Published On: Tue, Nov 14th, 2017

Robin Hood Gardens and the divisiveness of brutalism

IT HAS an almost mythical status in the canon of post-war British buildings. Clad in precast concrete panels, with apartments rising and descending from wide, raised decks (referred to as “streets in the sky”), Robin Hood Gardens embodies the brutalist desire to renegotiate the relationship between architecture, citizens and society. Built as two long concrete superstructures with a ceremonial mound at the centre of its ample public gardens, it is considered the realisation of the ideas that Peter and Alison Smithson, the great ideologues of brutalism, had promulgated through their teaching. The buildings, and its 252 flats, were to be a “demonstration of a more enjoyable way of living…of a new mode of urban organisation”. 

But by the time of the building’s completion in 1972, brutalism was already old hat. As with many public housing projects, the local authority budgets used to manage the estates were slashed in the late 1970s, and it fell into disrepair. Despite a campaign to have it placed on Historic England’s heritage list, the site is now being demolished to make way for more than 1,500 new homes. That is, apart from a small section rescued by the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. 

A three-storey module of Robin Hood Gardens is currently being dismantled for assimilation into the V&A archive: it is the largest fragment of a modern building to be accepted by a museum. The rear and front concrete façades, concrete door casements and exterior decking will all be preserved, as will the interior maisonette. Museum technicians have already begun the painstaking work of removing original light fittings, kitchen units and airing cupboards which will later be reassembled. 

Although far bigger than previous acquisitions—the largest structure currently in the V&A’s possession is a 19th-century cast of Trajan’s column in Rome—the Robin Hood Gardens piece is in keeping with the museum’s attitude to architectural preservation. The 17th-century timber façade of Sir Paul Pindar’s house in Bishopsgate, London is currently on display in the museum. And while brutalism still leaves many cold, and Robin Hood Gardens is a particularly polarising incarnation of that style, contemporary historians of the period are excited. “Collecting a sample portion of RHG makes for a fascinating updating of the V&A’s 20th-century policy of collecting rooms and elements from stately homes that were being demolished,” says Barnabas Calder, the author of “Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism”. 

Few institutions have attempted anything like this in terms of modern architecture, and Olivia Horsfall Turner, Senior Curator of Designs at the V&A, states that they have been incredibly ambitious. “The Cité de L’Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris has a 1:1 model of an apartment from Le Corbusier’s classic Habitation in Marseille, but that isn’t original. And the Science Museum has a small section of the Ronan Point high rise [which partially collapsed in 1968].” But there are no examples of entire modernist apartments, both exterior and interior, in contemporary collections. 

The size will undoubtedly create interesting problems for creators and technicians in the months and years ahead. The poured concrete structure which supports all the rescued elements will need to be replaced so that the whole thing can stand up. Yet the decision to choose a tricky piece of public housing that is located in east London is not accidental. It came from Liza Fior, a partner at Muf, an architecture and art practice, who used a year-long residency at the V&A to explore how the museum’s new facility in Queen Elizabeth Park, the former Olympic site near Stratford, might relate to the community which surrounds it. Although the museum is remaining tight-lipped about the V&A East (as it is currently known), it is likely that the Robin Hood Gardens acquisition will be displayed there. 

While the building still divides opinion—is it the acme of a new social vision, or a grey and damp failure?—the V&A’s acquisition will allow the public and designers to study its construction more closely. It is possible that this process of re-contextualising the building may win it some new fans. “One of the many privileges of the residency was witnessing the thoughtful precision of the contractors, recording and planning the reverse construction processes of taking apart the two flats, piece by piece,” Ms Fior says. “It was a process which revealed, in turn, the thought involved in so many of the design moves in Robin Hood Gardens.” The irony is that the building had to be destroyed for this appreciation to take place.

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Robin Hood Gardens and the divisiveness of brutalism