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How the remains of a Brutalist icon incited a global debate

Robin Hood Gardens was a progressive 1970s-era social housing project. Now, its fate is animating a debate over gentrification, museums, and cities.

Taxidermy. Embalming. Vultures. It’s not often you come across these terms all in reference to a piece of architecture, but it’s also not often that architecture that exemplifies the radical, rapid transformation of many 21st century cities as clearly as London’s Robin Hood Gardens.

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Robin Hood Gardens is–or was–a social housing development built in 1972 by the celebrated architects Alison and Peter Smithson to replace tenements in a poor section of London. The Brutalist development was celebrated but unmaintained, and after several failed attempts to refurbish and preserve it, demolition began in 2017 to make way for a $400 million redevelopment project. At the time, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum managed to acquire a large piece of the destroyed facade, vowing to preserve it as a piece of architectural heritage. This week at the Venice Architecture Biennale–the rarified biannual festival where architects, curators, and critics descend onto the city for a slew of architectural installations–the museum debuted the reconstructed concrete facade as part of an exhibition on the work. Visitors can wander around a 30-foot chunk of the building, or ponder it in an immersive, panoramic digital exhibition showing its original state by Korean artist Do Ho Suh.

[Image: Do Ho Suh/courtesy of the Artist/Lehmann Maupin, New York Hong Kong and Seoul/Victoria Miro, London and Venice]
In one sense, it seems like a fitting way to memorialize the Brutalist icon. During the building’s construction, the Smithsons famously said that “a building under assembly is a ruin in reverse.” What better way to remember it than by turning the building into a kind of ruin?

But critics of the reconstruction argued it was a form of taxidermy–a way of “conserving a building’s skin while destroying its heart,” as CityLab‘s Feargus O’Sullivan wrote when the plans were announced. The historian Stephen Pritchard calls it “poverty tourism” and describes the project as “artwashing,” where cultural capital–like important architecture–is used to whitewash displacement and gentrification. The V&A “are acting like cultural vultures, scavenging a carcass from our poisoned welfare state, our murdered dream of decent council housing for all, picking through the scraps of social housing made putrid by legions of money-loving housing associations,” he wrote on his blog at the time.

[Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, London]
V&A director Tristram Hunt responded this week with an op-ed in the Art Newspaper, arguing against the “keyboard warriors and ‘art-wash’ agitators.” Furthermore, “behind this critique is the increasingly popular conviction that not only can museums not be neutral sites, but that they also have a duty to be vehicles for social justice,” he wrote. “Rather than chronicling, challenging, and interpreting, we should be organizing demonstrations and signing petitions. I am not so sure.”

[Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, London]
The debate underlines the plight of social housing in London and other cities around the globe where rapid development has squeezed affordable options, and where aging developments from the 1970s and ’80s are in decay without necessary funding for refurbishment. One thing seems clear: the way the public values and experiences art is increasingly experiential and personal. The V&A may see itself purely as a chronicle of art and architecture, but we’re living in an era when the political and socioeconomic context of culture is impossible to ignore–proven by the fact that this debate has made international news in the first place.

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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