Alison and Peter Smithson were once, albeit briefly, the faces of British modern architecture. They were even the subject of a bizarre BBC film, detailing their vision for Robin Hood Gardens, a social housing mid-rise atop a hill next to a freeway in east London, which was completed in 1972 but is now set for demolition.
These contrary New Brutalists were as much theorists and artists as they were architects, with their views mixing dreamy socialism with disdain for those living in the slums their pair of buildings would replace. Their visually stunning concrete "streets in the sky" scheme was funded from the public purse, mixing communality with functionality as they drew on Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier (yet loudly rejected the ethos of his Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne). The Smithsons designed space where people would chat in the walkways, with the buildings acting as giant sound barriers for a quiet space between them.
There is little doubt that the large-scale, innovative design was the Smithsons’ creative zenith. Zaha Hadid called it one of her favorite projects and the pair’s work has been highly influential on subsequent generations of architects. But even groups that aim to preserve historic building couldn’t agree on the council estate’s importance, or the value in saving it.
Many of Robin Hood Gardens’ remaining residents still love living there, as is shown in a new collaboration between photographer Kois Miah and academic Dr. Nick Thorburn of The University of Manchester. Their interviews and photographs show people proud of their homes and their little corner of London. But structural issues, social problems, and neglect have made the estate’s continued survival untenable.
Small campaigns for a reprieve continue, but its lack of a historic listing designation has damned the Smithsons’ most famous work to destruction and eventual replacement. It never became the urban utopia the pair imagined and initial critical responses may well have stalled their careers. But many will still miss it, not least those former social housing residents now scattered across London or forced to seek accommodation in the city’s notoriously expensive private rental sector.
Lived Brutalism: Portraits at Robin Hood Gardens runs from 3-21 October at St. Matthias Community Centre, 113 Poplar High Street, London E14 0AE.
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