Breaking Bad: When Architecture is Turned into a Criminal

September 14, 2020

Tania Tovar Torres tells the story of the residential estate Robin Hood Gardens, a story that begins exactly at the intersection between law and architecture.


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Robin Hood Gardens, London. © Ciro Miguel.

Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.
—Franz Kafka, The Trial, 1925

Law, understood as a human artifact, constitutes an ensemble of regulations, which have been explicitly stated in order to categorize behaviors in two categories: legal and illegal. In order to do so, it expects from every individual subjected to its application a full knowledge of its content in order to moralize and hold accountable attitudes that are either respectful or transgressive toward it.1

Architecture has historically regulated the material aspect of the law, serving as the law’s executioner, vigilante, foreman, and caretaker through an already wide range of typologies and delimited territories (walls, control towers, bunkers, and restricted areas, among others). It is through these architectures that the orders of the law are executed upon a subject. However, the architectural object can also be subject to the application of the law. What happens when architecture is not used in legal or illegal ways upon a human body, but the building itself is repressed, judged, sentenced, and condemned?

Architecture, then, is not only treated as a subject, but out of all subjects, as a criminal, a nonabiding citizen that has transgressed the stated regulations of the law and is punished for it. The term “crime” in this case is highly subjective, as it is not determined by the direct action of the building. Its involvement in the offense is not active, but more related with its mere existence and its attributes, whether material or symbolic (location, scale, use, or appearance). The change of (legal) status refers to a wide range of reasons, from physical, locational, economic, political, aesthetic, or social to environmental, managerial, or even ideological conditions, according to and provided by the law. Here, the primordial conflict between law and architecture lies in the inherent impulse of both to last and overcome, and where the material condition of a building can be as much medium or interference for the orders and control of the law, easily turning the architectural object into an object of resistance, which is by definition a crime.

The grim story of the 70s fallen hero, Robin Hood Gardens, begins exactly in the intersection between law and architecture. Robin Hood Gardens, a residential estate in Poplar, London, designed in the late 1960s by architects Alison and Peter Smithson and completed in 1972, is the only mass housing of theirs ever to be built. Conceived as a council housing estate with homes spread across “streets in the sky,” this social housing, characterized by broad aerial walkways in long concrete blocks, is much like the Park Hill estate in Sheffield. The estate comprises two long curved blocks facing each other across a central green space, and in total covers 1.5 hectares (3.7 acres).2 Considered a model for housing architecture in the 70s, it stood for almost forty years, a legal abiding citizen, until time and development caught up with it. What was once an industrial area was set up for renovation, the savior and household for the lower class became nothing more but a thief stealing space for future plans. The building became expendable, the architects who designed it irrelevant, its previous values ignored, and the old icon sentenced to demolition.

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Robin Hood Gardens, London. © Ciro Miguel.

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Robin Hood Gardens, London. © Ciro Miguel.

The building remained the same, but in time the economic value of the land changed it. Surpassed by the value of the land, a changed perception, and considered an impediment in the speculatory game of real estate, the building was accused of standing against the improvement and development of the city, of being inadequate and incompetent, and the hero was turned into a criminal overnight without knowing.

The architectural subject’s condition of legality was changed unilaterally by the law in a conviction process where the law acts as the active agent, and the architecture that passively obeyed the law, can easily cease to comply with its orders and mandates. Changes in either the building, the law, or their context and their affectations, passive or active, can eventually turn a building into a threat according to the law, and have its status changed and turned into an illegal and criminal subject. It is in this uneven scenario, where the passive architecture can be convicted of a crime.

The conviction of a building is then related to the crime it is accused of, where any offense committed by it is directly proportional to the discrepancy between the current state of affairs and the previous state, where the building that used to be considered a productive asset in society is then seen as useless (an atrocious crime for a building), a threat, and convicted for it.

Brutalist architecture consolidated by the Smithsons in the 1950s had already gone out of fashion when Robin Hood Gardens was completed 20 years later. Despite a revival of interest of architecture and writers of architecture, brutalist buildings are still regularly voted the most hated in Britain in the popular polls. This public disdain transforms into political disdain, which translates into demolitions.
—Tom Wilkinson, “Robin Hood Gardens: Requiem for A Dream,” The Architectural Review (2014)

The operation of the law during any legal proceeding is always methodical. The process will generally begin with a formal criminal charge that will separate it from its regular order and system, leaving the building in an abstract condition of isolation, signaling the building as a criminal, and acting as a first phase of confinement. This first step of the proceeding will result in the conviction or acquittal of the accused. From this moment on, the law will make the building licitly susceptible to a punishment. The implications of the judgment and its importance, lie in the change upon the status of the building after the conviction: from a free and anonymous one, to one that can be charged and subject to prosecution for the “commission” of a crime. The seriousness of the crime in architectural terms are not evaluated until sentencing. The decision will be made after submitting the accused to a trail.

A building’s incapability to make an appearance in court, forces it to be presented only through documentary evidence, accurate descriptions, and approved official dictums around the object in trial. A specialist will be called to speak on behalf of the inanimate but nonetheless judged object.3 Decrees, dictums, photographs, or witness statements will be presented as evidence of the actual physical state of the building. It is here where another character appears and the figure of a defender will become relevant: the individual aware of the situation that comprehends and reveals the physical existence of the building and its conflict with the law; the one who represents and assists having an active and operational character that turns into a vigilante of the process. The mission of the defender will be then to fight for the name of the imputed and the preservation of its guarantees, a figure that is also considered within the law and its process. However, it is not the interpreter/defender’s saying what determines the true state of the building. It is the fact that the outcome of his representation and investigation will be submitted to a forum for it to be found truthful or false by a public consensus, and ultimately, by the criterion of a judge.

Robin Hood Gardens had been accused and convicted, but it wouldn’t go down without a fight. A defender stepped forward: The Twentieth Century Society, a group devoted to safeguard the heritage of architecture and design in Britain from 1914 onwards, filed in a petition to the English Heritage Committee to enlist the old-time hero as a Cultural Heritage Estate. Cases were made trying to save the work of the Smithsons, but in report after report, the “streets in the sky” ceased to be the characterization of the “modern utopia.” Instead, Robin Hood Gardens was constantly accused of creating nothing but “new and worse problems,” a theoretical game landed in bad design and a lack of sufficient investment: monumental but inhumane.4 Numerous descriptive and photographic reports were issued explaining why Robin Hood Gardens should be listed and asking for the English Heritage Committee to reconsider the application, but it was ultimately labeled a “heroic failure.”5 Robin Hood Gardens would only be given five years more to live before facing its unavoidable fate. It would soon cease to be the brutalist housing symbol it once was. Robin Hood Gardens, the criminal, had been processed, and as such, it had entered the variable time and space between the beginning and the end of a criminal process. From an acquittal to an execution, it was still see what the legal proceeding had in store for it.6

The journey of the building through the linear but heterogeneous geography and times of the law were just beginning. The housing unit became victim of its variable times, which can be accelerated or elongated, partially or indefinitely detained several times between the issuance of a judgment and its execution. The estate was to remain untouched during the period of time established by the Heritage Committee. There would be no execution, not until the five-year contract expired; but there would be no exoneration either. The fate of the building, laid again, on a couple of typed paragraphs on a piece of paper, the hopeful piece of protective paper that later turned into a course, but at the time there was still hope and a deadline.

The case extended past its five-year sentence. Rumors had it that Tower Hamlets Council, the landlord, had been ignoring maintenance problems at Robin Hood Gardens hoping residents would move out so they could demolish the estate.7 Architects and historians did not yield to what sounded like biased accusations made against the hero and now forced outlaw. Renowned architect Richard Rogers joined to the defense of the old icon, and together with a group of advocates of the Smithson’s work, began a campaign defending whatever honor was left of the building in an effort to save Robin Hood Gardens from its demolition. Architects all over the world got together to file for a reconsideration of the listing of the building as cultural heritage.

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Robin Hood Gardens, London. © Ciro Miguel.

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Robin Hood Gardens, London. © Ciro Miguel.

The building kept stoic, waiting for an outcome: exoneration of demolition. And while the legal battle continued, it slowly fell into the convicted life it so much dreaded. Accusation after accusation, and trapped in articulo mortis, it became a civil dead, deprived from its rights due to the conviction for a felony it didn’t even know it had committed. Usually inflicted on subjects convicted of crimes against the state or adults determined by a court to be legally incompetent because of mental disability, felons lost all civil rights upon their conviction, Robin Hood Gardens joined the lines of the convicted souls waiting without identity for an execution date.8

The architectural body that rarely changed during its “legal” state of existence was kept within a state of exclusion and held in it for a given period, a time provisioned by law itself. It was forced to assume a defensive position consequence of its crime charges, charges that sooner or later would become evident in the body of the building and its normal life. During this fixed but variable gap of time between the sentence and the execution, the building became subject to the most radical changes; a time where architecture, through its physicality, slowly embodied the immaterial law and became the criminal it had been accused of being.

Week after week, the unit somehow seemed to become more and more grim. People had begun to go missing and the grass had become overgrown. Light and other cleaning services had been failing, nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a good clean-up and couple of gates for safety. Time kept passing and Robin Hood Gardens kept getting darker. Lights were off, gates were closed, and a fence left half open on the side of one of the blocks served as the entry to the ten stories of precast concrete slabs. Under the Robin Hood sign, a graffitied wall that read “Shock” caught the eye of the foreign visitor. In the central green area, a small man-made hill with a few stone turtle-looking artifacts suggested a family oriented community, but the community was nowhere to be found.

Walking into the garden, where all sound from the road was left behind, one could still remember the walls on the outside and feel the buildings turning inwards away from all the mayhem. The estate seemed even more introverted and isolated. Up close, the crumbling concrete walls due to years of neglect had become evident. The stairwells were dark and unnerving, especially at night, and turned into meanly proportioned spaces; they still had the aroma of piss, no matter how much cleaning products had been spilled on them. The fort image associated with Robin Hood Gardens, the image that accused it of an antisocial behavior, couldn’t be more true. But did design cause crime? Was there a causal link between the spaces and the antisocial activities that happened in them?9 As one discovered the second security doors and key flops, one could see what the legal proceeding had done: the forgotten place succumbed to vandalism, and the locks turned Robin Hood Gardens into a gated community hiding from the outside.

Going up the stairs were the famous streets in the sky that were meant to be wide enough for children to cycle and play, and to encourage neighborly mingling, but there were no signs of that in the place.10 Disturbingly quiet, disrupted by steps resonating all around the estate. Alison’s “eddies,” little side pockets created by facing door to door setbacks from the main circulation on the walkways, had become small trenches between the hiding neighbors and the evils and accusations from the outside world. Not necessarily what she had in mind when writing her rather bizarre essay in praise of the nooks and crannies inhabited by talking vaults and woodlice in the storage of Beatrix Potter.11 There was no trace of the joyful and filled-with-life Robin Hood Gardens. The one that gave to the needed had run out of things to give. It had become a grim, ferocious, and dangerous character, nothing but an outlaw. Now, they had the criminal they wanted.

1 Leópold Lambert, “The Law Turned into Walls,” The Funambulist (blog), 2014,
2 “Robin Hood Gardens,” Wikipedia, accessed April 27, 2016,
3 Eyal Weizman, Forensic Architecture (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2012).
4 Peter Stewart Consultancy, “Robin Hood Gardens, Report on Potential Listing,” (2007).
5 Ibid.
6 Acquittal: A judgment that a person is not guilty of the crime with which the person has been charged. Conviction: A formal declaration that someone is guilty of a criminal offense, made by the verdict of a jury or the decision of a judge in a court of law. Sentence: The punishment assigned to a defendant found guilty by a court, or fixed by law for a particular offense. Appeal: An application to a higher court for a decision to be reversed. Stay: Court order that suspends a judicial proceeding (or a judgment resulting from it) in part or in full. Commutation: A change of a legal penalty or punishment to a lesser one (commutation of a death sentence). Exoneration: The action of officially absolving someone from blame; vindication. Execution: The carrying out of a sentence of death on a condemned person.
7 “Council ‘Running Down’ Robin Hood Gardens,” Building Design (2009): n.p.
8 See e.g. Interdiction of F.T.E., 594 So.2d 480 (La. App. 2d Cir. 1992).
9 Tom Wilkinson, “Robin Hood Gardens: Requiem for A Dream,” Architectural Review, November 10, 2014, stenographic version.
10 Ibid.
11 Alison Smithson, “Beatrix Potter’s Places,” in Alison and Peter Smithson: From the House of the Future to a House of Today, Dirk van den Heuvel and Max Risselada, eds. (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2013), 213–214. First published in Architectural Design (December 1967).