Learning from the Smithsons
Exhibition Review

Social housing design is back on the agenda but there are no stock answers. Joanna Day joins the conversation at an exhibition by Karakusevic Carson Architects:

As an architectural endeavour, housing – perhaps especially social housing – is where design meets many rocks and hard places. It hits up against politics, economics and security, none of which the architect has much control over. As we have seen over the last century, this makes the issue of culpability when it comes to unsuccessful neighbourhoods a thorny issue.

The politics, economics and security issues of our time are, of course, particular and uncharted, changing from one general election to another. Learning from the past becomes a business to be achieved effectively by the discerning designer only.

It’s a complex world. We hear so much bad news about the “housing crisis” that it is refreshing to find some positive progress being quietly undertaken by a number of local authorities in London who have been, once again, building their own social housing. This world is full of necessities such as cross-sector subsidies and mixed-tenure developments. It is also one where the architect who can collaborate with existing communities is king.

The gradual progress is beginning to produce some quiet but often refined and considered schemes by architects such as Karakusevic Carson Architects as displayed at their exhibition In The Making, which has just finished a run at the RIBA.

This clearly displayed exhibition, with a comprehensive and stylish little catalogue, gives us a glimpse of how the council estates of the future are beginning to develop. One such scheme (the Blackwall Reach Regeneration Project) is the replacement for the Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens and so is steeped in controversy.

The ideas that the Smithsons tried to embody in their work – the redefinition of the street, the importance of the pedestrian, and the building of communities – vex us still. We should watch with interest as the KCA projects continue to unfold. Perhaps they are quietly finding some answers.

This first appeared on bdonline on 18 May 2015