27 Jul, 2009
Brutalist build that deserves to be listed
Posted by: admin In: Guardian
It may be a little dirty, but the simple, appealing architecture of Robin Hood Gardens truly does give to the poor
In May, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport turned down the request from the Twentieth Century Society to list Robin Hood Gardens, the housing development near the Blackwall Tunnel completed in 1972 by the architects Alison and Peter Smithson. For at least the next five years, therefore, this site is under threat of redevelopment.
The flats are arranged in two parallel blocks, bent inwards away from the noisy bounding roads towards a generous garden space with a surprising grass mound, like an ancient earthwork. The elevations are deliberately self-effacing and repetitive – the architects had in mind Georgian reticence as displayed at the Royal Crescent in Bath or at Gray’s Inn. This is architecture to look out from, more than to look at; this looking out includes cinematic views experienced along the “street decks”, the wider-than-average access balconies leading to the front doors of the flats, each of which is meant to provide a moment of individualism in a bigger collective whole. A lot of theory is attached to the building, but the underlying ideas are simple and appealing. It is built of concrete, and currently looks a little dirty, with insensitive add-ons; but there is nothing that could not be put right. Early photos show how nice it could again become.
The Twentieth Century Society has put on an exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects, consisting of photographs by Ioana Marinescu alongside schemes for improving the buildings and surroundings, by students from the School of Architecture and Construction at the University of Greenwich. A book on the history of Robin Hood Gardens, with unpublished original photos, will follow later in the year.
The purpose of the exhibition and book are to continue the lively discussion that has been running for the past 18 months. There has been much misrepresentation of the condition of the flats and of the views of residents, and this appears to have coloured the decision not to list, which was in line with the recommendation by English Heritage.
There are issues here about the selection of post-war buildings for listing, a process that was well in train in the 1990s but is now uncertain. There are also less arcane issues that concern historic buildings of all periods: the need to look carefully at past and present evidence and not to be prejudiced by rumour or superficial appearance. Underlying these specialist concerns is a wider question about the fate of public housing as a whole. Since 1980, it has been in retreat, with legislation designed to shift it from the public to the private sector. Robin Hood Gardens, still council-owned, could become a demonstration of less wasteful funding – if, instead of falling victim to a profit-led development with some affordable housing alongside, it could be refurbished without the high environmental costs associated with demolition.
• Alan Powers is chairman of the Twentieth Century Society. Robin Hood Gardens Revisions, an exhibition organised by the Twentieth Century Society, is at Gallery 2, Riba, London, until 26 August
Read the original post on Guardian Arts & Architecture