An Icon Reborn

‘An Icon Reborn’ the words stencilled onto hoarding near Blackwall Station.

The Robin Hood Gardens estate in Poplar, East-London, was a common feature of architecture enthusiasts’ to-see lists. Its name circulated in the company of British architecture that was co-opted by aesthetes, such as the Balfron Tower or the Brunswick Centre, and took-on an iconic status that ran parallel to its original purpose. Designed by the influential British architects Alison and Peter Smithson and completed in 1972, the estate was built during a government-supported housing drive after the Second World War. Intended to improve the country’s housing and push towards a ‘New Britain’, the post-war period saw the demolition of slums and the erection of high-rises and estates. In this climate of mass-produced housing – which commonly used standardised parts and exercised a Fordist rationale – Robin Hood Gardens became a symbol of an alternative approach to providing homes. A bedfellow of projects like the late Neave Brown’s Alexandra Road Estate, the Smithson’s design showcased a mode of building which sought to imbue high-density housing with the neighbourly qualities that were absent in tower blocks.

Today, however, if you visit the estate it is for a different reason. After its demolition began late last year, the Smithsons’ innovative spirit is gone and the architecture is fast disappearing with it. When I went there in mid-January, the site was noticeably transformed from the archival photographs that I had seen in the past. I recall one in particular, taken just after the estate’s construction, which featured children playing in the green space enclosed by the estate’s two housing blocks. On my visit, however, there were few people: just a couple of joggers who had also come to look around.