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“Buildings,” wrote Alison and Peter Smithson in 1967, “should be thought of from the beginning as fragments; as containing within themselves a capacity to act with other buildings.” The architects didn’t know quite how prophetic that line would sound half a century later. It was announced earlier this month that the Victoria and Albert Museum had acquired a fragment of the Smithsons’ biggest built project, the 3.7-acre Robin Hood Gardens housing estate in Blackwall, east London, which is being demolished and replaced by Blackwall Reach, a £300m mix of social and private housing.
“Fragment” might not be the right word for three storeys of reinforced concrete and walkway, but this maisonette is an intriguing addition to the collection of a museum which also displays the 16th-century timber façade of a house in Bishopsgate and casts of cathedral fronts in its ground-floor galleries.
The story of this curious acquisition began with Liza Fior of architects MUF, as the conclusion of a year-long residency thinking about plans for the V&A’s east London outpost in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Fior suggested that “acquiring” a piece of this doomed estate might be a way to address the particular issues of east London and its ongoing regeneration, to anchor the new institution within a physical, political, historical and social context.
It will be a conversation piece, and that conversation is likely to be loud, argumentative and potentially explosive. To understand why, it is necessary to dig a little into the roots of Robin Hood Gardens just as its rusted rebars are being exposed and its concrete crushed.
Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1972, the estate straddled the eras of modernist utopianism and public and political cynicism. It was a reaction to the tower blocks which had already begun to show signs of failure and it represented a search for what the Smithsons saw as a new way of living in the city. The architects were trying to achieve a sense of community at a scale commensurate with this industrial piece of city situated by the docks, competing with the cranes, the power stations and the factories. They had studied the sociology of working-class communities, worked with photographer Nigel Henderson on capturing the way life was lived in the streets and imbibed Family and Kinship in East London, Michael Young and Peter Willmott’s 1957 social study. They were the architectural equivalent of the Kitchen Sink playwrights and directors.
The Smithsons conceived these elevated decks as stages for the theatre of everyday life, where children would play, neighbours would meet and chat, all without being bothered by the traffic thundering by below. It had been done before, notably in Sheffield’s Park Hill (1957-61) but the Smithsons were, at this time, Britain’s most internationally influential architects. They were the leaders of a generation of modernists who had rejected the simplistic, mechanistic, tabula rasa approach of the previous generation and instead embraced the complexity of social relations and the character of a specific place.
In 1970 the avant garde author BS Johnson made a fascinating film about Robin Hood Gardens (easily found on YouTube) in which the Smithsons talked about their hopes, as well as their fears, for the estate. Alison Smithson, appearing in a silver space-top with a shiny pink tie and speaking in an odd drawl that sounds like the approximation of English by a super-intelligent alien who heard it spoken once over the wireless, says: “Society at the moment asks architects to build these new homes for them. But, I mean, this may be really stupid, we may have to rethink the whole thing. It may be that we should only be asked to repair the roofs and add the odd bathroom to the old industrial houses and just leave people where they are to smash it up in complete abandon and happiness so that nobody has to worry about it any more. We may be asking people to live in a way that is stupid. They maybe just want to . . . you know, be left alone.”
The architects were well aware of the heroic failures as well as the heroic successes of modern housing. They were designing for an uncertain world. “The realities of our working life were going to be traffic, noise, air pollution, vandalism, lack of quality,” she says. Her husband, wearing a floral shirt and silver-sequinned tie, adds: “One of the men on site said that this, what we were doing, was too good for the people who were going to live in it.” Yet, he suggests, as architects they feel compelled to provide the best possible conditions. “We feel an obligation”, he says, “to build for successive occupying generations . . . society has to make a framework so that the makers can get ahead of the destroyers.”
The destroyers have won. But should such an important architectural landmark be demolished? Or, if its 214 apartments are being replaced by 1,575 new homes, of which 698 will (allegedly) be “affordable”, should that not be welcomed?
Walking around the still-inhabited half of the estate, you do not get the sense of a failed project. The elevated walkways are not, perhaps, the lively community spaces envisaged by their architects. Yet neither are they the crime-ravaged, graffiti-spattered labyrinths of urban myth. Front doors have been customised, frilly net curtains hung at the windows. It is a part of the city, albeit a part that has been radically transformed. Heavy industry has given way to the property industry as this area is repackaged, rebuilt, rebranded and re-sold as “East London”. Hotels in Hong Kong and Shanghai are hosting events and marketing the new development as “nothing but excellence”.
The reality of Robin Hood Gardens never quite lived up to the vision, yet its importance was recognised in a petition to have it listed (organised by Building Design Magazine in 2008 and signed by Dame Zaha Hadid and Lord Richard Rogers, among others). But what, on its own, can a fragment do?
The V&A engages with the world through objects and this acquisition of a piece of modernist city architecture has already sparked controversy. The museum, which shares a borough with the blackened hulk of Grenfell Tower, intends to rebuild the section as a room set, either in Kensington or east London. Can that interior become a provocative place rather than just a reminder? Could someone live in it? Its acquisition was announced on the same day as the news that fewer social housing units had been built this year than in any year since the second world war. London needs this debate. Robin Hood Gardens is a pivotal architectural landmark which surely justifies this acquisition by the world’s first design museum, yet the principle it represents — decent housing for ordinary people — remains unrealised. This is simultaneously a brilliant and a problematic and political acquisition. The Smithsons were preoccupied with the condition of the existing and the ordinary. They termed this notion “As Found” and used it as the basis for what in effect became both British Pop Art and Brutalism. The V&A has now found this artefact, a three-storey slice of the sad remains of a socially engaged modernism, a thing that is very far from ordinary. The question, now that they have found it, is what will they do with it?
Photographs: Rory Gardiner; Peter Smithson/Smithson Family Collection; Kois Miah; Tony Ray-Jones/RIBA Collections; Metropolitan Workshop