The V&A at the 2018 Architecture Biennale
Responding to the 2018 Architecture Biennale’s theme of FREESPACE, the exhibition Robin Hood Gardens: A Ruin in Reverse presented a 9m-high salvaged section of the façade of Robin Hood Gardens, the Brutalist housing estate by Alison and Peter Smithson. The specially commissioned installation by artist Do Ho Suh presented a panoramic portrait of the architecture and interiors of the condemned 1972 estate. Through archival film and images, the exhibition explored the utopian vision of the Smithsons, and in documentary interviews architects, critics and residents offered their analysis of the estate’s legacy and their ideas on the future of social housing.
In 2017, just before demolition of the estate began, the V&A decided to save and preserve a three-storey section of each façade and the interior fittings of two flats. The resulting fragment has taken its place in our national collection of architecture as an internationally significant example of Brutalism. Robin Hood Gardens was the culmination of 20 years of research into social housing by Alison Smithson (1928 – 1993) and Peter Smithson (1923 – 2003). They intended it to be 'a demonstration of a more enjoyable way of living … a model, an exemplar, of a new mode of urban organisation'. Less than 50 years later, the building was being demolished, having controversially been denied protection by listing, and is set to be replaced by a £300m redevelopment of affordable and private housing.
This was not the first time that Robin Hood Gardens had featured at La Biennale di Venezia. In 1976, in the 37th International Art Exhibition, the Smithsons’ exhibition Sticks and Stones included a billboard-size photograph of Robin Hood Gardens shortly after completion, and a bench based on one of the concrete columns that articulate the façade of the building. 'A building under assembly is a ruin in reverse' they wrote. Now that the 'ruin in reverse' has become a real ruin, what can we learn from its ideals and fate? In the context of unprecedented urban pressures and the redevelopment of numerous post-war housing projects, what is the future of social housing?
Outside the Pavilion of Applied Arts, three storeys of the original façade, weighing approximately eight tons, were reassembled on a scaffold designed by ARUP, who engineered the original building, with muf architecture/art, who first proposed the V&A's acquisition of the fragment. This structure allowed visitors to stand on an original section of a 'street in the sky' – the elevated access deck designed by the Smithsons to foster interaction between neighbours and promote community.
Through archival film and photographs, and interviews recorded by filmmakers Adrian Dorschner and Thomas Beyer, the exhibition also looked at the vision and fate of Robin Hood Gardens – and asked what we can learn from its ruins.
The subject of 2018's exhibition arose not only from our acquisition of the fragment, but also responded to the theme for the 2018 Biennale of FREESPACE which, in the words of Irish architects and curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, 'encourages reviewing ways of thinking, new ways of seeing the world, of inventing solutions where architecture provides for the wellbeing and dignity of each citizen of this fragile planet'.
The V&A has a long-standing history of collecting large-scale architectural fragments, often salvaged from demolition sites. These include the sixteenth-century façade of Sir Paul Pindar's house in Bishopsgate, demolished in 1890, and the eighteenth-century music room rescued from the 1938 demolition of Norfolk House in St James's Square. The case of Robin Hood Gardens is arresting because it embodied such a bold vision for housing provision yet under fifty years after its completion it is being torn down. Out of the ruins of Robin Hood Gardens, we want to look again at the Smithson's original ideals and ask how they can inform and inspire current thinking about social housing.
The exhibition was supported by donors to the Venice Biennale Architecture Fund in memory of Dr Martin Roth and Volkswagen Group.
With the additional support of
Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong and Seoul
Victoria Miro, London/Venice