In 1976, at the 37th international art exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, Alison and Peter Smithson’s exhibition, Sticks and Stones, included a billboard-sized poster of their most recent project, Robin Hood Gardens; a brutalist housing scheme in Poplar, East London, completed in 1972. The couple took photographs of each other sitting on a bench that was a scaled-up version of one of the building’s concrete fins, contemplating the project in all its possibility. ‘… a building under assembly is a ruin in reverse’, they wrote in the accompanying catalogue.
A Ruin in Reverse is the title of the 2018 exhibition and pavilion for the Academy of Applied Arts by the Victoria & Albert Museum. The exhibition, however retrospective, questions both the role and inconstant demands of social housing, and in the case of the current housing crisis, how we can learn from the ideals and fate of the Smithson’s infamous project. There is another overlying tone throughout; that it’s a commemoration, not of the building, but of the design of housing: the original vanguard of architecture.
The pavilion comprised archive footage, period photography, interviews with residents, architects and critics. There included a specially-commissioned installation, by artist Do Ho Suh, showing a panoramic view of living in the condemned building. It opens with period footage of the Smithson’s themselves outlining their optimistic intentions. The Smithson’s intended Robin Hood Gardens as an architectural manifesto. Peter declares, ‘We regard it as a demonstration of a more enjoyable way of living, it’s a model, an exemplar of a new mode of urban organization.’ In the late sixties, the east ends economy had been devastated by the recent closure of the docks and the Smithsons imagined, ‘a new Venice in London’ with Robin Hood Gardens as the gateway to this leisure quarter on the Thames.
Their vision and passion still feels new and unconventional today, and you want to believe them. In true Smithson fashion, Peter sports a sparkling glitter tie while Alison garners what only can be described as a plastic tent. Regardless, their enthusiastic and practical approach to the whole project is so immersive it’s almost too good to be true.
It was. As it turned out, in 1982 the docklands were designated an ‘enterprise zone’ and, aided by incentives for developers, the area transformed into the international financial district we know today – not the leisure and residential quarter imagined by the Smithson’s. Economic success brought with it rising property prices and increased demand and pressure for housing. Less than fifty years after the estate was completed, it is now being levelled to make way for a higher-density development of private and affordable social housing.
Irrepressible economic factors weren’t the project’s sole executioner. Almost as soon as the building was occupied, vandalism blighted the communal areas. As early as 1976, a study found that most tenants interviewed thought the site as a whole was noisy and unattractive, even though they liked their own flats. In 1972, the same year that Robin Hood Gardens was completed, the infamous high-rise Pruitt-Igoe Housing scheme in St. Louis, Missouri – which had been beset by vandalism since it opened in 1954 – was demolished. Famously, the architectural historian Charles Jencks declared that its dynamiting was the moment modern architecture died. In the UK, debates about the impact of ‘estate design’ on antisocial behaviour both preceded and eventually were used to justified Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ scheme introduced in 1980; under which over 50% of all council housing stock was sold to private owners, without being replaced.
The Smithsons, who were prominent figures of the influential architecture group Team X, and pioneers of new Brutalism, essentially aimed to create a new urban environment. They imagined it as landscape. Two residential blocks would embrace a shared landscaped garden that was envisioned as a quiet ‘stress free zone’ at the heart of a site surrounded by busy roads. Drawing on their observations of life in London’s East End, the architects designed each block with wide, high-level, access decks – framed as ‘streets in the sky’ – intended to foster community and incorporate ‘the socially vital life of the streets’. Robin Hood Gardens was the Smithson’s only council estate, the result of years of research into housing and public space, inspired by a belief in providing generous, high-quality homes for all in society. The exhibition straddles this topic, concerned with the realistic needs and demands of housing yet at the same time pointedly perceptive, championing the rigor and discipline of designing quality housing in post-war Britain.
In 2017, the demolition began. Its razing marked the end of a decade-long contentious campaign to save the building, which was controversially denied listed status. (The UK Secretary of State denied it listing, declaring the design ‘flawed and of limited architectural quality.) This marked the beginning of a £300 million redevelopment of the site and surrounding area. On the eve of destruction, the V&A salvaged a three-storey section of the façade and interior fittings of two flats. The resulting fragment was transported and rebuilt at the Arsenale grounds, allowing visitors to scale the monument themselves after traveling through the exhibition. What remains is a partially complete ruin, leaving the visitor to fill in the gaps with their memory, fresh from the exhibit’s gallery. Following its exhibition at Venice, this example of a building-as-artefact is currently taking its place in the V&A’s national collection of architecture as an internationally recognised example of brutalism.
On a superficial level, it is easy to consider the exhibition as preaching to the converted, as it’s often described as a building that only architects love. But to the visitor, there are many nuances to be appreciated and lessons to be learned. It’s too late to save Robin Hood Gardens, but what this exhibition really asks us to consider is: what can be salvaged from the ruin? Not just in terms of the physical building itself, but the vision and ambition of genuine affordable housing for all.
1. The Smithsons on housing, BBC One Television, 10 July 1970.
2. O. Horsfall Turner & C. Turner, Robin Hood Gardens: A Ruin in Reverse, Academy of Applied Arts pavilion by Victoria & Albert museum at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, Venice. 26th May to 25th November 2018.
3. C. Jencks, The New Paradigm in Architecture: The Language of Post-Modernism, Yale University Press, 2002.
4. A. Beckett,’The right to buy: the housing crisis that Thatcher built’, The Guardian, 26 August 2015. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/aug/26/right-to-buy-margaret-thatcher-david-cameron-housing-crisis
5. The Smithsons on housing, 1970, BBC One Television, 10 July 1970.
6. C. Sell,’Secretary of State rejects Robin Hood Gardens appeal’, The Architects Journal, 15 May 2009. Available at: https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/home/secretary-of-state-rejects-robin-hood-gardens-appeal/5202147.article