The V&A’s decision to buy and display a three-storey piece of Robin Hood Gardens has come under fire
The museum announced its intention to take possession of a chunk of Alison and Peter Smithson’s lauded 1972 Brutalist landmark last Thursday (9 November), saying it was an ‘important piece of Brutalism, worth preserving for future generations’. The section measures 8.8m high, 5.5m wide and 8m deep.
But the move has received a mixed reaction, with critics saying that the V&A should have intervened earlier and backed a 2008 Building Design (BD) magazine-led campaign to list the estate. At the time, the then architecture minister Margaret Hodge concurred with Historic England that it was unfit for people to live in.
Simon Smithson, a partner at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP) and son of the estate’s architects, said that the then V&A director Mark Jones ‘should have known better’ after refusing to sign the petition in 2008.
However, Smithson also said he was touched by the museum’s acquisition.
‘To my mind it justifies our position in trying to save Robin Hood Gardens. These were fantastic flats. It would have been nice to have saved the whole thing but it’s better than nothing,’ he added. ‘It’s also very much in the tradition of the V&A in taking bits of a building.’
The east London estate is set to be demolished to make way for the Blackwall Reach regeneration project, masterplanned by Metropolitan Workshop. The scheme is split into five phases and will eventually replace the estate’s 252 homes with 1,575 new units. Other architects working on the redevelopment include Haworth Tompkins and CF Møller.
The acquisition came about as a result of a collaborative effort between Liza Fior of muf architecture/art; the London Borough of Tower Hamlets; London mayor Sadiq Khan; project backer Swan Housing Association; Hill Partnerships; and Northeast Demolition.
Amanda Baillieu, founder of Archiboo and former BD editor, told the AJ that it was ’disappointing’ that the V&A did not back the 2008 campaign, as it was the ’only national museum whose support could have influenced ministers on the ground that Robin Hood Gardens is a seminal piece of design’.
’If [the V&A] had done so, the decision would have gone down badly with the museum’s paymasters at DCMS,’ she added. ’Now it’s being demolished, the museum’s decision to save a fragment is being hailed as brave … Nevertheless, visitors are bound to ask: “Why did we allow this estate to be demolished?”’
In September, the AJ reported that builders were beginning to take down the western side of the estate, but that there were still residents living in the eastern block of the two main Smithson-designed buildings. A spokesperson for Swan Housing Association told the AJ that these residents would not be moved out until 2020.
Catherine Croft, director of The Twentieth Century Society, said that it was not enough for the V&A to save one part of Robin Hood Gardens, but still praised the institute for preserving a piece of the estate.
In 2015, The Twentieth Century Society failed in a renewed bid to get statutory protection for the estate, despite the backing of Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid, among others. Instead, heritage minister Tracey Crouch granted a second certificate of immunity for the blocks.
’Keeping a small section is by no means an adequate way of preserving all that is important about a great building, but nevertheless we are delighted that some sense of the physical materiality of Robin Hood Gardens will endure,’ Croft said.
’It is very prescient of V&A to recognise the significance of the estate, both as an example of high modernist design, and as a highly controversial conservation disaster.’
Responding to the criticism, a V&A spokesperson said: ’The V&A is collecting a section of Robin Hood Gardens as a nationally important and internationally recognised work of Brutalist architecture by Alison and Peter Smithson, the leading figures of the movement.
’The building has always been controversial, and we are not surprised by the fact that the announcement of this acquisition has provoked a wide range of responses.’
The spokesperson added: ’The V&A’s status as an arm’s length body means that it was not legally able to sign BD’s petition of 2008 to save Robin Hood Gardens.’
Robin hood gardens completed 1972 designed by alison and peter smithson the victoria and albert museum london (4)