As an architect and art historian living in France, I am writing to express my concern about the fate of the Robin Hood Gardens housing estate and its possible “replacement”. Conceived by the architects Alison and Peter Smithson between 1966 and 1972, the existing ensemble represents their profound belief in the quality of social housing.
In the new “replacement” project, we can not observe similar qualities, neither of the buildings’ architecture, nor of the proposed internal organisation of the living space. For instance, the kitchen is part of the living & dining area and the apartments – from one bedroom to tree bedroom flats – do not have a proper kitchen. The indicated cooking area is sometimes remote from the windows, which are anyway small and related not to the organisation of the typical plan, but to the image of a façade “in Uniform”.
More than fifty years ago, the Smithson’s design provided a generous double level flat in the tradition of English terrace houses, inspired by, but also as a critical interpretation of, Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation. Each apartment has a generous access, large windows looking opposite sides, a proper kitchen in a separate room with windows opening outside. We wonder, is there any progress of the architecture design, or any improvement of living standards of the new “replacement” project that would justify the demolition of the Smithson’s housing Estate?
If we compare the fate of Robin Hood Gardens with the preservation of Le Corbusier’s idea of Unité d’Habitation, we can appreciate the refurbishment of the buildings in existence - four in France and one in Berlin. For different reasons, those five buildings passed through some difficult phases, needing restoration or even a more radical strategy of recovery. However, they were all finally well restored and praised by their inhabitants. Like the Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens, they express a certain social strength in post-war Europe and on this account alone, the question of demolition has been out of place.
When a building has as authors two architects of International importance such as Alison and Peter Smithson, its value cannot be considered in terms of land and refurbishment costs. If it is cared for, it can be compared with a genuine work of art that, with the passage of time, will acquire an increasing value in its own right. Entering a different logic, in some ways similar to the art circuit, it can in fact generate both direct and indirect income. This process is brilliantly demonstrated by the incredible expansion of the Tate Gallery. In this perspective, the demolition and the “replacement” strategy would be an unjustifiable error.
Concerned with the heritage of Alison and Peter Smithson, I hope the Robin Hood Gardens estate will be protected and listed as soon as possible, so that a regrettable act can be excluded once and for all. I also feel it is my duty to suggest a double course of action. The first is a thorough analysis of the particular situation seen in a larger historical and cultural context, and not reduced to a local socio-economic “problem”. The second is an imaginative consideration of the future potential of the ensemble of the two buildings and their environment, when restored and treated as an important British asset of post-war architecture.
Stefania Kenley, author of the book : Du Fictif au réel; Dix essais sur le Pop art anglais et le Nouveau Brutalisme en architecture, Dijon, les presses du réel, 2016.