New York Times Critic Visits Robin Hood Gardens


Steve Forrest, The New York Times

It takes a lot of energy to make concrete, and a lot of concrete to make a building like Robin Hood Gardens, the Alison and Peter Smithson icon that is under threat of demolition. TreeHugger has covered the campaign to save it and the issue of how buildings from the era are currently not fashionable, but that doesn't mean we should tear them all down.

Nicholas Ouroussoff, the architecture critic for the New York Times, visits the site and adds to the discussion.


Children playing cricket in the 70s, Sandra Lousada

He starts by listing the problems.

The facades are in decrepit shape. Even on a rare sunny London day the project's famous concrete walkways, which the Smithsons called "streets in the air," look gray and melancholy. The rows of concrete mullions, a play on Mies van der Rohe's steel I-beams, give the facade the aura of a medieval fortification.

Inside, tenants of Robin Hood Gardens ride claustrophobic elevators to reach their apartments. When the elevators break down, they climb a dank, airless stairwell. A barrier that runs up the center of the staircase makes it impossible to see what's around the corner, so you worry that you are about to get mugged each time you reach a landing. The experience only reinforces the isolation of the mostly poor immigrants who live here.



But he continues by noting its virtues, some of the wonderful details and spaces, the interesting floor plans. He concludes by suggesting some major interventions,

But a more meaningful approach would be to allow an imaginative architect to tackle the entire complex. Introducing a tension between new and old is only likely to make the Smithsons' design more poignant.

The advantage to this strategy is partly environmental. Construction is one of the largest single producers of carbon dioxide. In the age of global warming, deciding to tear down and rebuild rather than think through whether a project can be salvaged has obvious ethical implications.

Yet an equally important issue is how we treat the cities we inherit and the memories they hold. Condemning an entire historical movement can be a symptom of intellectual laziness. It can also be a way to avoid difficult truths.

Architecture attains much of its power from the emotional exchanges among an architect, a client, a site and the object itself. A spirited renovation of Robin Hood Gardens would be a chance to extend that discourse across generations.

More on Robin Hood Gardens and our loss of an era

Concrete Can Be Beautiful
Another One Bites The Dust: Robin Hood Gardens
ReFab Now: We Can Solve It Gets Renovation
The Greenest Brick is the One That's Already in the Wall
Refab Now!
Church Doesn't Want to be Saved; Brutalism Goes To Court
Another Paul Rudolph Bites the Dust: Sarasota's Riverview High School
Another One Bites The Dust: Classic Bata Shoe HQ Demolished

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