Concrete, Mass and Repetition

Touris Miah, in a lift lobby of the west block. @copy; Kois Miah, April 2015.

Photographed here in one of the west block’s lift lobbies, when we met Touris we talked while he leaned on the street-deck balustrade looking out over the view of London. “The building is one of a kind,” he declared expansively. “Have you seen anything like this around here? There’s nothing like its scale.”

The scale of Robin Hood Gardens was a key feature of its Brutalist style and ethic. The estate was not a sentimental re-imagining of traditional workers’ homes, mass housing modelled on a myth of the English village, but a forthright use of modern materials to build bold and adventurous housing raised up in the open air. Its scale was a jolt to the senses, and had considerable appeal to other residents of the estate too.

For Motiur Rahman, who remembers his first impression as a nine-year-old, “You know, it has its gritty side, but I didn’t sense that when I first saw it – I was just wowed by the vastness.” Asked if he found the building exciting, imposing, or ugly, he replied: “It is imposing, it is also ugly, and in a weird way that is the beauty of it, the attraction of it. There are so many buildings that are not to like now. You look at the buildings springing up, they are so ‘plasticky’ or ‘glassy’ or just all the ‘samey,’ but Robin Hood Gardens was unique.”

Fitzgerald, when asked of his views of the designs of Blackwall Reach, also contrasted their insubstantial qualities to Robin Hood Gardens. “Oh, frightful – so unimaginative,” he said. “I like strong definitions, even if it’s brutal! I want something you can get your teeth into or your hands on, not something you go to touch and, ‘Oh, it’s an apparition!’ I want something you can respect and look at.”

Lift-tower “tail” of the east block. @copy; Nick Thoburn, October 2014.
Northern “tail” of the west block, in-situ poured concrete in the guise of system-build. @copy; Kois Miah, June 2015.

Brutalism, as it has come to be known, takes shape quintessentially in concrete, patterned by the relief impressions of the wooden form-work into which it is poured in situ, or by the gravel aggregate revealed by bush-hammer and sandblast treatment. Robin Hood Gardens, however, took a different path. Poured, in-situ concrete was the intended construction technique for the scheme, but the size of the structure and extent of repetition made it more suited to an industrial system of prefabricated concrete panels.

Using the Swedish SUNDH system, the panels were prefabricated on site, while the façade components, the mullions and balustrades which required greater precision, were cast offsite. That said, a whole section of the northern end of the west block, after the second crank, was cast in situ, due to awkward access for the panel-lifting crane. Amusingly for a Brutalist scheme (the Smithsons call it a “surprise”), this section was cast using plastic-faced shuttering so as not to reveal the timber impression, and thus obtain the same finish as the slab-block components.

Street-facing façade of the east block, viewed over the Blackwall Tunnel approach road, with Robin Hood Lane in the foreground, the source of the estate’s name. @copy; Kois Miah, March 2015.

Materials do not immediately bespeak social relations. Yet concrete, a strange and amorphous material – actually, a composite of materials – has often been called upon to articulate the social relations of class, in registers both affirmative and stigmatising. In the antipathetic verdict on Robin Hood Gardens by critic Charles Jencks, for example, the scheme’s use of “homogeneous” concrete signified “social deprivation” and “council housing” – for him, a most unwholesome trinity.

The Smithsons also approached concrete as integral to council housing, but for them it had an affirmative valence. In broad terms, steel-reinforced concrete provided a practicable means for “mass housing.” This was a question of capacity and supply, certainly, but for the Smithsons the non-individualised, mass character of working-class housing also had an expressive materiality, which drew from the capacities of scale and repetition in industrial production.

Garden-facing façade of the east block. @copy; Kois Miah, May 2016.

Kevin Jones, who lived in the west block for two and a half years as a property guardian, had a favourite view of the estate: this sheer wall of the east-block inner façade. It greeted him as he opened his ground-floor door, “this giant block with all these windows – really beautiful.” The estate was “built on such an epic scale,” he said. “I admire it because of that boldness, and that, you know, it was made for social housing. That is incredible really, the imagination and creativity that has gone into it.”

Jo Newman-Stackable, in front of her ground-floor flat in the east block. @copy; Kois Miah, May 2016.

The ground-floor location allowed Jo easy access to the green to walk her dogs, but she had been known to take the lift to higher floors so as not to miss out on the street decks’ expansive views. This image for me holds together the mass and scale of the estate’s Brutalism, its concrete aesthetic of repetition and difference, and the pride in and intimacy of home.

Jo and Mary Newman-Stackable with one of their dogs, Jo’s garden plot just visible behind. @copy; Kois Miah, May 2016.
Over the edge of a street deck on the west block, showing the balustrade, mullions, and garage moat. @copy; Nick Thoburn, September 2015.

The aggregate of the estate’s concrete was deliberately exposed on the street-deck balustrades while the doorframes had a marble-smooth finish, a softening at the domestic threshold. Both had an appealing texture – the balustrades in particular, with their small-pebbled feel to the touch, though the “straw” colour, almost “golden hue,” that Fitzgerald recalled of the building in the 1980s, was in later years only achieved when cast in a late-afternoon sun.

These concrete textures were part of the Smithsons’ sensory approach to the scheme, which one should “smell, feel and experience” through the “full range of senses.” Far more significant to the scheme’s sensory form, though, was its handling of concrete’s industrial capacities, what Peter Smithson called a “machine-scale … aesthetics of pre-cast concrete,” which was most prominently expressed in the estate’s fin-like mullions, one of its most distinctive and unusual features.

Repetition and difference on the surface of the east block, a boarded-up “decanted” flat on the left. @copy; Kois Miah, November 2015.

“We seem to have lost the secret of repetition as a formal quality at a time when we use it the most,” wrote Peter Smithson as Robin Hood Gardens neared completion. With regard to mass housing, industrial repetition is typically treated with hostility – or hostility toward mass housing is disguised and justified as hostility to repetition.

Critic Charles Jencks’ hostile appraisal of Robin Hood Gardens is typical in this regard, where “repetitive pattern” joins “concrete” as signifier of council housing qua social deprivation. He picks up on the asymmetrical, fin-like mullions that vertically strode the façades of the estate, but contends that they were “not strong enough to identify each apartment” or to “override the repetitive pattern and homogeneous material.” Yet this misses the point.

Variation in the mullions was not designed to oppose or break-up repetition, but to be an intrinsic quality of it. Uniform in shape, a “T” pattern in cross-section, the mullions varied in width, depth, and length. Some ran the full height of the façades, others only the height of the balustrades, with the rest at various lengths in between. Some protruded as much as a foot-and-a-half, while the others held close to their supporting structure.

This variation was enabled by mass production of unit parts, the industrial process whereby repetition in the hundreds is enough to write off the cost of jigs, dies, and moulds. It frees up a capacity for repetition hitherto unknown – and with it, difference, where the repeated elements have both consistency and variation in and because of their mass. “Looked at this way,” Peter continued, “we have incredible means available to us. With these numbers we can use repetition as Bernini did, turn it off and on, change gear with it so to speak – it is not something to be fought against.” “Repetition,” in this way, “is life-including, … it can make the multiplied thing magical in its very multiplication.”

Mullions as sun-responsive forms, on the west-block garden façade. @copy; Nick Thoburn, October 2015.

The estate’s concrete mullions picked up on the vertical partitions of the individual apartments behind the buildings’ surfaces – though not to firmly demarcate them, to reduce repetition to the identity of a domestic unit. Rather, the mullions incorporated the homes in the estate’s aesthetic of repetition and difference, where the mass character of the apartments, themselves various in type and displayed as such by the placement of the mullions, was connected to rhythmic variation across the surface of the whole.

This is what the Smithsons call a “skin modulation.” And as a skin, the surface was released from binding to interior form to instead reach out into its environment, to be “at play in the air,” in Alison Smithson’s phrase – “performing a role of claiming, signalling,” where built form passes into its “adherent air.”

The most striking of the surface effects was how the mullions played with light. “Sun-responsive building forms,” they cast extraordinary patterns across the blocks as their shapes and shadows came in and out of accentuation through the course of the sun’s arc, the sun drawn in through the wide opening between the buildings at their southern end. It was a quality we enjoyed on many of our visits, various over the seasons. As glimpsed in this photograph, especially impressive was the effect of the mid-morning sun on the west block’s garden façade, best experienced while walking its cranked length.

Sheffield University axonometric, 1953 revised 1978. @copy; Alison Smithson. Smithson Family Collection.

The Smithsons’ competition entry for Sheffield University is the quintessential example of their topological approach to architecture, where buildings are assembled of different forms in process, loosened from the formal unity of classical proportion and symmetry. The design was comprised of gangways and a full-width continuous deck in an angular horseshoe shape which connected the academic faculties – poles of attraction which “continually recharged movement” – and cupped a half-open and half-closed inner green, opening up the traditional university quadrangle to site and city.

The structure both facilitated and was shaped by movement. Space and form were “generated by flows of people rather than as containers of functions,” as Mark Crinson puts it in his book on the Smithsons. For Reyner Banham, in perhaps the most strident characterisation of Brutalism, “no attempt is made to give a geometrical form to the total scheme,” where “large blocks of topologically similar spaces stand about the site with the same graceless memorability as Martello towers or pit-head gear.”

Golden Lane. @copy; Alison and Peter Smithson, 1952. Smithson Family Collection.

Architectural forms were teased out by the Smithsons with the aid of diagrams as much as concepts, diagrams that figure or evoke form rather than order and constrain it to a single representation. This diagram of their unbuilt Golden Lane project comprises a line drawing of three elevations of the scheme overlaid awkwardly, without integration, on a photograph of a wrecked, perhaps bomb-damaged site, a site which in half the image presses through the shape of the proposed structure, such that it is just as much a part of the image as the architectural design.

The montage is made more jarring still by the incongruous presence of a French film star in the foreground, Gérard Philipe, and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first post-independence prime minister, waiving from a street deck, while a working-class man bicycles precariously across the rugged ground.

As Ben Highmore contends in The Art of Brutalism, here the diverse and conflicting parts of the image hold together, communicating something about destruction and urbanism, glamour and class, the relation of ground “as found” to built form – but without resolution, intelligibility held open. And the pre-condition of most architecture, the site as tabula rasa, is repelled, the site leaning into and complicating the new structure, as was the case too at Robin Hood Gardens.

A west-block “head” maisonette and triple-height deck, with lift-lobby to the left. @copy; Kois Miah, April 2015.

This four-bedroom maisonette, where Abdul Kalam grew up, greeted walkers along the deck with an expanse of two corner walls painted sky blue. An image of this and other photographs by Abdul feature in Jessie Brenan’s book about the estate, Regeneration!, where he describes a more impermanent effect of light and colour created during Ramadan: “everyone’s up at the break of dawn to eat just before they fast,” so the “whole estate lights up. Everywhere else is dark, and at five in the morning the whole estate’s alight. … Little things like that, it’s quite beautiful.”

His friend, Abul Hasnath, recalls how these larger deck areas were regularly used for Carrom Board matches. A chair would be flipped over another, a Carrom Board placed on top, friends and neighbours would gather, and games would go on into the night. Abul talks especially evocatively of the “buzzing” street-deck sociability during Ramadan. Rather than retire to bed between night prayer and pre-sunrise meal, groups of friends, sometimes non-Muslims included, would often stay up through the night chatting on the decks.

Painted “signs of occupancy” on a west-block street deck. @copy; Kois Miah, April 2015.

The estate’s concrete was originally complemented with a colour scheme, applied to the lift lobbies, the apartment doors, the frames of the deck-facing windows, and the French doors on the garden façades – grey at garage level, green at the garden, and ascending with each floor through yellow, orange, and blue (in the taller east block), with variants of these colours picking out different flat types.

Though the colour scheme had long gone when we first visited the estate, the council’s neglect allowed the concrete structures to gain some striking and playful decoration when residents painted their own apartment façades – the “signs of occupancy” that the Smithsons hoped for the scheme taken further than perhaps they intended.

Painted façades on a west-block street deck. @copy; Kois Miah, April 2015.
Painted “eddy space” between two maisonettes, west block. @copy; Kois Miah, April 2015.
Purple maisonette, west block. @copy; Kois Miah, April 2015.
Robin Hood Gardens: Extension Diagram. @copy; Peter Smithson, 1968. Smithson Family Collection.

It is unlikely that the Smithsons thought this diagrammed extension of Robin Hood Gardens might be built – there were early plans for a second stage on the remainder of the LCC-owned land, up to East India Dock Road, but it was a significantly smaller plot. The diagram can be seen instead as a comment on what was built, underscoring the estate’s break with the Smithsons’ thinking from Golden Lane up to Manisty Street, the first plan for the Poplar site.

In the Manisty Street design, organised by the theme of “connection,” the Smithsons hoped the street decks “would ultimately be joined up with those of further buildings to be built when sites became available.” Whereas Robin Hood Gardens, as is confirmed in the extension diagram, “played down that idea of ‘linkage,’” establishing the scheme instead on a large and tranquil interior space of “protection.”

Satellite dishes on the east block. @copy; Nick Thoburn, January 2022.

The estate’s fin-like mullions reached out into the adherent air, a bridging relation between the buildings’ surfaces and their environment. It may seem perverse to say so, but residents’ satellite dishes, these most class-coded of disapproved domestic protrusions, did the same, as flows of communication joined the surface modulation of light and sound.

Alison Smithson made some remarks in this direction, referring to the architects’ unbuilt design for infill apartments at Maryhill, Glasgow (1984), which included prominent solar-capture “roses,” reaching into the sky above the roofs from masts attached to the upper-floor façades. The “fibril” nature of these “appurtenances,” she wrote, “make them more the building’s antennae; like sensors, indicative of how the building’s form, skin, and services, are responsive to the climate, to communications, to our green attitudes.”

At Robin Hood gardens, the appurtenances in question were not designed or theorised by architects but attached ad hoc by residents, or by Sky engineers – bolted onto the mullions outside of kitchen windows or over the edge of street-deck balustrades. But in this is their architectural significance, where the little tweaks of home-making that the Smithsons hoped for the scheme exceeded their designated places to contribute to the architecture itself, a skin modulation “as found.”

Children playing on the estate’s mound. @copy; Sandra Lousada, 1971. Smithson Family Collection.

Robin Hood Gardens was photographed for the Smithsons by Sandra Lousada, shortly after the estate opened. She was accompanied by Peter Smithson as the two walked the grounds and the street decks, ascended nearby Balfron Tower for the long shots, and visited residents’ apartments. Twenty or so of these images are included in the scheme’s publication in Architectural Design. They showcase the extraordinary architecture, as was their purpose, some foregrounding the sculptural and breathtakingly monumental quality of the structure.

But in many of these images it is the estate’s residents that take centre stage. There are shots of a mother and toddler at home in their living room, adults and children about on the street decks, clothes drying on a washing line. The most striking photographs, though, are of children, visibly multi-racial, playing in the green and play-pits, clambering over the mound, chatting, running toward the photographer – all framed, without contradiction, by the monumental expanse of the east block. Here the spontaneity and joy that in Nigel Henderson’s photographs were the germinal seed for the streets in the sky, now figure the scheme as built.

Children playing in the green, with one of the four play pits and the second mound, later removed. @copy; Sandra Lousada, 1971. Smithson Family Collection.

The children take such a prominent place and dynamic role in these photographs that one might mistakenly think there was some direction involved. Sandra Lousada recounted to me a conversation with a student who had discussed with peers how she had photographed the children: “They said, how did you place them? I said, for goodness sake, they were playing!”

I was interested if Peter Smithson had organised any aspects of the shoot. “There were certain views he wanted,” but otherwise, “No, he didn’t. It was: see what happened, get what you can. I just went with a camera, I didn’t have tripods and lights and things like that. Of course, I worked with an entourage later on, but not at that moment. When you go with an architect or sculptor or artist they start talking and it’s a way of understanding what they do, and once you begin to understand what you’re looking at, you photograph accordingly.”

West block, with distant view of the City of London. @copy; Kois Miah, May 2016.