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EH 'biased' over Robin Hood Gardens, expert claims

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Architecture professor Dirk van den Heuvel questions motives behind EH’s opposition to listing following fresh protection bid

A world-leading expert on post-war architecture has accused English Heritage of bias in its advice to government not to list Robin Hood Gardens.

Dirk van den Heuvel, a professor at Delft School of Architecture and an authority on Alison and Peter Smithson, welcomed news of a fresh bid by the Twentieth Century Society to list the 1972 east London estate after the building’s certificate of immunity from listing expired.

And he launched a withering attack on EH’s current position – that the development is unworthy of protection because it ‘fails as a place for human beings to live’.

He said: ‘I do not find their view credible…It’s very hard to understand what sort of standard English Heritage is using [to judge it unworthy of listing]. It seems to me that [in 2008] they were looking for excuses not to list it.

‘As a scholar, what was really worrying was that English Heritage used a statement by Aldo Van Eyck, - a friend of the Smithsons who was critical of Robin Hood Gardens  - which I found in the archive.

‘They (EH) used only this one critical line without quoting the rest [of the passage]. To me, it showed they were looking for negative statements and brushing off the table anything positive.

‘When you look at the second half of the 20th century, the Smithsons were key players and their total built work is a tiny oeuvre. Robin Hood Gardens is one of the few pieces that demonstrates their ideas and it’s used as an example in architecture schools all over the world.’

Van den Heuvel added that Robin Hood Gardens is the Smithsons’ only concrete building and ‘demonstrates their own unique view of brutalism’ with a ‘soft and smooth façade - a Miesian language mixed with that of Le Corbusier.’

He concluded: ‘There is now some support within EH for brutalism but the key building they should be protecting is Robin Hood Gardens. From historiographical perspective there is no argument about that. You need not like it – liking is different to judging its historical value.

‘From outside of England, Brutalism is regarded as one of the most important things that happened in England.’

An English Heritage spokesperson said: ‘The suggestion that our advice is biased is entirely without foundation. For all listing cases we carefully consider whether a building has claims to special interest in formulating our recommendation to government.

‘We also consult with all interested parties to ensure our advice is factually accurate. The application we have had in is for a renewal of the Certificate of Immunity.

‘We are currently in the process of considering all consultation responses before making our recommendation to the Secretary of State.’

Robin Hoods Gardens is set to be replaced by the second phase of the 1,575 home Blackwall Reach regeneration project, masterplanned by Aedas and developed by Swan Housing Association, Tower Hamlets council and the GLA.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Is Robin Hood Gardens of architectural and/or historic interest? Of course it is, and however much EH wriggles, it knows that in refusing a listing it ignored the advice of its own expert panel on post-war architecture. Selective criticism was used to back up the view of its then minister, Tessa Jowell, who said her constuents did not like this sort of design. Her confusion of statutory responsibility with aesthetic prejudice was as disappointing then as EH's ostrich attitude is now.

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  • My apologies -- I meant Margaret Hodge, not Tessa Jowell.

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