A tale of two brutalist housing estates: one thriving, one facing demolition

A tale of two brutalist housing estates: one thriving, one facing demolition
Robin Hood Gardens / © Corbis

Flats in London’s privately owned Barbican go for £4m, while four miles away a similarly iconic social housing estate is set for demolition

Last month I cycled the four miles between two of London’s most iconic brutalist housing estates, the Barbican and Robin Hood Gardens.

Both were designed by eminent architects around 40 years ago. Both have been praised and condemned in equal measure. One is a private estate and one is social housing. One is thriving, the other facing demolition. Their contrasting fortunes say a great deal about British housing policy over the past 40 years.

The Barbican, with more than 2,000 homes, is a frequent winner of London’s ugliest building award. Yet its homes are very desirable, with penthouses going for more than £4m. Designed by Le Corbusier devotees Chamberlin, Powell and Bon it features raised walkways, gardens and lush greenery. The estate has an army of caretakers and porters, and service charges range from £1,700 to £16,000 a year.

Robin Hood Gardens, a stone’s throw from Canary Wharf, was designed by Alison and Peter Smithson for the Greater London Council (GLC). There is a wonderful film online made by cult novelist BS Johnson which catches their rather snooty attitude. Two massive slab blocks enclose a large open space and a two-storey high hill. It was modelled on the “little pool of calm” at Gray’s Inn and it is astonishingly peaceful, given that the site is surrounded by major roads. […]