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Reviving the Fight to Save a British Brutalist Masterpiece

Robin Hood Gardens (Image via Wikimedia)
Robin Hood Gardens (image via Wikimedia)

At the 11th hour, a British heritage organization has renewed a bid to save a major Brutalist building from destruction. Twentieth Century Society filed a report with English Heritage last week arguing for the preservation of Robin Hood GardensDezeen reported. The Alison and Peter Smithson–designed social housing project in East London is slated to be torn down and replaced by a new residential development.

Built in 1972, the prefabricated concrete building is considered one of the prime examples of Brutalist architecture in the UK. Its design features two massive gray blocks, each about 10 stories tall, arranged around a central park. Elevated, outdoor walkways connect the units, creating what the architects termed “streets in the sky.”

Together with Building Design magazine, Twentieth Century Society launched its first effort to save the building in 2008. Though the campaign was backed by hundreds of architects, including Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid, English Heritage was not sympathetic and said the building didn’t fit the requirements for giving postwar buildings heritage status. In the end, the Minister of Culture granted the estate a five-year “Certificate of Immunity” against historic listing. The developers failed to demolish the building during that time and recently asked English Heritage to extend the ban for another five years, prompting Twentieth Century Society’s renewed efforts to preserve it.

“We believe that none of the reasons given for not listing Robin Hood Gardens is convincing or properly evidenced according to listing criteria, and that the previous decisions not to list were unsound,” reads the organization’s new report. “It is therefore desirable in the interest of maintaining a consistent standard of assessment to reassess the building afresh and incorporate the new evidence.”

Robin Hood Gardens (Image via Wikimedia)
Robin Hood Gardens (image via Wikimedia)

Robin Hood Gardens’ impending destruction echoes the potential fate of many other Brutalist structures, including the Paul Rudolph–designed Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York (although some have argued the changes there may be necessary, and not so bad), the Erling Viksjø–designed Regjeringskvartalet Government Center in Oslo, and the Thomas Todd–designed McKeldin Fountain in Baltimore. Just this past week, a Brutalist bus station was torn down in Northampton, England, following in the footsteps of many long-gone structures in the same style deemed “ugly,” “oppressive,” and “boring.”

The question raised each time the wrecking ball threatens is whether these buildings should be saved when society — the people they were built for — don’t seem to love or care about them. When Robin Hood Gardens first opened, residents defecated in its elevators, an “act of social aggression,” as Peter Smithson himself once stated in an interview. In 2008, more than 75% of Robin Hood Gardens’ residents were in favor of demolition. “Anyone who wants to list that place should try living there,” Labor MP Margaret Hodge told Building Design. “It is simply not fit for purpose and I cannot believe that anyone is trying to list it. They should try living in it or raising a family there.”

Architects and critics counter that these works speak to their unique moments in history and the reputations of their creators. Unfortunately, this can come across as a bit elitist. “It is acknowledged that Robin Hood Gardens has produced divided opinions,” Twentieth Century Society writes in its report. “If these are examined, it will be found that the adverse opinions may not be well informed in respect of the architectural significance, or the performance of the building in use, but based on prejudice against social housing as a type, against modern architecture, or against the idea of the architect as intellectual.” Being stuck in an uninspired habitat can be as suffocating as a bad marriage; how can we expect anyone — no matter how architecturally knowledgeable — to cleave to artistic ideals over lived experience?

Yet, Twentieth Century Society does have a point. Part of the role of government is to think long term, to consider what will be best for a nation’s future. That includes preserving buildings, monuments, and other heritage sites that developers seeing dollar signs would love to raze. Destroying a historic structure like Robin Hood Gardens, which could feasibly be restored instead, seems short-sighted — especially when you consider the design of the residential towers that may replace it. As critic Rowan Moore noted in the Guardian in 2010:

If you look at the sunlit, green-grassed images of the proposals, it is easy to imagine a big pointing finger descending from the fluffy white clouds, with a sign attached. “Slum of the Future”, it would say. Or, “Site for Regeneration in the Year 2050.” …This is pure Hong Kong, minus the vibrant street life or dramatic topography. They show no interest in architectural quality, or in the making of home or community. They are just units, stacked.

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