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Robin Hood Gardens: Revisions

[THIS WEEK] So, bears still defecate in woods, Joseph Ratzinger is still a Roman Catholic and The Twentieth Century Society’s monograph on Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens is highly partial, writes James Pallister

Design-wise, it’s a beautiful book, the work of Amsterdam-based Jeremy Jansen with photography from Ioana Marinescu. Counter-intuitively the most recent shots
are in black and white and the only colour photographs in the book were taken at the time of construction. They carry an unpleasant whiff of fetishising the building’s results; present-day black-and-white images hoodwinking the readers into remembering a glorious imagined past. 

The tricksiness continues in Alan Powers introduction.He complains about English Heritage’s reluctance to engage with the Smithson’s writings that help bolster the project’s significance, but then argues that the building should be considered on its merits alone, invoking the late Victorian critic Matthew Arnold.

Arnold’s 1864 essay The Function of Criticism at the Present Timeargued that the literary critic’s duty was to ‘see the object in itself as it really is’, independent from any concerns about the object’s psychological, historical and sociological background. To fret about these trifles, Arnold wrote, is mere dilettantism.

Given the context, it seems a bizarre reference for Powers to bring up. Many of the advocates in the book for listing RHG, including Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid, make much of preserving what Hadid calls ‘an important pivotal position in the history of modern architecture’.

The impression is that against the march of history, residents are as irrelevant as they are absent here. The book’s only signs of life come from a few archive shots – kids in parka jackets and flared jeans mucking about on discarded car seats. If it means considering the building’s occupants, I’m with the dilettantes.

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