architects Richard Rogers, the late Zaha Hadid, Robert Venturi, and Toyo Ito, as well as numerous critics including Jonathan Glancey who argued that the building should be turned into student housing. The Twentieth Century Society, too, also campaigned tirelessly for its listing which Heritage England rejected on the grounds that it was not architecturally significant. Situated by East India Quays, the housing complex was just a stone's throw from Canary Wharf, London's financial hub. In many ways, it was a fitting counter, stylistically and programmatically, and was a symbol of resistance. From inside the Robin Hood Gardens' green space—located between the two concrete blocks—the glass towers of Canary Wharf (such as One Canada Square ) could be seen poking over the housing units. Financial capital was seemingly stopped short of knocking down social housing. Except it did. Developer Swan Housing Association will be building Phase Three of "Blackwall Reach," a new housing complex that will see 1,575 new homes added. Three firms—Haworth Tompkins, who won the 2012 RIBA Stirling Prize, Metropolitan Workshop, and CF Møller—are involved. The new scheme will keep the grassy mound that defined the previous project and the new units will be "affordable" dwellings. In the U.K., however, "affordable" is a loose and often redundant term as it means units can be priced at up to 80 percent of the market rate. This means some apartments can cost $1,855 per month. Instead of destroying the Smithson's work, a better option would have been to emulate what Urban Splash did to Park Hill Estate, another Brutalist social housing icon in Sheffield. Here, units were spruced-up and drastically improved, while the local area maintained its post-war heritage. Alas, it is too late. Robin Hood Gardens is no more, and with it goes another icon of the egalitarian post-war principles that shaped Britain and London.
The clock is ticking yet again for East London’s Robin Hood Gardens, the 1972 Brutalist public housing complex designed by Alison and Peter Smithson. In a call to arms, Lord Richard Rogers and Simon Smithson, the son of the architects, have written a letter to over 300 members of the architecture and construction industries in support of the 20th Century Society’s campaign to protect the iconic “streets in the sky” buildings from being demolished. The future of the seminal social housing estate has been in limbo since former Culture Secretary Andy Burnham granted it a listing certificate of immunity six years ago, essentially foiling any landmark designations that would ensure the buildings’ survival and preservation. Now that the certificate has expired, 20th Century Society, a conservation organization for modern architecture, is urging the new Minister for Sport, Tourism and Heritage to add the buildings to the statutory list of buildings of special architectural and historical interest. “The Smithsons were clearly great architects: the Economist Building, completed in 1964 and Grade I-listed in 1988, is without a doubt the best modern building in the historic centre of London. Robin Hood Gardens, which pioneered ‘streets in the air’ to preserve the public life of the East End terraces that it replaced, was the next large-scale job that the Smithsons embarked upon. It was architecturally and intellectually innovative. In my opinion, it is the most important social housing development from the post-war era in Britain,” wrote Lord Richard Rogers in the letter. Composed of two long concrete blocks, the 7-story buildings in Poplar, London feature balconies that face a rolling, man-made green. Curbed reported that the goal was to “create a modern, bustling city in the sky,” but it has fallen into disrepair, beset with problems including crime and graffiti. Architects, including Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, Richard Meier, and Rogers, stand behind the controversial postwar complex, lauding its architectural significance as an exemplar of the Smithsons’ New Brutalism—characterized by exposed materials, contextual design, and the marriage of regional styles and modernism. Below is the full letter from Lord Richard Rogers and Simon Smithson: Dear Friends, I am writing to ask you to support listing Robin Hood Gardens as a building of special architectural interest, in order to protect one of Britain’s most important post-war housing projects, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson, from demolition. Previous efforts in 2009 to have the building listed failed, but the case has now been re-opened and we understand that the new Minister for Sport, Tourism and Heritage will be reviewing the arguments at the end of this week. The buildings, which offer generously-sized flats that could be refurbished, are of outstanding architectural quality and significant historic interest, and public appreciation and understanding of the value of modernist architecture has grown over the past five years, making the case for listing stronger than ever. The UK's 20th Century Society has submitted a paper setting out why they believe Robin Hood Gardens should be listed (i.e. added it to the statutory list of buildings of special architectural and historical interest). Two further assessments are set out below: “Alison and Peter Smithson were the inventors of the New Brutalism in the 1950s and as such they were the ‘bellwethers of the young' as Reyner Banham called them. In many ways [Robin Hood Gardens] epitomizes the Smithsons’ ideas of housing and city building. Two sculptural slabs of affordable housing create the calm and stress free place amidst the ongoing modernization of the London cityscape. The façades of precast concrete elements act as screens that negotiate between the private sphere of the individual flats and the collective space of the inner garden and beyond. The rhythmic composition of vertical fins and horizontal ’streets-in-the-air' articulates the Smithsons’ unique proposition of an architectural language that combines social values with modern technology and material expression. Despite the current state of neglect and abuse Robin Hood Gardens comprises a rare, majestic gesture, both radical and generous in its aspiration for an architecture of human association. As such it still sets an example for architects around the world.” Dr Dirk van den Heuvel, Delft University, Holland. “The Smithsons were clearly great architects: the Economist Building, completed in 1964 and Grade I-listed in 1988, is without a doubt the best modern building in the historic centre of London. Robin Hood Gardens, which pioneered ‘streets in the air’ to preserve the public life of the East End terraces that it replaced, was the next large-scale job that the Smithsons embarked upon. It was architecturally and intellectually innovative. In my opinion, it is the most important social housing development from the post-war era in Britain.” Lord Richard Rogers Last time listing was considered the views of the architectural community were ignored but we believe there is now a real chance of saving the building for posterity but only if the Minister hears, first hand, the views of the profession on the architectural merits of these exceptional buildings. Can we ask you to support the efforts of the 20th Century Society by writing right now to the Minster to support listing and saying why you believe Robin Hood Gardens should be saved? Click here to open an e-mail to the relevant Minister at the Department for Culture Media and Sport, Tracey Crouch MP: Ministerfirstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on the building click here, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robin_Hood_Gardens, and for details of the 20th Century Society case, please click here, http://www.c20society.org.uk/casework/robin-hood-gardens/ For Tweets: #SaveRobinHoodGardens Also, can we ask you to forward this e-mail to anyone else you know who might be willing to help save these important buildings? Yours sincerely, Richard Rogers and Simon Smithson
What do the English have against works produced by members of the Independent Group? The loose post–World War II group of artists, architects, writers, and critics produced public art, gallery installations, and even architecture. On this side of the Atlantic we always think the Brits save their landmarks—unlike the American tendency to tear them down before they can be landmarked. But early this year Transport for London destroyed Eduardo Paolozzi’s playful and colorful mosaics that stood over the entrance to the Tottenham Court Road tube station. Now it seems that local authorities will destroy one of the countries best-known housing developments-Alison and Peter Smithson’s 1972 Robin Hood Gardens in Tower Hamlets near the Docklands development in London’s East End. Housing authorities in the English capital have been trying to demolish the 213 unit affordable housing project for many years and despite lack of maintenance in the project since 2000 and several high profile attempts to save and preserve the project it still seems doomed. But now another last minute push is being made to save Robin Hood by the lobbying group the Twentieth Century Society. They have challenged the listing—or landmarking—process as “flawed” and thus the building should be saved. According to British magazine The Architect’s Journal, Richard Rogers has thrown his support behind the effort to save the complex saying, “Robin Hood Gardens is one of a handful of great low-cost housing estates. It was a world-shaking building but it’s been looked after appallingly. Whatever anyone says, I don’t know of better modern architects than the Smithson’s: they were certainly outstanding.” Lets hope this significant housing project can be saved.
Synthetic Forests. BldgBlog uncovered a series of aerial photos of Dutch tree farms by artist Gerco de Ruijter. Called Baumschule, the pristine man-made geometry overlaid upon nature is really quite stunning. Saving Robin Hood. One of the first brutalist buildings in London by the Smithsons could be saved from demolition and converted into modern family townhomes. BD Online reports that a proposal by Sarah Wigglesworth Architects plans new units on the roof. Completing Indy. A proposed "complete streets" bill for the Indiana Department of Transportation is currently being considered that would require a multimodal approach to transportation design and could be a be a coup for pedestrians and cyclists. Urban Indy has the details, including a potential loophole. Urban Playoffs. There's an ideological battle fermenting between the forces behind New Urbanism and newcomer Landscape Urbanism. The Boston Globe details the differences between the two and the latest on the battle of the urban minds.
There are so many architecture exhibitions today that call themselves “biennales” and “triennales” that the words have little meaning anymore. In most cases, rather than use the vernacular local word for an every two- or three-year exhibition (say, biannual) they use the Italian word, hoping I guess that the special magic of Venice will rub off on their event. Thus I am in Lisbon, Portugal today for the Architecture Triennale that the organizers are calling “Let’s Talk About Houses.” The largest exhibition in the event at the Museu Coleccao Berardo is made up of six separate and discrete parts. This includes a recreation of Alison and Peter Smithson’s House of the Future projects from 1956, and Houses Yes! Sacks No!, the story of Mobile Local Support Service, a Portuguese movement launched by architects “responding to the struggle waged in the streets by poor residents during the hot summer of 1975.” Finally, there will be installations based on Vittorio Lampugnani’s Novartis campus in Basel, Switzerland; a show on urban development in African and Brazilian cities; and The Nordic Connection on new work in Scandinavia curated by Archigrammer Peter Cook. There seems to be a lot more going on—stay tuned for more tomorrow!