The Editorial: Robin Hood Gardens, Modernist Murder

The Editorial: Robin Hood Gardens, Modernist Murder

Modernism, especially in brutalist form, is an understandably misunderstood beast: its unfriendly concrete and absolutely unadorned exteriors are lightyears away form classical notions of beauty. Its major works are relics from a simpler time, when it was believed that human behavior could be easily influenced, predicted and planned for. And while many were poorly executed dilutions of their grand ideological underpinnings, others remain supremely important places that despite their controversy are key pieces of world architectural patrimony: more than Stonehenge or the Sydney Opera House, they are important because they reveal deep truths about the realities of human society.

Robin Hood Gardens, a social housing estate in London’s Poplar neighborhood designed in the 1960s by Alison and Peter Smithson, is a prime example of just such a place: its design was remarkably innovative and still distinctive and had a huge impact on successive architecture. And in a blow to the design community around the world, its definitive demolition was announced just this week. The news comes after a drawn out battle between a local council strapped for money and eager to shed its ghetto image and many prominent voices such as Zaha Hadid within the architectural community who have been outraged at the prospect of its demolition. The place was even a subject of a book, Robin Hood Gardens: Re-Visions, in which several practices pitched in ideas for its renovation and preservation.

But today in London, with the exception of the Barbican, the Commonwealth Institute (slated to become the Design Museum‘s future home), the Goldfinger towers and a small handful of others who have managed to achieve “protected” status, Robin Hood Gardens is now among many major modernist sites that are systematically being demolished to make way for other, less-offensive and less visionary projects meant to solve urban problems as cheaply and unremarkably as possible.

Still, the overwhelming truths about places like these have been well documented. From Pruitt-Igoe’s colossal failure in St. Louis, Missouri to the continued plight of South London’s rotting, crime-infested Aylesbury Estate and the notorious United Nations Plaza in San Francisco, gang violence, disproportionate poverty and blight all seem to be the standard aftermath of modernist solutions to urban problems. Apart from those which have been heavily gentrified and/or colonized by architectural connoisseurs like the Barbican and, more recently, Trellick Tower, the places are just dismal. Peter Pan Gardens is no exception: it is today in a shambles, with tons of blown-out glass and its lower floors entirely boarded up. But that’s a product of decades of neglect – what would these spaces have become under better circumstances? Perhaps models for an equally optimistic 21st century modernism?

It’s no great wonder that many want these places demolished, but it’s a nevertheless a shame that the grand ideas will be destroyed to make way for anonymous cookie cutter houses. But in the end, architecture’s role in society is that of open-minded innovator rather than sentimental preservationist. But I just can’t help but believe that many of these these last, iconic, exotically beautiful brutalist spaces can’t be preserved and responsibly updated. They could stand for centuries as reminders of the last time we humans fancied ourselves all-powerful creators…

Tag Christof – Images courtesy ArchDaily