Venice Architecture Biennale 2018: Robin Hood Gardens – A Ruin in Reverse

Robin Hood Gardens: A Ruin in Reverse
Curators: Christopher Turner and Olivia Horsfall Turner
Film installation: Do Ho Suh
Building section installation: muf architecture/art and Arup
Designer: the design Kollektiv


Back in 1976, architects Alison and Peter Smithson were at the Venice Art Biennale exhibiting a bench based on one of the columns from the facade of their deeply idealistic and optimistic Robin Hood Gardens social housing project in East London.



At that time they wrote: ‘A building under assembly is a ruin in reverse.’ The exhibit also included a billboard-sized photograph of the recently completed Robin Hood Gardens, which currently, nearly half a century on, is in the process of being demolished, finally laying to rest their utopian dream.



Now the ruined building – well, 8 tonnes of facade and staircase to be precise – is on show in Venice at the architecture biennale, after being saved by the Victoria & Albert Museum for posterity (following some strong lobbying from muf architecture/art).



This ‘ruin’ is part of the exhibition that also examines the ‘streets in the sky’ scheme via documentary photographs and footage, as well as interviews with supporters of, and those less avid about, the estate. The whole idea is to provoke further debate about this particular scheme, its legacy, and the future of UK social housing, which is currently very much under the microscope, yet still failing to come anywhere near supplying demand.



The exhibition also features a stunning film installation by artist Do Ho Suh (above) who has used 3D scanning and still and time-lapse photography to create a portrait of the building inside and out as well as of some of the people who lived there. Images and footage scroll vertically and horizontally over a cinematic screen and the effect is truly beguiling and also slightly surreal – as though you are looking at pans across a cut-away Wes Anderson film set.


It’s fascinating, provocative and timely, but if there’s one niggle, it has to be that although it is 9m high, the Robin Hood Gardens structure, just outside the show space, somehow feels a little lacking in presence – not quite as powerful a spectacle as you would have expected. The real thing strangely fails to express the building as well Do Ho Suh does inside the exhibition.


The 16th International Architecture Exhibition: La Biennale Di Venezia
runs until 25 November 2018

All photography: Johnny Tucker