V&A salvages fragment of ‘Brutalist’ design as developers demolish controversial Tower Hamlets estate

Robin Hood Gardens exterior showing section acquired by the V&A Pic: Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria &Albert Museum have acquired a section of the controversial Robin Hood Gardens social housing complex in East London, which is currently being demolished,  to preserve its ‘Brutalist’ architecture for posterity.

The iconic social housing site in Poplar in Tower Hamlets has two blocks sandwiching central gardens. The V&A have secured a three story segment including the interior of a maisonette flat and part of one of the elevated walkways intrinsic to the architects’ ‘streets in the sky’ concept, designed with wide concrete balconies overlooking the green space. This will be transported by art movers off the site to preserve in storage and it is assumed will eventually go on public display.

The plans to demolish Robin Hood Gardens has been at the centre of a long running debate over its conservation. Plans to fully demolish the property were first published in 2008, prompting one of the largest ever campaigns in architectural preservation supported by an international group of architects, including the late Zaha Hadid and Sir Richard Rogers, alongside leading architectural historians.

Despite their campaign, in 2015 the application to give the building listed status was turned down and demolition was approved. The site is now under development to replace the 252 flats with over 1,500 new homes.

Completed in 1972, the estate is a distinguished example of Brutalist architecture, designed by internationally acclaimed architect couple Peter and Alison Smithson. The estate was initially built by the Greater London Council (GLC) but was later given to Tower Hamlets Council.

On the V&A’s blog post announcing the acquisition, Dr Christopher Turner, Keeper of the V&A’s Design, Architecture and Digital Department, said: “Robin Hood Gardens 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.”

The V&A have preserved many parts of London’s historical architecture in the hope to keep them alive for future generations to visit. However, in light of London’s social housing crisis, many members of the public took to Twitter after their announcement to question the decision.

The demolition is part of a five stage Blackwall Reach regeneration project by residential developers Swan Housing Association and Tower Hamlets Council. The plans aim to replace the current 252 flats with 1,575 apartments, adding new commercial spaces and a mosque on the site beside Blackwall Tunnel.

Robin Hood Gardens Estate Pic: Victoria and Albert Museum

With no sign of any re-development of social housing, the project’s website outlines its plans to re-work the space: ‘Formerly a pioneering 1960s urban estate, the area will be completely remodelled into contemporary apartments, many of which offer stunning river or city views.’

After architectural firms Haworth Tompkins and Metropolitan Workshop secured phase two of the regeneration project last year, Scandanavian company CF Moller have been appointed for the latest phase, creating 330 homes on the eastern side of the block, half of which will be ‘affordable’.

On their website, Tower Hamlets Council claim the new development will: ”Transform public areas on the existing estate, create better transport links, improve community facilities by funding an expanded primary school and deliver employment and training benefits for local people.”

The V&A’s move has been supported by the Swan Housing Association, London Borough of Tower Hamlets and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.

Tower Hamlets is fighting in the bid to win the new London’s Cultural Borough title, introduced by the Mayor of London to celebrate the capital’s arts and culture. The borough who gains the title will receive £1m in arts funding, the winner will be announced in 2018.

Leave a Reply