Ordinariness and Light

Father and children at the entrance to their maisonette. @copy; Kois Miah, September 2015.

Set along the horizontal access decks raised up in the sky, the homes of Robin Hood Gardens were bathed in light. It’s a feature of the “ordinariness and light” that the architects sought for the scheme – well-proportioned flats and maisonettes of one to four bedrooms, all with dual aspect and opening out to the views and the expanse of sky. Not locked away from the light, the estate’s homes were modulated by it – formed at the threshold between closed and open, inside and outside.

The family in this photograph is framed by one of the design’s distinctive, deck-level triangular windows, which illuminated the hallway and staircase down to the floor below. For the opposing and interlocking maisonette, the stairway led upwards from the deck, all the apartments slotted together in this way, producing varying arrangements of rooms.

Azezzun Zahraah, on her maisonette’s escape balcony in the east block. @copy; Kois Miah, September 2014.

These partial balconies, designed as fire escapes and too thin for chairs, were not the most successfully achieved feature of the architecture. But they allowed the bedroom French doors to be cast wide open and provided each maisonette with outdoor space to keep an eye on children in the green, to hang washing lines, and to take time with the view.

Azezzun Zahraah at home with her cat. @copy; Kois Miah, September 2014.

When we met Azezzun she was one of the small number of leaseholders remaining on the estate. In a story all-too familiar from other regeneration schemes, the local authority’s compulsory-purchase offer to leaseholders was less than half the average value of an equivalent apartment in Poplar. Arrangements like this necessitate that leaseholders faced with demolition of their estates often have to take on significant new debt if they’re to stay in the area, or move into shared-ownership apartments where they own only a portion of the equity and continue to pay ever-rising rent on the rest.

Del and Gaby Schwenninger-Walter, on their maisonette’s escape balcony in the west block. @copy; Kois Miah, September 2014.

Del was offered a flat in the first phase of the Blackwall Reach replacement for Robin Hood Gardens, but was dissatisfied with its size. Like all the tenants we spoke to, she preferred to stay a council tenant than take a housing-association tenancy, for reasons of rental cost, size, and security of tenure. Most had no choice but to become housing-association tenants if they wanted to stay in the area, since, typical of regeneration schemes, Blackwall Reach will have no council homes. But Del succeeded in transferring to a council flat in nearby Limehouse, with which she and Gaby are very happy.

Del and Gaby Schwenninger-Walter by their front door, viewed from the garden-facing kitchen. @copy; Kois Miah, September 2014.
Gaby Schwenninger-Walter entering her home. @copy; Kois Miah, September 2014.
Gaby Schwenninger-Walter on the bottom level of her maisonette, heading into the living room. @copy; Kois Miah, September 2014.
Del and Gaby Schwenninger-Walter outside their front door. @copy; Kois Miah, September 2014.
Del and Gaby Schwenninger-Walter in the estate’s playground. @copy; Kois Miah, September 2014.
Samir Uddin and his children, in front of their garden-facing living-room window. @copy; Kois Miah, September 2015.

Samir had lived in his west-block maisonette since 2001. He was looking forward to moving out, as his family had outgrown the space – a problem of overcrowding common to the estate. He plays his harmonium, seen on the right in the picture, to relax after work.

Sister and brother at home. @copy; Kois Miah, September 2015.
Pat Murray in her living room. @copy; Kois Miah, September 2015.

With her husband John, Pat had lived in the east block since 1977, in a two-bedroom maisonette which, like any other up and down the country, the couple had made their own. The Lowry-esque picture on the wall was painted by John. “We were living in Tottenham with John’s sister,” Pat recalled on how she was housed by the council. “I didn’t like it when we moved in but it gradually got better. I’m a Catholic and my neighbours are Muslim and they are lovely. Why can’t everyone just get along? They do my shopping for me and help me. I love the space in this flat which I don’t think I will get anywhere else.” Kois and I visited Pat and John during the project’s first exhibition, to give them the publicity poster that featured Pat’s photograph. Sadly, Pat passed away shortly afterwards.

Moyna Miah and his grandchildren outside the “eddy space” between their home and the street deck. @copy; Kois Miah, April 2015.

The estate’s street decks – semi-public spaces, open to residents, their visitors, and the curious, but not to the city as a whole – blended with the homes at the doorways, which turned off in pairs at right angles to the decks to create “eddy spaces,” as the Smithsons called them. It was one of numerous thresholds between inside and outside, ordinariness and light, that were key to the estate’s architectural form.

The primary threshold was between home and street, for this is where children first meet the outside world. It’s a threshold that looked “inward to family and outward to society,” in Hadas Steiner’s words. “On the one hand, the lessons of the house infused the city by way of the threshold. On the other,” as she quotes from the Smithsons’ book Ordinariness and Light, the “looseness of organization and ease of communication essential to the largest communication should be present in this, the smallest,” the home.

On these eddy-space thresholds, the homes claimed a little of the street deck for their own, and vice versa. It was an experience integral to Moyna Miah’s life on the estate, his pleasure in sitting out on the street deck on a semi-permanent arrangement of a chair and stools – taking in the view, watching the construction on Canary Wharf, chatting to neighbours, passing time with his grandchildren.

Moyna Miah and grandchildren. @copy; Kois Miah, April 2015.
Mr and Mrs Miah and grandchildren heading out. @copy; Kois Miah, April 2015.
Mr and Mrs Miah and grandchildren in a west-block lift. @copy; Kois Miah, April 2015.
Mr and Mrs Miah and grandchildren in a west-block lift lobby. @copy; Kois Miah, April 2015.
Mr and Mrs Miah and grandchildren leaving the estate to Cotton Street. @copy; Kois Miah, April 2015.
Upper Lawn Pavilion, Wiltshire. @copy; Alison and Peter Smithson, 1959–1982. Smithson Family Collection.

Upper Lawn Pavilion, also known as Solar Pavilion Folly, was the Smithsons’ family retreat in the Wiltshire countryside. A timber box with floor-to-ceiling windows and clad with aluminium and teak, it is built on the ruin of a workers’ cottage whose chimney stack and an exterior wall contribute structural support for the first floor, giving the pavilion a perched and impermanent quality, and allowing for the ground-floor doors to fold back and open the interior to the courtyard.

When approached in terms of site and materials, it is markedly different to Robin Hood Gardens. Yet if we foreground the formal qualities of the threshold, Upper Lawn can be understood as the “light” of Robin Hood Gardens taken to its purest form. As the name Solar Pavilion suggests, it is structured around the threshold of light, and, more broadly, of the climate and environment. “Upper Lawn,” Peter Smithson explains, “was placed in an eighteenth century English landscape with the conscious intention of enjoying its pleasure … submitting to the seasons,” in “rooms which could be open-to-nature,” to the “long view.”

Dialled to the maximum into the light, overheating and heat loss from its single-glazed expanse appear to have been acceptable aspects of the sought-for submission to the environment. Later though, defenceless against the loud parties and motorcycle noise of new neighbours, the pavilion lost its charm and in 1982 the Smithsons sold it on.

House of the Future, Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition 1956, with view from the interior patio into the kitchen. @copy; Alison and Peter Smithson. Smithson Family Collection.

Light is also key to the structure of the Smithsons’ House of the Future, but in a rather different way to Upper Lawn. This small, modular structure imagined the home of a young childless couple in 1981. Built of plastic and filled with plastic furnishings and objects, the walls, floors, and ceilings comprised one flowing surface. Rectangular at plan, it was designed to be slotted into gridded rows of identical homes, with the living spaces surrounding a patio open to the sky above, all the home’s windows facing onto this only source of light.

Though House of the Future looked playfully futuristic and tends to be understood that way, it bears an ominous undertone, a bunker-like quality, as Beatriz Colomina observes, where “Almost every detail of the house can be explained as a defensive system against pollution, noise, dust, cold, views, germs, and visitors.” “Air, then” – or sky and light – “rather than plastic, is the real material of the house.” But in contrast to Upper Lawn, light is not to be submitted to, so much as to be achieved under conditions of defence against the outside, an outside bearing the implicit threat of nuclear devastation.

The aim of Robin Hood Gardens to multiply the thresholds between the ordinary and light combines lessons from both Upper Lawn and House of the Future. The street decks, eddy spaces, and windows dialled into the light where possible, while the estate’s sheer concrete blocks, pushed to the edges of the garden, and the perimeter acoustic wall defended against the outside – the roads, traffic noise, and pollution – where necessary.

Model of House of the Future, Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition 1956. @copy; Alison and Peter Smithson. Smithson Family Collection.
Reasoning Behind Disposition of Accommodation, Robin Hood Lane, date unknown. @copy; Alison and Peter Smithson. Smithson Family Collection.

Robin Hood Gardens was sited on inhospitable terrain, bordered as it was by major roads with their traffic, noise, and pollution. For this reason, the guiding theme of the architecture was “protection,” as the Smithsons emphasised. It was for protection that the scheme was designed around the garden “stress-free zone” at the centre of the site. And protection informed the acoustic sensitivity to the homes’ internal layout, as shown in this diagram: the street decks and living rooms placed on the traffic-facing sides, internal stairs and hallways as a “buffer zone” in the middle, and the quieter living spaces of the kitchens and bedrooms facing the inner green.

Evening rain, west block. @copy; Kois Miah, September 2015.

As thresholds between home and outside, the opening of the street decks to the sky and the view was also dialled into the weather, partially protected but very much attuned to the elements, in all their seasonal variation. Sun-traps on sunny afternoons on the west-block decks, the morning light on the east-block was something to behold. On bright winter days the air was so crisp; in mid-winter gloom you had to wrap up warm against the cold. When the rain was strong it would cut into the deck.

This photograph was taken as the setting sun and a storm vied each other over the estate. Kois and I had been attending the final meeting of the estate’s Tenants’ and Residents’ Association (TRA), its dissolution that evening marking the symbolic end to the estate’s life.

The TRA’s hard-fought campaign achieved for tenants in their transfer to Blackwall Reach an “assured shorthold tenancy with preserved rights,” less secure but comparable to the “secure tenancy” they were losing. The TRA’s campaign achieved also a freeze in rents for seven years. To compare the rent levels for one family, their four-bedroom maisonette at Robin Hood Gardens was £498 per month in 2015, rising to £698 for their five-bedroom in the first phase of the Blackwall Reach development. Significant wins though they are, these securities apply only to the first generation of residents.

Father and daughter frying chapatis. @copy; Kois Miah, May 2015.
Maria Soler Rodriguez and son José. @copy; Kois Miah, November 2015.

Maria and José had lived on the estate for only two years at the time of this photograph. Neither of them felt a particular attachment to the estate, but enjoyed the size of the living space and the street-deck views of the river and Canary Wharf.

Mrs Hoque and relative in her kitchen in a southern “head” maisonette of the east block. @copy; Kois Miah, September 2015.
Mrs Hoque, with Runa Khalique and Aklima Begum, in her maisonette’s “yard garden” . @copy; Kois Miah, September 2015.

Five of the largest maisonettes at the “head” ends of the two buildings had their own “yard garden,” an expanded balcony the size of a small room located between the street deck and the front door, open to the elements and the view over the green. It was a design carry-over from the Smithsons’ Golden Lane competition entry, another of the threshold spaces that modulated the homes’ relation between inside and outside, ordinariness and light.