"Robin Hood Gardens: A Ruin in Reverse" will be presented by the Victoria and Albert Museum and La Biennale di Venezia at the Pavilion of Applie


I discussed Robin Hood Gardens with students on many occasions. (Indeed, the Smithsons' work has always held a fascination with architects.) There was always a good discussion after their visits to the estate, a living warning that an architect's social idealism and aesthetic intentions mean little if the building is not properly managed.

The widely reported social problems for tenants living in Robin Hood Gardens, as well as the high cost of the refurbishment it needed, were the reasons given for the decision to demolish it. These are perfectly valid reasons from the perspective of a cash-strapped local authority. Just as important a factor however, was the financial value of the site, near one of London's financial cores, and the possibility of erecting a much denser redevelopment, where flats for sale will subsidize a reduced element of socially rented housing retained by the local council. 

This is a process of densification and gentrification, along with the weakening of influence of councils as housing providers, that is going on everywhere in central London. Robin Hood Gardens was sadly caught up in this process. 

A parallel story was the poor effort from English Heritage, the statutory body responsible for the protection of old buildings, to the campaign to save this important piece of architecture. Of course, with some public subsidy the building could have been refurbished, the tenant mix could have been changed and the estate better managed, and it could have been made into a very popular place to live in east London. 

Historic England is good at standing up for pre-modern buildings, but not for modernist ones. They were not willing to burden the local council with the responsibility of looking after the building by designating it a listed building. In this case they were behind the times. In fact, brutalism has become increasingly popular with the public, particularly the younger generation, who are not afraid of concrete and identify with its optimism, its lack of fussiness and its careful planning of flats and social spaces.