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In praise of Brutalist housing – or not?

Tim Abrahams has written a thoughtful piece for The Economist on the decision to preserve a part of the demolished Robin Hood Gardens at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

He entitles his piece ‘Robin Hood Gardens and the divisiveness of brutalism‘ and discusses both the techniques and challenges of conservation (fascinating) and the importance today of this brutalist architecture.

He concludes: ‘While the building still divides opinion—is it the acme of a new social vision, or a grey and damp failure?—the V&A’s acquisition will allow the public and designers to study its construction more closely. It is possible that this process of re-contextualising the building may win it some new fans. “One of the many privileges of the residency was witnessing the thoughtful precision of the contractors, recording and planning the reverse construction processes of taking apart the two flats, piece by piece,” Ms Fior says. “It was a process which revealed, in turn, the thought involved in so many of the design moves in Robin Hood Gardens.” The irony is that the building had to be destroyed for this appreciation to take place.’

In some ways, Brutalism is being fetishised now. The shop at the Barbican, for example, not only has some great books and photos, but also Brutalism rubbers and other souvenir ephemera. It even sells rather beautiful concrete jewellery.

We may conflate style with other problems, however. I have been reading Lynsey Hanley’s book Estates, 10 years old but in a new edition this year. In this passionate and very personal polemic, she not only talks about problems with maintenance and design, but also the isolating nature of council estates. People contained within them saw little of the world beyond. This resulted, she argues, in ‘a wall in the head’ – a lack of understanding of what lay beyond the estates and the opportunities that others enjoyed.

Now of course what little social housing is built is typically tenure blind. But we shouldn’t imagine those problems have gone away. A recent article in The Guardian talks about the polarisation of housing in Kensington and Chelsea (so pertinent after Grenfell) and in particular about the World’s End Estate, the towers adjacent to affluent King’s Road but a world apart

We still have a lot to learn…


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