Simon Smithson, the son of the architects behind the soon-to-be-demolished Robin Hood Gardens, has attacked politicians for tampering with the heritage-listing system, to erase prime examples of the UK’s post-war architecture.
Smithson claimed politicians “leaned” on listing body Historic England to choose not to list the estate, and described the buildings’ imminent demolition as an “act of vandalism”.
“That this act of vandalism should come to pass, after years of an unprecedented campaign to save the buildings by the architectural profession both at home and abroad, is a failure on the part of all those charged with protecting the nation’s architectural heritage,” said Smithson, in a statement sent to Dezeen.
In the piece, titled The Brutal Truth about the Destruction of Robin Hood Lane, Smithson suggests that Historic England’s report was doctored.
“The report does not read right – you have an overwhelming sense that it was tampered with. Re-reading it some nine years later, it seems blindingly obvious that it has been cut-and-pasted,” he said.
“Politicians leaned on those responsible for deciding the worth of our built inheritance, and history tells us their judgements are inevitably conditioned by the convenience of the moment rather than thought for the future.”
“In the weeks up to the decision, it was rumoured that there was an unusual level of interest by the minister,” he continued. “No sooner was the decision made public than we began to hear noises that a recommendation to list the building has been overruled at the instruction of the politicians, and that Historic England’s initial report had been hastily rewritten to justify a ‘no, do not list’ outcome.”
Smithson also questioned the organisation’s decision to list just 13 housing estates built in London during the capital’s huge post-war building drive, including Alton Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield, pointing out that Robin Hood Garden is one of the only surviving examples of the Smithsons’ New Brutalist style.
“The post-war housing programme was the probably the greatest building programme the country has ever seen and London was at the very epicentre of this ‘campaign’,” he said. “Are we really being told that 13 buildings from this period is enough? The city is dotted with terrific projects from this now ‘historic’ modern period. Has the list been closed?”
“Robin Hood Gardens is especially important because, unlike Park Hill or Roehampton – both important buildings and worthy of listing – it is a uniquely English response to the inner city housing problem of the time,” added Smithson.
Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens was completed in Poplar, east London, in 1972. The estate comprises two concrete slab blocks set on either side of a garden featuring a mound in its centre.
Famous for its “streets in the sky” concept, flats are accessed via elevated walkways, from which Smithson describes the views as “mouthwatering”.
“Robin Hood Gardens should be seen as the example, par excellence, of a state that thought it could do better by its citizens. That it was finally completed just as this dream was all thrown into doubt makes it historically as well as architecturally all the more significant,” he said.
“Robin Hood Gardens creates a vision of working-class housing with the grandeur of London’s Georgian squares and with the bravura of the docklands (where the bulk of the local population of the time worked),” added Smithson. “And why not? Shouldn’t the East End have an architecture to match that of Bath, Brighton or Harrogate?”
“They say brutalism is back. And if you’re in any doubt, pop down to Foyles on the Charing Cross Road and see the myriad of books in praise of this period of architecture,” said Smithson.
“How is it then, that those tasked with protecting the important buildings from this period of our history are so far adrift of the mark – from the architectural profession, from the academic world, writers, commentators, the travel industry and even the fashion industry?”