James Walker - The University of Greenwich
James’s project seeks to to ground Robin Hood Gardens into the surrounding urban neighbourhood and considerably increase the density of the site by weaving a radical rooftop ‘cloud’ into the existing building.
Robin Hood Gardens: ’Dense and Tense’
“When some concrete monstrosity – sorry, I mean modernist masterpiece – fails to make the cut despite having expert opinion behind it, let’s find a third way.” So said Margaret Hodge, then Culture Minister, on deciding not to list Robin Hood Gardens. Some thought this would sound the death knell for Alison and Peter Smithson’s brave and brutal 1966 design. Developers and the local council are looking to demolish and replace the existing housing stock. This design proposal has found a third way; it proposes a new capacity for Robin Hood Gardens, one both dense and tense. It comes from research and reflection of both the context and the history. These were important in the Atelier’s focus on Robin Hood Gardens: creating a lively debate amongst the school, atelier, public and wider architectural audience that explored ways of retaining and enhancing the buildings.
The contradictions of the Smithson’s architecture were pursued through a dissertation that explored the ’Janus Face’ found in their work, where the ’modern’ and the ’contemporary’ crossed. For the Smithsons the Robin Hood Gardens project was a site to explore the streets in the sky concept, yet at the same time it is an island within a sea of roads. The new design reflects the ’Janus face’ of the Smithson’s work; proposing a new brutal yet subtle structure sitting over the original blocks that both opens and densifies the original. The two structures (proposed and existing) sit apart and offer an architectural relief - a broader ’big’ street between the two. Open space at the ground plane is retained and subtly addressed to act as a catalyst to weave together the disparate, fragmented public realm of Poplar, Blackwall and All-saints by re-working the Smithsons’ ground notations. Wrapped in a monolithic stainless steel mesh, the proposed upper build emphasises the diligence and honesty of detail already present in the existing structure by offering itself in juxtaposition. As the user moves inside the building, the materials of the proposed intervention become more apparent with an assemblage of synthetic materials.
A narrative vision of a new architecture constructs a gunned-down architecture student murdered in the murky east-end developer and council world which leads to a regeneration with a deep red underbelly, flying cuts and routes; it is a radical approach. The engagement of the new and existing allow a temporal overlay of the existing and new structures. There is a visual language sourced and influenced by the Smithsons own drawings, whereby each part, component and material is subtly expressed to reveal truths behind their purpose.
In the context of the recent debate about Robin Hood Gardens, James took on the challenge to considerably increase the density of the site and to ground Robin Hood Gardens into the surrounding urban neighbourhood. He radically weaves the rooftop ‘cloud’ into the existing building – a controversial, but courageous and clear solution. Furthermore he addresses the issues of access – a journey from the surrounding neighbourhood up into the individual flat.
James is an amazing draughtsman and developed his very own method of masterplanning and designing a project. He explores all aspects of his design by sketching his way through the city and proposed building at all scales and perspectives. He very competently spans an arch right between the complexities of the wider urban context down to the smallest detail. He sketches continuously on a yellow trace roll and this roll goes straight up on to exhibition walls.
His wider project is based on a drawn narrative, which is composed having the current social, political and economic problems in mind. His thesis research about the Smithson’s directly influenced his design as well as his style of drawing. It contributed to his continuous critical reflection of his design process.
James’s proposal has been shown in an exhibition at the RIBA as part of the Twentieth Century Society’s campaign to list Robin Hood Gardens.
Nominated by Franziska Wagner, Jan Braker, Stefan Lengen, Swen Geiss