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2 MAY 2017 | Report by Philip Boyle

On Robin Hood Gardens and Building 6E at the University of Bath


Mies van der Rohe was consistent in his lifelong preoccupation with the full height, full width window, the view from inside to outside and the positioning and scale of buildings in the landscape. Whatever building type he was dealing with, from his first unbuilt scheme on the Rhine in 1910 for a Bismarck Monument to the little known Colonnade Apartments, of 1960 in Newark, New Jersey USA, these concerns are apparent.


In trying to understanding Robin Hood Gardens housing in London, it is useful to reflect on the basic architectural characteristics and virtues that it shares with Mies' Colonnade housing. It reflects the Smithsons' almost unique absorbtion of Mies' and Ludvig Hilberseimer's housing developments over the previous 40 years.


The two schemes are of course different in section, Robin Hood Gardens is a European three level crossover maisonette type with external deck access and the Colonnade is an internal corridor wide frontage single aspect flat type. However they both share full storey height and full width windows with uniform four bay mullions and these are positioned as a separate outside skin and related at regular intervals to separate internal structural columns or cross walls.


It is worth noting in both schemes that while internal structure frequently coincides with party walls, this is by no means universal, as might be assumed from a casual look. This design rationale results in a potential for great flexibility in being able to reconfigure internal spaces and vary the size and therefore type of housing to suit unanticipated future circumstances. This in turn ensures that these blocks are far more sustainable as long term solutions than types where external and party walls are structural and inhibit change or result in costly demolition, as is more common.

The size (numbers of storeys), length and therefore scale of block size, sometimes very long, were always very carefully considered by Mies and Hilberseimer in relation to aspect and topography. Both Lafayette Park, Detroit and Colonnade, New Jersey are in scale with their respective topographies, in the context of the views of their respective 'Downtowns' and large urban parks. They are composed as beautiful large scale objects within their urban environments. Both also have paired facing smaller blocks with a carefully considered shared space between.


As has been recognised, the Robin Hood Gardens site is particularly constricted between two intensively motor trafficked roads. At the time of its allocation as a housing site to the Smithsons they were at the back end of the queue. In-house GLC architects had first choice, then Local Authority in-house architects and finally the list of "shuffled" external consultants of which the Smithsons were one. Their site started as the smaller Minstry Street area with unrealised potential for expansion to the north.


Nevertheless at Robin Hood Gardens, the composition of paired parallel facing longish blocks developed by Mies and Hilberseimer at a sophisticated size and scale, is emulated by the Smithsons to particularly good and unique (in a British context) effect. Impressive within an almost impossible housing site.


Building 6E at the University of Bath presently houses the School of Architecture and Engineering. It is outstanding as the main built example of the Smithsons' architectural ideas about contextual response, movement through space, history, means of structure, cladding and uses of materials, incident as experience, all as a motive for form.


Whilst recognising that they would inevitability be influenced by the work of those they admired and understood, the Smithsons were keen to avoid simply copying the forms of others in their own work. They accepted a degree of self-consciousness inevitable for their generation, in their decisions and in the confidence of trusting their attitude. In this process they were mindful of the late work of Sigurd Lewerentz and his method of applying simplicity and rigour to the nature and formal use of materials.


The location of Building 6E at one entrance to the raised linear University campus means that it had to contain a route both vertical and horizontal running to and through it. They created a staircase of variable width that is stretched along one side of the building, part open and part enclosed, with steps and landings at irregular intervals. The experience of movement is composed of a series of incidents.


Traditional local Bath stone, a monochrome dirty yellow colour, is used for both horizontal and vertical external and internal surfaces of the building and is controlled vertically by continuous string courses at each storey height. The windows, doors, flues, rooflights and low pitch roof punctuate this order at random according to unexplained internal requirements on the long stair side, and gable end. On the other long elevation the window placement is a regular repeating pattern. All this echoes Max Bill's flexible directness in his University buildings at Ulm.


Internally horizontal circulation is by means of central corridors linking to stairs and lifts in an ordered way. However the accommodation of varying sizes – lecture theatres, studios and offices – are grouped together along the corridors so that lengths of corridor are cranked and small intermediate spaces result, a variety of random areas of incidence. In section, columns occur where structurally required but at random intervals, the top floor studios have northlight roof lights which when combined with the corridor planning produce some random in-between spaces.


The resultant building is expressive at every turn of their preoccupation with celebrating the most ordinary of elementary forms, resulting in casual incidents as people move through the space. This is a vocabulary that is initially self-consciously irritating, then on reflection humorous in its indulgence and finally reassuring in its imagination and optimism. The more familiar you become with this building The more it gives back. There is no more generous a gift for those who study here and who in Le Corbusier's terms "have eyes to see".


First published in Docomomo.UK Newsletter 30

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