The Charged Void

Tug of war in the green, Summer Fun Day, organised by SPLASH. @copy; Kois Miah, July 2014.

Overlooked by all the apartments, though sufficiently large not to feel surveilled, residents described many uses of the estate’s central green, including cricket, sunbathing, barbecues, gardening, cycling, winter sledging, giant “tag” games that extended out and along the street decks, and flirtatious self-display, teenagers conscious of eyes from the homes above.

Dheraj Shamoo, who moved into the estate as a family of three teenage brothers, recalled impromptu Guy Fawkes’ firework displays from the garden’s mound – they “looked amazing,” “everyone would go to their balconies to watch.” Motiur Rahman talks of spending whole summers on the green as a child, coming in briefly for lunch, then “out again, and the next time you came in was 8pm when the sun went down. You were absolutely blissful and sort of lost in those moments.” Parents would keep an eye on the children from the escape balconies, but there was “safety in numbers,” “you could hear the kids playing,” “it felt like a little cocoon where you were just completely safe.”

Robert Smith tending the garden plot outside his flat. @copy; Kois Miah, April 2020.

Some resident gardeners commandeered the areas outside of their ground-floor flats, or small allotment-like plots in areas normally reserved for shrubs, growing vegetables, predominantly, and sometimes flowers.

Abdul Rahim and his garden plot. @copy; Kois Miah, May 2016.

Many first-generation British Bangladeshis came from rural villages in the north east of Bangladesh, straight into the urban sprawl of London. They were used to open, green spaces where planting and harvesting food was integral to daily life. In estates across east London they have continued the practice, when unobstructed by local authorities, growing coriander, mustard, chilis, marrows, beans, and other produce which compliment fish-based curries.

On our many visits to the estate we observed one garden plot in particular, at various stages of preparation and growth, but it was a long time before Kois met the gardener himself, Abdul Rahim, seen here holding a planting stick and seedling. Mr Rahim’s family later visited our project’s photography exhibition at Four Corners gallery, where we were sad to hear that he had passed away.

Courgette plant growing in a garden plot, with hint of the yellow of the estate’s original four-colour paint scheme. @copy; Kois Miah, May 2019.
Nicholas Ruddock, with view of the cranked shape of the estate’s west block. @copy; Kois Miah, September 2015.

We accompanied Mr Ruddock as he moved out of the west block of Robin Hood Gardens into the adjacent new-build, part of the first phase of the Blackwall Reach regeneration. For a short period before demolition, his new apartment afforded a wonderful aerial view of the garden and the undulating shape of the block. This effect was achieved through the choice of length over height, and the cranks of the building at plan, as the structure came to harness the ground in what the Smithsons described as a dynamic “lock between built-form and counterpart space.”

This lock between the structure and its ground had different effects on the street and garden sides of the estate. On the street sides (Cotton Street and the Blackwall Tunnel approach road), the lock was one of defence and inversion, part of the estate’s measures against automotive traffic. The cranked contours of the buildings followed the roads, separated by an “acoustic boundary wall,” which deflected traffic noise at source, while the street decks were elevated away and residents’ cars were channelled below the car-free central site into two open-air moats of garages.

In contrast, on the garden-facing sides, the lock between building and ground served the scheme’s primary aim of “protection.” Split like a kipper, as Peter Smithson described the relation between the two buildings, they nurtured between them the garden “stress-free zone” amidst the urban tumult.

Nicholas Ruddock, packing up to move. @copy; Kois Miah, September 2015.
Nicholas Ruddock on the top street deck of the west block, moving home. @copy; Kois Miah, September 2015.
Nicholas Ruddock at the entrance to the west-block’s garage “moat”. @copy; Kois Miah, September 2015.

The concierge building to the left of this photograph and the wall of glass block and brick on the right were added in 1995. Peter Smithson, on hearing of the tender for the concierge work, for which he hadn’t been consulted, called for the estate to be listed, though no listing application was made and he was belatedly consulted about the design.

Garden and mound, hiding and revealing the east block. @copy; Nick Thoburn, August 2016.

My own experience of the garden stress-free zone was deeply affective and multi-sensory, where sound played a significant role. On summer weekdays, when I found myself most drawn to pass time in the green, the soundscape was an enveloping mix of birdsong, traffic (considerably muted, as the design intended), aircraft routed through nearby City Airport, and human voices, all parts various over the topography and through the course of the day. It had a singular consistency.

In a smaller scheme, the sheer walls of the semi-bounded site might have created a claustrophobic echo effect, but here they served to blend and soften the constituent elements of sound, partially abstracting them from source into a distinct soundscape with interlaced streams. Its impact on one’s mood – calming, contemplative, and a touch dissociating – is hard to imagine in a new development, with the obligatory construction of public space through points of commercial consumption. As Khaled Elgohari, a resident since his youth, remarked to me as we walked through the garden, “from a developer’s point of view the green would be seen as wasted space” – where are the cafes and shops? – but these areas of undetermined use “are what makes a community.”

The “charged void” of the garden and mound . @copy; Nick Thoburn, April 2018.

“A building is only interesting,” the Smithsons wrote, “if it charges the space around it with connective possibilities.” This is what they call the “charged void” or “space between.” In contrast to the gridded space of modernist planning, where space is bound to economic utility, the space between is a void. But it’s a void that is charged, through its relation to the built surround – a space “between … relaxedness and intensity, separateness and connection,” in Max Risselada’s words. As a void, the space between allows for impromptu and multiple uses. And it has an affective quality, an atmosphere – a “magical emptiness” which can take over the architecture as primary spatialising force.

The Brutalist mound at inception. @copy; Peter Smithson, 1972. Smithson Family Collection.

“Hills are a great formal idea, ever various, expressive of mood, expectant of weather.” The Smithsons understood that inserted in the estate’s traffic-bound, ex-industrial setting, the bucolic quality of the estate’s central mound was a remarkable asset. In caretaker Wayne Alison’s words, “It is something you see in the countryside, not in the middle of east London!”

Originally only grass planted, and once accompanied by a smaller partner, over time the mound became abundant with shrubs and trees. Its height of two stories was enough to have a commanding presence in the garden, where it extended the kinetic quality of the estate, hiding and revealing parts and wholes of the two buildings as one walked along the garden’s edges or around and over the mound. The mound featured prominently too within the apartments, so much a part of the sight lines that in many of the bedrooms and kitchens it appeared to lean in to the building.

East block seen through trees from half-way up the mound. @copy; Kois Miah, April 2015.

For all the estate’s pleasures of landscape, it is important to appreciate the artificial or constructed form of the green and its mound. If they brought a little of the countryside into working-class Poplar, and if, in the Smithsons’ imagination, there was something of an English landscape in play here, it was a complex and contradictory formation, not a means to ground a nativist working class.

Architecturally, the green’s interplay with the sheer concrete blocks could scarcely suggest an English idyll, and the mound had a deliberately constructed quality. It references ancient earthworks like Silbury Hill, 1960s Land Art, and the slag heaps familiar to the coal-mining regions of the Smithsons’ youth, picking up the strange atmospheres of these forms in its intervention in the classed urban landscape of east London.

The mound of rubble. Tony Ray-Jones, 1972. @copy; RIBA Library Photographs Collection.

The mound was not a natural feature of east London topography but a great assembling of existent rubble – rubble from the demolished Grosvenor Buildings tenements that preceded the estate and other spoil from construction. The Smithsons were keen to convey this, and it is well known among residents. Two I spoke with who witnessed the assembling of the mound recalled with pleasure, and what I took to be knowing participation in the estate’s mythology, the sight of old prams, bicycles, bathtubs, and cookers piled up amidst the rubble.

Collage of Manisty Street scheme. @copy; Peter Smithson, 1963. Smithson Family Collection.

Manisty Street (1962–1964) was the first iteration of what would become Robin Hood Gardens, for a smaller plot of the same site. In the foreground of the collage, Twiggy, the 1960s model and pop-cultural icon, adds a playful and dissonant quality to the image, though other characters are plausible inhabitants of the scheme. The idea of a rubble-filled mound was already prominent here, which has a mysterious form in this collage, reminiscent of a flying saucer perhaps.

Street decks are present too, but they are not on the exterior elevation, as at Robin Hood Gardens, but face the green, and four of them are glazed, again unlike the built estate. The photograph snippet on the bottom right appears to be a robed character striding through undergrowth, lending a theatrical, vaguely pagan quality to the collage.

Sundial on the mound. Designed by David Bratby of SPLASH Arts and children from Woolmore Primary School, built by Maud Milton of Artyface. @copy; David Bratby, 2000.

In a refurbishment at the turn of the millennium, the estate’s mound gained a large sundial, the summit slightly flattened with a concrete circle, set with coloured enamel tiles in the shape of a bow and arrow, after the estate’s Sherwood Forest namesake. It told the solar time when a person acting as gnomon to cast the shadow stood on the correct month sequenced in the arrow’s feather. The tiles in the bow were glazed with designs by children from the adjacent primary school – the Egyptian sun god Ra, a flying fish with clock, seagulls, and other creatures, following the theme of “time flies.”

Completion of the maze from St Catherine’s Hill atop the mound in Poplar, Balfron Tower in the distance. @copy; Eve Lear with anon., 2017.

With its anomalous presence in the landscape of Poplar and echoes of Silbury Hill, the mound had an unmistakable mythic or totemic quality. It’s a quality that must have enticed the person or persons who, in spring 2017, marked up its summit with the seventeenth-century maze from St Catherine’s Hill, Winchester.

Tees Pudding, plan and elevation. @copy; Alison and Peter Smithson, 1977. Smithson Family Collection.

In the green’s millennium refurbishment, a staircase ascent was added to the mound and a spiral path to its summit. Wittingly or not, the spiral echoes the Smithsons’ Tees Pudding proposal for a gorse- and wildflower-covered slag mound at a bend in the River Tees at Middlesbrough, where two spiral paths lead to a summit viewing-circle.

View of Summer Fun Day from the mound. @copy; Kois Miah, August 2014.

The summer Fun Days held each year at Robin Hood Gardens and other estates in the area are organised by SPLASH (South Poplar and Limehouse Action for Secure Housing). Established by Sister Christine Frost in the late 1980s, SPLASH has been a local campaigning force since the arrival in the area of the Canary Wharf financial district, organising against demolitions and stock transfers to housing associations, and for estate investment and improved community resources. In the Robin Hood Gardens Tenants’ and Residents’ Association, Sister Christine played a prominent role in the campaign against the estate’s demolition and subsequently in the struggle to improve the tenancies and leaseholder agreements at Blackwall Reach.

Mother and daughter, Summer Fun Day. @copy; Kois Miah, August 2014.
Summer Fun Day. @copy; Kois Miah, August 2014.
Garage “moat” of the west block. @copy; Kois Miah, June 2015.

As part of the estate’s defences against the roads and traffic, residents’ cars were channelled away from the residential and garden areas into two open-air moats of garages. They ran the exterior length of each building at basement level, accessed by a ramp at one end of each moat and by internal stairwells.

Acoustic boundary wall along Cotton Street, at the entrance to the west block. @copy; Kois Miah, April 2015.

The acoustic wall that bordered the estate on two of its sides gave a false impression that it was closed off from its Poplar locale, when in fact one of the features residents most appreciated was the easy flow in and out of the apartments and the estate and the proximity to local amenities and transport. Unappealing though it was, the wall was a decisive response to the “destructive effect of cars – their obtrusiveness in places, their ability to get everywhere, their pollution.”

A “big road,” as the Smithsons expressed it so well, “is an overwhelming territorialising force in itself, absorbing all its margins into itself.” This was to be resisted by the acoustic wall. At ten-foot high and canted outward at the top, it deflected traffic noise as close to source as possible, after which the building was further separated by a row of trees, a thin stretch of grass, and a garage moat.

This is not to say that Robin Hood Gardens was a “quiet” estate. Dheraj Shamoo recalls some loud parties and neighbours yelling at them for their cricket games on the green: “We used to play cricket almost every weekend. We had some complaints, but that is how I met my closest friends.”

Socially negotiating the different problem of drugs on the estate, especially in the 1990s, was more fraught. Heroin had terribly damaging effects on some individuals and families. It is worth noting, though, that a number of residents remarked to us that users tended to keep to themselves. Rani Begum, for example: “I know there are people living here that do take drugs. But it has never bothered me and it’s never affected me. I do feel safe and I do love the flat I am living in and even the area I am living in. I’m quite happy because I know every place you go there is bad and good anyway.”

In any case, blaming drug problems on architecture and council estates, rather than on poverty and the lack of prospects and facilities for young people, is a highly suspect move. It always seems to favour not investment in working-class housing but estate demolition and working-class displacement, compounding the causes of what it claims to be solving.

Acoustic boundary wall, Poplar High Street. @copy; Kois Miah, March 2015.
View of the estate and its site, showing its relation to Cotton Street and the placement of the sound-baffling measures of the acoustic wall, trees, and moat between the road and the west block. @copy; Kois Miah, September 2015.
The estate’s football pitch, home of Robin Hood Tigers F.C., with whom the estate’s name lives on after demolition. @copy; Kois Miah, April 2015.

For so many residents we spoke with, having a football pitch right on their doorstep played a big part in their youth. Games of football involved complex interaction and negotiation among communities of kids, particularly between age groups, with younger children withdrawing to play in the green, or spectating, when the older kids arrived, sometimes from off site.

Abul Hasnath recalled an undercurrent of racism at times around the pitch in the first half of the 1990s – the period, he noted, when Derek Beackon, in nearby Millwall ward, became the first elected councillor of the avowedly racist British National Party. Abul suffered a racist attack on the pitch when he was twelve-years-old. He is clear, though, that the racism came in from outside, that these were not residents, and by the mid-1990s it was largely gone: “The white residents that were there were very well integrated with Bengalis. We really got on.”

Visual Connections of the People to their District. @copy; Alison Smithson, date unknown. Smithson Family Collection..

Centred around the stress-free zone, this is a diagram of the sight lines of the estate and its locale. Stylistically influenced by Louis Kahn’s 1952 diagram of Philadelphia traffic movement, the site is here demarcated by its pedestrian and automotive connectivity. Icons for eyes are distributed across the estate, with their sight lines connecting to ten or so built features of the neighbourhood, near and far, including ships routing around the Isle of Dogs, Brunswick Power Station, East India Dock, and Poplar’s All Saint’s Church.

The possibility of obtaining these views is created by the built forms of the estate, but what is so striking about the diagram is that the buildings themselves are entirely absent. This is a diagram of the sensory qualities of openness and view that are so significant to the scheme that the architecture by which they are enabled falls away.

Five friends. @copy; Kois Miah, November 2020.

These friends had lived on the estate since the mid-1980s. When I asked Musa if they had used the green as children, he laughed and said “Oh my gosh, Nick, we lived there!” As leading members of the estate’s Tenants’ and Residents’ Association, Musa and Abul campaigned hard to secure considerably improved tenancies and leaseholder arrangements in the residents’ move to Blackwall Reach, though these will only apply to the first generation of residents.