When in the first decade of the 21st century it was announced that the demolition of the Robin Hood Gardens was inevitable, many lamented the death of the architectural feat. But amidst the commotion around what was to replace the concrete structure, what was once perceived as architectural “ugliness” was beginning to be seen in a new light. Today, the 1972 Brutalist masterpiece of the post-war era is planned to be somewhat memorialized in a London museum.
Late last week, the Victoria & Albert Museum of Art announced that it would preserve a portion of the Robin Hood Gardens as part of an exhibition planned to go on display in 2021. The segment of the building that is to be preserved is a small but decent three-story tranche of the structural icon that will depict the interior as well as the exterior of the building. This portion of the building will then be moved and relocated to the museum to join other architectural feats on display.
To replace the Robin Hood Gardens is a new housing complex commissioned by the Swedish firm C.F. Møller. The complex is projected to cost £300 million ($393 million) and will boast 330 housing units. Located in Poplar in East London, the garden, which will be named the “Millennium Green,” is expected to raise property prices, contributing to gentrification in the neighborhood.
The Robin Hood Gardens was a social housing complex built by architectural gurus Alison and Peter Smithson in 1972 and was modeled after what was called “New Brutalism” – a French-inspired architectural technique that was popularized between the 1950s and the 1970s and has made a comeback in recent years. The technique is well-known for its gross usage of concrete as the main material for construction but also to create a certain aesthetic that is often characterized as brutal or imposing – which explains its name. Other well-known structures that were modeled after Brutalism are UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design and The Embassy of the United States of America in Havana.
Architects Alison and Peter Smithson’s 1970s project came at a time when Britain viewed construction of buildings and structures as a kind of symbol of progress in the post-war era. And for the Smithson’s, functionality was key in their architectural designs. The Robin Hood Gardens housed 213 apartments and was built into two concrete structures, with an urban garden crouched in between them. The Smithson’s built the Gardens housing complex with the image of ‘progressive’ housing in mind, which was evident in the complex’s hallmark balconies that stretched across the length of the entire building, overlooking the garden down below. This concept also followed an architectural style called “streets in the sky” that was popularized at the turn of the 20th century.
For the community that stepped in to protest the demolition of the estate in a 2008 petition after the building was deemed unlivable, the preservation of a portion of the building is being considered a victory. However, many are also decrying Mark Smithson, son of the masterminds behind the Robin Hood Gardens, for not speaking out sooner to salvage the entire building. The apathy of London’s real estate leadership can also fall on their perception of Brutalist architecture, which was largely seen as an eyesore until recently.
Currently, the majority of the building, aside from the ‘maisonette’ that will be on display at the V&A Museum, is being demolished to make way for the new housing complex. With the erection of what is left of the Robin Hood Gardens, museum curators and architects alike are hoping that conversation around the controversy caused by the Brutalist structure in architectural and urbanist circles will continue to grow. “It’s not just the object that we’re preserving but it’s the issues that we want to keep alive,” said historian and senior curator of designs at the V&A Museum, Olivia Horsfall Turner, in an interview. “Because of the controversial nature we’re anxious that people see this as a real opportunity to maintain conversations about social housing, about urbanism,” she continued.