V&A Museum Buys Massively Ugly Brutalist Housing Estate

By Tom Pritchard on at

When you think about architecture that needs to be preserved, blocks of concrete council flats built in the 1970s might not be the first thing to come to mind. Well one section of Robin Hood Gardens, in Poplar, East London, has just been purchased by the V&A Museum.

Robin Hood Gardens is an example of what's known as 'brutalist' architecture. In essence, that means it's a building that used exposed concrete to produce reoccurring shapes. Basically the kind of stuff that some people refer to as 'cardboard buildings', tat could be built more efficiently than other types of housing.

The site was developed by husband and wife architecture team Alison and Peter Smithson, with the intention of being the embodiment of their research and vision of what social housing should be. So the site became known for distinctive concrete fins, the noise reducing features, and the elevated walkways known as 'streets in the sky' that were designed to improve interactions between the residents.

Both described Robin Hood gardens as "a demonstration of a more enjoyable way of living … a model, an exemplar, of a new mode of urban organisation". In the years since there has been plenty of debate as to whether or not they actually achieved those goals.

It was initially announced that the site was going to be demolished back in 2005, with the area currently being redeveloped to turn the 252 flats into 1,500 new homes that can presumably be sold onto rich landlords and investors. Some had attempted to have the area granted listed status, but that was denied in 2015.

But one single three-storey section is being preserved, as part of the V&A Museum's architectural preservation collection.

Dr Christopher Turner, Keeper of the V&A's Design, Architecture and Digital Department, said:

This three-storey section of Robin Hood Gardens, complete with 'street in the sky', is an important piece of Brutalism, worth preserving for future generations. It is also an object that will stimulate debate around architecture and urbanism today – it raises important questions about the history and future of housing in Britain, and what we want from our cities.

It'll remain as a reminder of what people thought was a good idea for social housing 40+ years ago, and what it's still like in many places across the country. Regardless of how you personally feel about the whole thing. [V&A Museum]

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