There's something about Brutalist buildings—with poor acoustics and a near constant draft, they can appear blighted before they're done being constructed—that predisposes them to both abandonment and fierce, territorial love. That's certainly the case with Robin Hood Gardens. In case you don't know Robin Hood Gardens, let this be a short introduction. It was designed by power couple Alison and Peter Smithson, it's their most significant work, it marked a swift, pivot point in architectural design, and it probably won't be long for this world. If you listen closely, you can hear the onward march of bland affordable housing. On June, 22nd, 2015, academic, architects, and preservationists will make one final stand for its survival. Before that happens, here's a short timeline of the brutal battle to keep England's most beloved Brutalist building standing.
1945. Alison and Peter Smithson were a very strange pair who had a very normal beginning: They were both students at Durhman University, Peter was shipped off to the war, and the two began dating upon his return.
1950. In case you're wondering if the Smithsons' other designs were more likeable, they weren't. The couple was catapulted into premature stardom when they won a rather big-name big-deal competition; they were to design the Hunstanton Secondary Modern School. Their project spoke to a post-war ethos that valued monastic simplicity and a religious devotion to functionality—they minimized construction, utilized assembled parts, and forewent expensive finishing. Like Robin Hood Gardens, it was as brilliant as it was hated. A teacher who spent 34 years there decried it as "more suited to being a prison than a school." In a reversal of fortunes, the project's pay allowed the architects to open their practice.
1953. After a short stint working for the London County Council and a series of unsuccessful contest entries, Alison and Peter decided to join the pedigreed ranks of theCongrès International d'Architecture Moderne (also known as CIAM). There, they ruffled quite a few feathers. In particular, they denounced Le Corbusier's and Walter Gropius's insistence on contained and sterilized "zones" for living, working, leisure, and transport, while arguing that modernism's preoccupation with tall, monolithic, and widely-spaced towers was a mistake—and, in many ways, they were right. Later, they would depart ways with CIAM and found their own group, Team10.
1955. Reyner Banham, a prolific design theorist and Smithson ally, hailed the architectural duo as the face of "the new brutalism." The term itself came from Peter's student nickname—Brutus—that, when paired with Alison, becomes Brutalism.
1956. One of the main tenets of the Smithson's burgeoning—and antagonistic—manifesto was incredibly simple: Destroy all boundaries between high- and low-culture. Enter their avid obsessions with American television, pop culture, adverts, and cheesy movies. Their "House of the Future" prototype, displayed at the 1956 Daily Mail Ideal Home Show, best encapsulates this nascent preoccupation. Designed after a midcentury airplane, each room was molded from one continuous, gyrating piece of plastic.
1959. It had been nineteen years, but the Smithsons had finally received their next major commission. The Economist magazine needed a new headquarters in Piccadilly—something modern, vaguely socialist, very serious. What rose was a trio of finally detail towers clad in Portland marble that borrowed from the emotional language of London's streets: narrow lanes, a sweeping pedestrian plaza, a calming sense of organized chaos. And something very special happened with this project: No one tried to demolish it, no one hated it. In fact, it's been refurbished.
By this time, the Smithsons have three children who live with them over their practice. Alison and Peter shared both professional and domestic responsibilities equally, which was nothing to scoff at in 1959.
1966. And then along came Robin Hood Gardens. This was Alison and Peter's chance to prove the social post-war rhetoric they'd both been emphatically preaching. The project was comprised of 213 low-cost apartments for low-income families in the Docklands of East London, just north of the Thames. They intended to build a "street in the air" by creating long slabs of concrete joined by wide, public balconies that would overlook a verdant garden. This, they said, would create a modern, bustling city in the sky. In a funny twist of fate, a large mound was created in the center of the courtyard to contain the remains of the buildings demolished to make room for Robin Hood Gardens. Yes, Peter and Alison were modernists, but they had no desire to erase the past.
It's also important to note that even the architects had deep reservations about the project. At this point, St. Louis, Missouri's Pruitt-Igoe wasn't long for this world and modernism was universally considered dead. Their "street in the air" concept was conceived in the '50s as a foil to Le Corbusier's Unite d'habitation, which, by 1966, had lost the glamour of relevance. In a BBC interview, even Alison had her doubts, "Just leave the people where they are, to smash it up in complete abandon and happiness, so that nobody has to worry about it anymore. You know, we may be asking people to live in a way that is stupid. They maybe just want to be left alone."
1972. One of the first critics of Robin Hood Gardens was Peter Eisenmann, who said that project was "iconically expressive" and a failure in a '72 issue of Architectural Design. We highly recommend reading his even-handed denunciation here.
1980. Eight years after Robin Hood Garden's symbolic ribbon-cutting, the British government began to shutter the docks, leaving the actual inhabitants of RHG cut off from any monetary stability they had previously known.
1988. The British government invested in new developments to "stimulate" the economy. One of these developments was Cesar Pelli's sky-high towers, a pretty bauble outside of Robin Hood Gardens that began to gentrify and revive Canary Wharf. The only problem? While the neighborhood came up, Robin Hood Gardens failed to come up with it.
2008. Robin Hood Gardens—abandoned, graffitied, often called a "British Pruitt-Igoe"—was on the chopping block, courtesy of Tower Hamlets Council. And then something really surprising happened: The architectural community rallied in its defense. Spearheaded by Building Design magazine, the campaign to save Robin Hood garnered signatures from Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers, Robert Venturi, Richard Meier, Denise Scott Brown, Norman Foster, Toyo Ito and over 1,000 other architects. Hadid went so far as to call it "the best piece of twentieth-century work in London." If Tower Hamlets Council wanted to demolish Robin Hood Gardens, it wouldn't be that easy.
2009. Andy Burnham, the Culture Secretary, grants Robin Hood Gardens a five-year immunity from heritage listing. Deceptively positive sounding, it actually bars Robin Hood Gardens from official heritage listing.
2015. English Heritage is reviewing reports from The 20th Century Society and Tower Hamlets Council and will reach a final decision at the end of the month. Although we're perennially optimistic, it doesn't look good.
· Alison Smithson and Peter Smithson [Architectural Review]
· Robin Hood Gardens: Housing at the Expense of an Idea. [Petty Design]