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Chunk of ‘brutalist’ Robin Hood Gardens housing estate in Poplar being preserved by V&A Museum

PUBLISHED: 15:41 10 November 2017 | UPDATED: 09:31 11 November 2017

V&A buys a chunk of this 'brutalist' concrete housing estate in east London for posterity. Picture: Joe Lord

V&A buys a chunk of this 'brutalist' concrete housing estate in east London for posterity. Picture: Joe Lord

Joe Lord

A fragment of east London’s controversial Robin Hood Gardens housing estate has been acquired as an example of “brutalist concrete architecture and social housing” by the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Robin Hood Gardens' 'Street in the sky' walkway. Picture: Joe Lord Robin Hood Gardens' 'Street in the sky' walkway. Picture: Joe Lord

The three-storey section of facades and interiors of a maisonette was part of the Poplar estate next to the Blackwall Tunnel which is now being demolished after a nine-year battle to save it.

The 25ft high fragment was part of the massive concrete structures designed by Alison and Peter Smithson internationally-renowned architects for the Greater London Council in 1972 for social housing.

But Tower Hamlets Council’s decision in 2008 to demolish the run-down estate to make way for the huge Blackwall Reach redevelopment sparked a long-running controversy in the architecture world.

Concrete jungle of Poplar's Robin Hood Gardens. Picture: Joe Lord Concrete jungle of Poplar's Robin Hood Gardens. Picture: Joe Lord

The issue even split the estate with many of the 250 families wanting the leaky, droughty buildings bulldozed, with others wanting the estate to remain.

The town hall which is just a stone’s throw from Robin Hood Gardens just wanted to bulldoze the whole lot, in the face of leading architects insisting it should be given new investment and “saved” for the nation. The Building Design magazine in 2009 even called for it to be listed as an historic landmark.

“Robin Hood Gardens is an internationally-recognised structure by the protagonists of the ‘brutalist’ movement,” the V&A’s contemporary architecture curator Dr Neil Bingham said yesterday.

What the new Blackwall Reach development replacing Robin Hood Gardens will look like. Picture: Swan Housing What the new Blackwall Reach development replacing Robin Hood Gardens will look like. Picture: Swan Housing

“Our acquisition, complete with front and back facades, will motivate new thinking and research into this highly experimental period of brutalist architectural and urban history.”

‘Brutalism’ emerged in the 1950s, with its exposed concrete facades in repeating geometrical forms. The late Smithsons husband-and-wife team are credited with coining the term ‘brutalism’ when they designed the estate as their vision for social housing as “a new mode of urban organisation” with its noise-reducing exterior concrete fins and its elevated ‘streets in the sky’ walkways.

No other work of social housing in Britain has divided public opinion so much as Robin Hood Gardens. The demolition prompted one of the largest-ever campaigns in architectural preservation by the Twentieth Century Society and architectural historians.

Sunset on Robin Hood Gardens 'brutalist' concrete. Picture: Joe Lord Sunset on Robin Hood Gardens 'brutalist' concrete. Picture: Joe Lord

An application to give it listed status was turned down in 2013 and the demolition approved. Culture Secretary Andy Burnham gave Tower Hamlets the green light for the redevelopment to replace the 252 maisonettes with 1,500 new homes, including 570 for social renting.

The V&A’s acquisition and removal of the huge fragment, agreed by Tower Hamlets Council, the Mayor of London and Swan Housing, is the latest addition to its collection of historic architecture. But the museum was unable to say where the fragment would go on public show when contacted today by the East London Advertiser.

The collection includes the 16th-century timber facade of wealthy Elizabethan merchant Sir Paul Pindar’s house in Bishopsgate built in 1599, which escaped the Great fire of London seven decades later. It stood next to where Liverpool Street station is today.

The section of Robin Hood Gardens with its ‘street in the sky’ now joining the collection is being preserved for future generations long after the last scrap of ‘brutalist’ concrete has vanished from the estate.

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