Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The Victoria and Albert Museum will conserve a chunk of the Robin Hood Gardens estate—a symbolic death knell for the ethos behind the city’s postwar public housing.
Lovers of both social housing and 20th-century architecture have been fretting about the fate of East London’s Robin Hood Gardens for years. A public housing project and Brutalist icon completed in 1972, the estate (as projects are called in the U.K.) has been run-down and facing demolition for some time, targeted by a local borough that wants to replace it with denser, more profitable housing.
Yesterday, some dramatic news came. Robin Hood Gardens will in a sense remain alive—just not in a way that anyone could have predicted. Wrecking balls will still level the place (a process that’s already begun), and new housing will still spring up in its place. But a 26-foot-high chunk of the building, comprising one duplex apartment, will now enjoy a strange second life.
It’s going to be scraped off the building’s carcass and preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, Britain’s national art and design collection, where it will go on display in the public galleries (possibly in an East London branch that’s due to open in 2021). A remnant of Britain’s great 20th century social housing experiment will end up not as somewhere to live, but as a museum exhibit.
The move isn’t entirely unprecedented. The V&A, as the museum is known in London, already displays the carved wooden façade of a 1599 London merchant’s house. The symbolism is nonetheless striking. After decades of neglect, a building designed to give better conditions to low-income Londoners will be gutted, its concrete trimmings preserved as a design artifact. Free to admire for its clean lines and rough textures, the building will be presented for aesthetic enjoyment after having been safely gelded of its social purpose. Given the estate’s name and the general social profile of London museum-goers, it’s hard not to notice the irony: The building is being taken from the poor and given to the rich.
To romanticize Robin Hood Gardens’ past would nonetheless be an over-simplification. Designed by architects Alison and Peter Smithson during a period when London was building projects that can only be described as avant-garde, it was certainly bold. It featured two 7-to-10-floor buildings that curved like angular brackets around a central green mound. Containing a mix of single-floor apartments and duplexes, these wings possessed at every third story a balconied gangway providing access, a “street in the sky” that would supposedly recreate the conviviality of the traditional working-class street without the noise and danger of cars.
They didn’t, however. The walkways were rather too narrow and windswept to function very well as public spaces. Visually, the estate’s gentle concrete zigzags were certainly striking, while the apartments themselves had generous, well-designed interiors. But things started to go awry in the project quite early. A building that might have seemed bleak by traditional aesthetic standards became quite concretely so, thanks to neglect by the borough, which over the years left the place leaky, unkempt, and in poor repair. The estate developed a reputation as somewhere it was a misfortune to live, a reputation exacerbated by a failure of maintenance so total that it comes across as somewhat studied in its intentions.
As conditions at Robin Hood Gardens deteriorated, however, its architectural prestige rose anew. When the borough of Tower Hamlets announced plans to demolish and rebuild on the site, it received a chorus of condemnation from many high-profile architects, including Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid, who described it as one of her favorite building projects. And since its demolition began, the estate has topped a list created by Britain’s Twentieth Century Society of great lost 20th-century buildings.
Residents’ opinions were more ambivalent. Many of them were understandably despondent at the project’s poor state and the social stigma that had come to be attached to living there, but opinions were divided. A 2008 consultation by the borough found that 75 percent of residents wanted it demolished, but in 2009, a contradictory survey reported 80 percent in favor of refurbishment, not reconstruction.
The decisions made to demolish have to do with far more than aesthetics and maintenance, however. Unlike in the U.S., the debate over Brutalism in Britain has really been a battle over wider social change, one in which aesthetic debates act as a proxy. That’s because, while British Brutalism produced some buildings aimed at wealthier clients (such as London’s highly desirable Barbican Centre), the Brutalist constructions most frequently reviled by planners and media have classically been housing projects and public buildings, reflections of a post-war social democratic, welfare-state-driven ethos.
That ethos is now as dead as any fossil. London’s housing projects are increasingly being redeveloped with more private housing, typically displacing many residents (despite prior assurances to the contrary) in the process. Robin Hood Gardens is being cleared away for a new development that could still rehouse the residents left on the estate after decades of tenancy attrition—even though boroughs across London have an appalling record at keeping promises to rehouse residents of redeveloped projects. Half of the new homes built on the site will be for private sale, with most of them costing over $700,000.
These high prices are no surprise. When Robin Hood Gardens was built, it was in a working-class neighborhood that had been plunged into decline by the then-recent closure of the adjacent London docks that provided most of its employment. Now the area is towered over by the skyscraping new financial district at Canary Wharf, packed with office workers prepared to pay a premium for a convenient location. While residency is being transferred from lower- to higher-income residents, some might see the new development’s bland aesthetics as an improvement.
It’s still telling that the developers are, to some extent, riding the coattails of Robin Hood Gardens’ former prestige, with their website selling the area as being “formerly a pioneering 1960s urban estate.” At least the V&A’s façade plan will preserve some partial memory of what the place looked like—and maybe spark some debate—even as it serves to embody the evisceration of London’s public housing. But conserving a building’s skin while destroying its heart isn’t historic preservation. It’s taxidermy.