Fragments of Robin Hood Gardens

Originally published in Frieze, May 2018

In 1976, British architects Alison and Peter Smithson brought a fragment of east London to the Venice Biennale. Sticks and Stones, the Smithsons’s small installation, was part of the ‘Europa–America’ exhibition, which contrasted American and European approaches to urban planning, held in one of the city’s former salt warehouses. It comprised a billboard-scale photograph of their 1972 brutalist social-housing estate, Robin Hood Gardens, and a viewing bench modelled after the facade’s projecting concrete mullions. Printed large enough to impress biennale-goers with what Norman Foster later called the ‘heroic scale’ of Robin Hood Gardens, the photograph depicted the outward-facing facade of the estate’s western block and its three-metre-high noise-reducing concrete perimeter wall.

Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1972, Robin Hood Gardens was the only social housing estate designed by the Smithsons, the culmination of an extensive body of research and writing on modern means of city living. Tasked with creating replacement housing for Victorian terraces deemed unfit for purpose in a landscape of waning industry, the Smithsons created two blocks of ten and seven storeys, angled, according to Peter Smithson, like a splayed-out kipper. The pair sought to retain the sociability of terraced street life without the fume-ridden cacophony of the streets themselves. Spaced at every third storey, external balconied walkways – ‘streets in the sky’ – were intended to be wide enough for children to play and neighbours to chat. The vast green ‘safe zone’ constructed between the two blocks, which fronted major roads on three sides of the site, provided the luxury of a comparatively tranquil green space to residents of the estate’s 214 flats.

Yet, before Robin Hood Gardens had completed construction, there were signs that the Smithsons’s ideas about new modes of living may not have been popular with the communities they were intended to house. Responding to questions of vandalism on the construction site in a peculiar 1970 film, The Smithsons on Housing, made by author BS Johnson, Alison Smithson comments that it is, ‘our duty to speak about vandalism in order to safeguard the architect’s dream of what housing could be like’. Earlier, Peter mentions an on-site worker who claimed that the architects were building something ‘too good’ for the people who were going to live in it. His response: ‘We feel an obligation to build for successive occupying generations.’ 

And so, the future generations of the 1970s, today’s generation, condemned Robin Hood Gardens to destruction. A campaign initiated by Building Design in 2008 sought to have the estate listed on architectural merit, despite its having long since fallen into disrepair. Similar to countless of London’s postwar social housing projects, maintenance of Robin Hood Gardens was grossly neglected by the local authority, Tower Hamlets. BD’s campaign was ultimately unsuccessful and listing efforts were twice refused by English Heritage. According to the listing body, it wasn’t a case that Robin Hood Gardens never quite lived up to its original vision, but that its original vision wasn’t worthy of human habitation in the first place.

Once the listing campaign had been definitively defeated, Tower Hamlets council revealed plans for a replacement development, Blackwall Reach. A bland array of indistinctive towers, the new estate will see 1,575 residences replace the 214 of Robin Hood Gardens, with 45% earmarked as ‘affordable housing’. After nine years of back-and-forth, demolition of Robin Hood Gardens finally began in August 2017. Three months later, the Victoria and Albert Museum revealed that they had acquired a three-storey segment of the estate including a maisonette flat interior, sections of a stairway and part of the elevated walkway.

While some were delighted that at least a small part of the architectural heritage of Robin Hood Gardens was being preserved for posterity, others were furious that the V&A – a so-called ‘arms-length’ body, governed by a Board of Trustees appointed by the Prime Minister – considered the estate valuable enough to collect, but not valuable enough to help save from demolition in the first instance. Still others were incredulous as to why a monstrous concrete carbuncle, a dilapidated remnant of compromised utopian ideals of social housing, merited collection by one of Britain’s most venerable museums. 

The V&A had been holding back another surprise, however. Earlier this year, it announced that a second fragment of Robin Hood Gardens would be exhibited at the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale. The exhibition, entitled ‘Robin Hood Gardens: A Ruin in Reverse’ will see a piece of the estate’s ‘street in the sky’ re-erected on a scaffold frame in the Arsenale grounds on which visitors will be able to climb and reflect.

Olivia Horsfall Turner, co-curator of the V&A’s Venice installation, offers that the exhibition is an attempt to encourage broader discussion about the market forces affecting property prices in cities around the world and the urgent need for affordable housing. ‘The Smithsons […] believed in building council housing to the highest possible standards and specifications […] that would last for generations,’ says Horsfall Turner. ‘Despite the fate of Robin Hood Gardens, these are still admirable aspirations […] Talking about how architects can make a positive contribution to the future of social housing can’t fix the problem overnight, but it’s part of raising awareness and working towards solutions.’

Given its relatively short lifespan of 45 years, the history of Robin Hood Gardens has been fraught with complexity and controversy. Whatever the architectural faults or merits of the estate, the anger of its residents or the frustrations felt by those who sought its listing, perhaps the demolition of Robin Hood Gardens and its subsequent collection by the V&A is for the best. The estate could have been listed and then renovated, as with Sheffield’s 1961 Park Hill, where former residents were decanted and then unable to return thanks to grossly increased property prices. 

The Smithsons themselves certainly understood that architecture operates not in a social and political vacuum, ‘but in a situation of flux and change’, as Alison says in The Smithsons on Housing. And when the Victorian terraces were demolished to make way for Robin Hood Gardens, their remnants were used to construct a key garden feature. In another 1967 text, the Smithsons wrote that, ‘buildings should be thought of from the beginning as fragments’. Perhaps on occasion fragments can teach us more about what it means to live together than buildings themselves.

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