Concrete Futures architecture walking tour

I joined this RIBA walking tour last year which took me around the areas surrounding (but unfortunately not into) Balfron Tower and Robin Hood Gardens.

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Robin Hood Gardens, photo courtesy of Neil Clasper Photography

The two social housing projects had been selected for the tour due to their contrasting fates: whilst Balfron Tower was undergoing a glamorous refurbishment at the time, Robin Hood Gardens was facing imminent demolition.

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Balfron Tower, photo courtesy of Dezeen

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Carradale House, photo courtesy of Architects Journal

Balfron Tower was designed by Ernő Goldfinger in 1963 for the London County Council. Stylistically similar to the later Trellick Tower, Balfron Tower was Grade II* listed in 1996. The refurbishment works, undertaken as a joint partnership with luxury residential developer Londonewcastle, have been going on since 2011. All properties in the tower will be sold off once the refurbishment is done with none of them going back to the social housing tenants who lived there before.

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Due to the refurbishment works, the tower had been wrapped in a rather Javacheff Christo-style chrysalis on the day of the tour so it wasn’t much to look at. We had to make do with Carradale House instead, an adjacent, lower rise 11-storey building designed by Goldfinger to complement the 26-storey tower. Carradale House building had a similar look and feel to Balfron Tower with the same sky bridges and access at every third floor.

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While the tour didn’t extend to going inside either building, I understand that all flats in Carradale House have dual window aspect and large south facing balconies, letting in plenty of natural light, with natural wood panels on each side.

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The above pictures of Goldfinger’s former flat in Balfron Tower, which designer Wayne Hemingway restored in 2014 as part of a National Trust exhibition on brutalism (I recall trying and failing to get tickets for this) give you an idea of what the flats in Balfron Tower and Carrdale House were/are like.

The next stop on the tour was Robin Hood Gardens, or rather the remaining sections of the estate that hadn’t yet been demolished.

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Robin Hood Gardens was designed in the late 1960s by architects Alison and Peter Smithson and completed in 1972. It was built as a council housing estate consisting of two long curved blocks made of precast concrete slab blocks facing each other across a central green space.

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The blocks contained 213 homes connected by broad aerial walkways on every third floor (so-called “streets in the sky”) which the architects hoped would encourage interaction between residents. In addition, alcoves called “pause spaces” were provided next to the entrance doorways on the “streets” which the architects hoped the residents would personalise and where children would play. The flats themselves were a mixture of single-storey apartments and two-storey maisonettes, with two to six bedrooms.

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Interior of a flat in Robin Hood Gardens (Sandra Lousada, 1972 © The Smithson Family Collection) courtesy of Municipal Dreams

Unfortunately, it transpired over the years that the design of the estate was inherently flawed. The exposed concrete slab blocks weathered poorly and the location meant that the estate was cut off from its surroundings by roads, exacerbated by its inward-facing design. The “streets in the sky” and the pause places outside the doorways were not used by the residents for their intended purpose and only served to create numerous blind spots for muggers.

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Streets in the sky, Robin Hood Gardens

Visiting the remaining parts of the estate in person, it was still a very striking piece of architecture and I could see why so many renowned architects and heritage bodies campaigned against its demolition. However, it was also undeniably bleak. I was unsurprised to hear that the majority of the former residents – the people who actually had to live on the estate – supported its demolition.

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In a slightly bizarre twist, the V&A Museum salvaged a large three-storey section of the estate, including the gutted interiors of a maisonette flat, sections of concrete stairway and part of an elevated walkway, on the grounds that the estate was a nationally important and internationally recognised work of Brutalist architecture. This was recently reconstructed for display in Venice.

Section of Robin Hood Gardens on display in Venice

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