Streets in the Sky

Robin Hood Gardens, seven-storey west block and green, Canary Wharf in the background, as seen from the roof of the east block. @copy; Kois Miah, November 2015.

The looming, logo-topped towers of Canary Wharf’s banks are an icon and instance of the finance-driven regeneration that long threatened Robin Hood Gardens. The west block of the estate, demolished in 2017/18, appears here to physically hold back these encroaching forces, forces which resident Darren Pauling described to the local press, turning the tables on the usual pejorative use of “concrete” to condemn the estate.

“I’m sick of concrete jungle creeping up on Robin Hood Gardens,” he wrote. “I have lived on the Robin Hood Gardens estate for over a decade and in Poplar all of my life. I love where I live.” Darren showed the flaws in the council and developer’s partial polling of residents about their preferences for the estate’s future. They refused to hold a formal ballot, so he organised a survey where 130 families out of 140 surveyed wanted refurbishment not demolition.

Moyna Miah and grandchildren on the “street in the sky” outside their west-block maisonette. @copy; Kois Miah, April 2015.

This photograph was taken mid-afternoon as the sun passed over the block to the west, bathing in sunshine this street in the sky. Three generations of Mr Miah’s family lived on the estate, his home since 1987. Immigrating to Britain in 1963, he worked as a crane operator until retirement. He enjoyed spending time on the street deck with his grandchildren, looking out over the city.

His family’s joyful experience of Robin Hood Gardens couldn’t have been more different to the judgment from afar of Margaret Hodge, who in 2008, as Minister at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, ruled against listing the estate for heritage preservation. “Anyone who wants to list that place should try living there,” she said later. “It is simply not fit for purpose and I cannot believe that anyone is trying to list it. They should try living in it or raising a family there.”

Robin Hood Gardens, garden façade of the ten-storey east block and lift-tower “tail”. @copy; Kois Miah, June 2015.

The term “Brutalism” – derived from the French for raw concrete, béton brut – was coined in the early 1950s by the London-based architects of Robin Hood Gardens, Alison and Peter Smithson. It named an architectural aesthetics where materials, concrete in particular, were not covered over but valued in themselves for their expressive qualities and form-making capacities. In the Smithsons’ phrase, this was “the seeing of materials for what they were: the woodness of wood; the sandiness of sand,” where the Brutalist question to ask of any material was, “what can it do?”

But Brutalist architecture was also an “ethic,” a direct and critical engagement with the flux and crises of the social world. It is an aspect that is often sidelined in the booming interest in Brutalism today. “Brutalism,” as the Smithsons put it, “tries to face up to a mass-production society, and drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work. Up to now Brutalism has been discussed stylistically, whereas its essence is ethical.”

To recover the meaning of this ethical injunction, a central aim of this exhibition, is to engage with the lived experience of Brutalist architecture, and to oppose the stigmatisation, privatisation, and demolition of council estates today.

Robin Hood Gardens, axonometric from the north west. @copy; Kenny Baker, 1968. Smithson Family Collection.

Fixation on “raw concrete” has blinkered our understanding of Brutalism, which for the Smithsons was an approach to architectural form – what Rayner Banham, in his movement-defining essay on the movement, called their “aformalism.” Brutalism turns against the formal unity of classical proportion and symmetry, governed by principles of geometry, to instead fashion architecture on the topological principle of form in process or deforming form, characterised by such qualities as “penetration, circulation, inside and out.”

Robin Hood Gardens was an assemblage of such forms, forms which deformed themselves and their site and society too. Explored in depth in my book about the estate, in this exhibition these different forms and their qualities provide the organising structure: streets in the sky; homes at the threshold of ordinariness and light; the concrete aesthetics of mass, repetition, and difference; and landscape as charged void.

Street in the sky, west block, looking north . @copy; Nick Thoburn, October 2014.

The estate’s streets in the sky ran the full length of both blocks at every third floor on the exterior façades. They provided deck access to the homes, semi-public sites of encounter and contemplation, bracing open-air space raised up in the sky, and glorious unobstructed vistas across London, achieved through ingenious use of a counter-lever. “People would say, yes, it’s all concrete,” Wayne Alison, one of the estate’s caretakers, said to me. “But, no, it’s not … It’s completely open, you can walk [on the street decks] from one side of the building to the other side and it’s just air coming in, you can breathe.”

Street in the sky, east block, looking north. @copy; Nick Thoburn, February 2015.

For Motiur Rahman, whose family lived on the estate for 23 years, the value of the street decks lay in their open-air sociality. In describing this, he evoked the postcolonial story of Bangladeshi immigration so central to the culture and economy of east London. “We always talked about the walkways being like Bangladesh,” he recalled.

“People did unbelievable things on them, like riding bikes – I don’t mean one bike but four bikes going past each other. They played Carrom Board, it was so wide. In Eid, the doors would be open in every house and you would have all these people, swathes of people going up and down the corridors in their glitzy outfits, going to people’s houses, eating samosas. It gave you the opportunity to live an outdoor life.”

Exterior façade and southern “head” of the west block, junction of Cotton Street with Poplar High Street, showing the impressed bands of the two street decks. @copy; Kois Miah, March 2015.

Though often misrepresented as a hubristic modernist move against the terraced working-class street, the streets in the sky were a response to the latter’s crisis. It was a crisis consequent on the verticality of post-war high-rise development, where streets were swapped out for internal access corridors and nondescript plots of open space; the urban dominance of the car, which degraded and substituted for safe and social street life; and the anti-urban suburbanisation of the New Towns movement.

William and Laetitia Fakamus and family in their living room. @copy; Kois Miah, November 2016.

The estate’s residents talked enthusiastically about the social, spatial, and sensory qualities of the streets in the sky. When we asked William and Laetitia Fakamus if they wouldn’t prefer a private balcony, the couple responded that balconies in the new developments might look attractive, but they consolidate an insular approach to life, the correlate of a housing industry that “cares more about money” than the “meaning of life.”

“Here we all know each other,” William said, “but if you go into a private balcony you will know nothing or nobody.” For Laetitia, walking along the decks could recall the catwalks of her youth as a fashion model, while, a Christian, she imagined the wonder of God’s global embrace in their expansive visual connectivity to airplanes, cars, pedestrians, and river boats.

The Fakamus family at home. @copy; Kois Miah, November 2016.

Kois photographed the Fakamus family on a Sunday morning amidst the bustle of getting ready for church. This is one of a number of sets of photographs in the exhibition that follow an individual or family in their routine activity through different rooms in their homes and parts of the estate, showing the estate’s social and personal life, its living architecture.

Grandfather and granddaughter on the stairs. @copy; Kois Miah, November 2016.
Grandfather and granddaughter in the kitchen. @copy; Kois Miah, November 2016.
Young man on the stairs, with one of the estate’s distinctive deck-facing triangular windows. @copy; Kois Miah, November 2016.
Laetitia Fakamus and son. @copy; Kois Miah, November 2016.
Leaving the maisonette. @copy; Kois Miah, November 2016.
William Fakamus and daughters, ground-floor lift lobby. @copy; Kois Miah, November 2016.
The Fakamus family leaving the estate. @copy; Kois Miah, November 2016.
Boy on a street in the sky, east block. @copy; Kois Miah, October 2015.

On our visits to the estate we sometimes saw young children playing on the decks, kicking balls, scootering, riding small bicycles. This boy, as his mother explained, liked to walk visitors to and from the lift at one end of the street deck outside his home, which he was doing with us when something in the view caught his attention.

Urban Re-Identification, grid display at CIAM 9 in Aix-en-Provence, 83 x 275 cm. @copy; Alison and Peter Smithson, 1953. Smithson Family Collection.

A response to the crisis of the street, the streets in the sky were also a break with modernism’s governing urban model, where the city was divided into the “four functions” of dwelling, work, and recreation, linked together by transportation. Just how different the Smithsons’ approach was to the problem of the street can be seen in their grid display Urban Re-Identification. Rather than comprising four distinct functions, here the social life of the city is conceived of as four nested “scales of association,” named across the top of the grid as house, street, district, and city.

In these scales, urban association is processual, patterned, and improvised, with each scale interrelated in a “modulated continuum” that registers the “true complexity of human associations,” as the Smithsons put it. And its governing sensibility, the sensibility of the street, is figured here by children’s play, in Nigel Henderson’s photographs of street games in Bow, east London – what Peter Smithson calls a sensibility of “improvization, invention, an urban choreography, a territorial flexibility, an impromptu sociability.”

Golden Lane: Street Deck. @copy; Alison and Peter Smithson, 1952–1953. Smithson Family Collection.

The Smithsons first proposed the architectural form of the street deck in their Golden Lane competition entry in the early 1950s, where it was named “streets-in-the-air.” In Golden Lane: Street Deck, the aerial street fills the metre-wide collage, the viewer positioned at pedestrian level looking along its length to a distant vanishing point. Now the joyful and spontaneous sociality of play from the Smithsons’ Urban Re-Identification grid is figured primarily by adults, not children.

Among the collaged figures, including a man on all-fours playing with a toddler, are Marilyn Monroe and the basketball player Joe DiMaggio. With their Hollywood glamour and joyous demeanour, the couple bring a sense of “dissonance” to the image, as Ben Highmore observes, wherein the street-deck’s sociality takes on a fantastic or utopian quality. Here, in impoverished post-war London, “the daily grind of working-class life is miraculously swapped for glamour, youth, and health.” What is also being figured is openness – the air or sky of the streets in the sky, even the ceiling and ground rendered as empty expanses of paper, “light and airy, an almost nothing.”

Art of the “As Found”. @copy; Alison and Peter Smithson, 1968–1970. Smithson Family Collection.

The 1970s setting of Robin Hood Gardens, at the north-eastern edge of London’s shipping docks, was one of industrial decline, the docks finished off by containerisation and the new deep-water dock downriver at Tilbury. In response, the Smithsons considered the scheme to be a “Roman” endeavour of sufficient scale and monumentality to have a catalytic force of urban renewal. But this was not to sweep clean the site’s pre-existent conditions. On the contrary, the site was approached “as found,” as an arrangement of existent, broken, and incomplete social patterns, connecting routes, and structures.

The “as found,” for the Smithsons, was a research sensibility of “picking up, turning over and putting with,” where a site’s fragmentary conditions were to be knitted into the new. Walking the site prior to the build, Alison Smithson and the couple’s son, Simon, collected china shards – ships’ ballast or cargo fallout, their prior functionality uncertain – which were assembled and set in 54 tiles of shutter-formed concrete to fashion a mural for the estate’s old people’s club, titled Art of the “As Found.”

Art of the “As Found.” Alison and Peter Smithson, 1968–1970. @copy; Tile mural in situ in the estate’s old people’s club. Smithson Family Collection.
Adrienne Sargeant, on an east block street in the sky. @copy; Kois Miah, August 2016.

Adrienne lived in two maisonettes on the estate between 1974 and 2011. She recalls with amusement returning home from school one day to find an unseasonal expanse of snow across the green – it was the filming of a 1980s Levi’s commercial, where the estate was cast as an imposing Soviet monolith against a foreground of fake snow. But Adrienne didn’t at all find the estate imposing or monolithic. For her, the maisonettes’ generous proportions and variable configurations of rooms were an exciting change from the cramped and standardised pre-war tenements where she had lived previously.

As a young girl, Adrienne and her friends would walk from their homes on the adjacent Isle of Dogs to sit and watch the later-stage construction of Robin Hood Gardens, recalling now that it looked “fancy” and “massive.” When her family moved in, the estate’s green and mound was a “wonderland,” “like something you’d never seen.” On warm summer nights they would pull chairs out onto the street deck and eat their dinner raised up in the open air. She remembers the strong attachment held by her father, who hailed from Barbados and worked as a bus conductor: “he absolutely loved it here, absolutely loved it.”

Street-facing façade of the east block, with Adrienne Sargeant looking out from a seventh-floor street deck. @copy; Kois Miah, August 2016.
Jimmy Yorke, caretaker and former resident. @copy; Kois Miah, July 2014.

Jimmy was a caretaker on the estate until his retirement, which coincided with the final “decanting” of residents from the west block. He and his family had lived at Robin Hood Gardens for ten years from the mid-1980s. Jimmy used to grow tomatoes on his street deck, where it caught the sun, and recalled how on summer evenings neighbours would stay out on the decks until nine or ten, drinking tea and walking about. Taking advantage of the abandoned docks before the arrival of Canary Wharf, his teenage kids and their friends on the estate would go swimming in nearby Poplar Docks.

Collage of west-block street deck and maisonette no. 96, with Cotton Street leading south toward the Isle of Dogs. @copy; Peter Smithson and Christopher Woodward, 1971–1972. Smithson Family Collection.

These are two of four collages of the estate’s completed streets in the sky. On one side of each is a sectional drawing of a maisonette with a portion of street deck, and on the other a collaged photograph of the views, captured from the decks themselves and montaged with the earlier project diagrams.

There is more realism to these diagrams than most of the Smithsons’ architectural drawings, but they still serve to evoke or figure form, for the Smithsons a crucial function of diagrams. This is not so much in the content of the view, but in how this content evokes a sense of view and of elevation, of being in the sky.

Collage of east-block street deck and maisonette no. 210, looking south toward the Thames. @copy; Peter Smithson and Christopher Woodward, 1971–1972. Smithson Family Collection.