How a Brutalist Housing Project Landed at the Venice Architecture Biennale
A Brutalist housing project in London is being demolished, but London’s V&A Museum rebuilt part of its facade at the Venice Architecture Biennale.
Deck of Robin Hood Gardens with architect Alison Smithson, photographed by Peter Smithson, about 1970. Courtesy of the Smithson Family Collection.
Saturday, March 30, 2019 would be a rather ordinary date if it were not the day Great Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union. I think of this fact as I walk in the shade of the plane trees along the busy gravel paths of the Giardini della Biennale in Venice, the main venue of the 16th Architecture Biennale, curated by Dublin-based architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. I’m heading from the Giardini towards the Sale d’Armi, where Robin Hood Gardens: A Ruin in Reverse is on view, an exhibit mounted by Venice Biennale and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
The focus of the exhibition is a reconstructed section of East London’s Robin Hood Gardens housing project, a seminal achievement of New Brutalist architecture designed by Alison and Peter Smithson and completed in 1972. The building is, controversially, being demolished to make way for a $660 million residential redevelopment, and the V&A—in what has been called “one of the most unusual property deals in its history”—has salvaged a large fragment of it. Part of the structure has been rebuilt in Venice on a scaffold designed by ARUP, the firm who engineered the original building, with Muf Architecture/Art, allowing visitors to walk a few steps along what the Smithsons termed a “street in the sky.”
These “streets in the sky” were the building’s best-known feature: wide pedestrian balconies on every third floor, designed to create vibrant public spaces. The term soon became an ironic counterpoint to the structural defects public disinvestment in the building, as well as the high crime rate that afflicted its residents, shattering the architects’ utopian ideals of public housing.
Among the exhibition’s archival images, mounted on a black and yellow metal grid, there’s one arresting and almost melancholic portrait of architect Alison Smithson, taken at the Venice Biennale in 1976. She sits on a concrete bench wearing a straw hat, apparently lost in thought gazing at billboard-sized photograph of the newly completed Robin Hood Gardens. It was completed the year construction started on Grenfell Tower, the 24-story housing block in London that burned down last year, killing 71 people and leaving hundreds homeless. Like the Robin Hood Gardens, it’s become an unexpected symbol of the current affordable housing crisis in the UK that has been deepening for decades.
There is a link between New Brutalism, utopian public housing in the UK, and the spirit that led to the formation of the European Union: these are all post-war movements that aimed to rebuild the continent as a peaceful, equitable society. It’s a major achievement for the V&A to have saved a key piece of design from this era, although its optimism now appears quaint, given the rabid acceleration of global capitalism and the contemporary affordable housing crisis plaguing cities internationally. According to the Guardian, only 900 of the 1,900 ultra-luxury apartments built in London in 2017 sold, less than half; unsold luxury homes in the city are now at a record high. As affordable housing disappears, London may be left with dozens of “posh ghost towers” facing an empty future.
In a dark room in the Sale d’Armi, a video work by Korean artist Do Ho Suh plays on a 42-foot-long screen. The film moves from flat to flat, displaying the myriad details that distinguish the interiors of the few families who remained in the Robin Hood Gardens. The implications of architecture can be vast, and a building can symbolize something as weighty as a utopian vision and its undoing. But Suh reminds the viewer these buildings are the sites of everyday life for the people who occupy them—and the shelter they offer is fragile.
Robin Hood Gardens: A Ruin in Reverse is on view at the Venice Architecture Biennale through November 25, 2018.