Peter and Alison Smithson

Updated Monday 26th November 2001

A shining reputation had to swim against a turning tide of taste.

Alison and Peter Smithson Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Copyright

Alison Smithson:
(1928 - 1993)
Peter Smithson:

(1923 - 2003)

Nationality:
British

Famous Buildings:
Secondary School, Hunstanton
The Economist Building, London
Robin Hood Gardens, London

Post-War Reconstruction

Alison and Peter Smithson formed the most formidable British architectural partnership of the mid-twentieth century. Fiercely intellectual, they proselytised the cause of Modernism throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and were unafraid to criticise the prevailing orthodoxy or bring new ideas to the Modernist blueprint.

Their long struggle with the outcomes of Modernism, particularly in relation to housing (and, arguably, never satisfactorily resolved) is a significant development in the story of British Modernist architecture.

The couple's first significant building was their Secondary School in Hunstanton, Norfolk. Work started on this building in 1949 and was completed in 1954. The immediate post-war years were a time of political change in Britain, with an ambitious new leftwing government determined to turn the carnage of the War into an opportunity to rebuild the nation, both in a literal and social sense. For Modernists like the Smithsons, these were heady days.

Belonging Is A Human Need

At the time, Hunstanton caused much excitement in the architectural profession and was widely praised. The exposed steel frames and walls of glass were a conscious imitation of Mies Van Der Rohe and the service elements such as the pipes were exposed. The water tank was made into a tower.

In intervening years, many of the school's glass panels have been purposely covered in order to provide shade in the summer, and to prevent heat loss in the winter. Nevertheless, this is a much-imitated building and one of the highpoints of British Modernist design in the post-war years.

But even before it was completed, the Smithsons were already expressing serious doubts at the Modernist orthodoxy, particularly in the crucial field of urban planning where CIAM's 1933 Athen's Charter (written by Le Corbusier) remained dominant.

This charter encouraged Modernists to design cities full of high, widely spaced apartment blocks and carefully planned functional zones, separated from one another by acres of landscaped green belt.

A younger generation of architects, led by the Smithsons, worried that this vision would lead to sterile cities, devoid of community spirit and characterised by individual isolation. At CIAM's 1953 Congress, the Smithsons wrote; "'Belonging' is a basic emotional need- its associations are of the simplest order. From 'belonging'- identity- comes the enriching sense of neighbourliness.

The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where spacious redevelopment frequently fails."

Streets In The Sky

At the 10th and final CIAM Congress in 1956, the Smithsons and their allies (known as Team 10), broke with CIAM for good. Their alternative to Athens was the 'Golden Lane' project, first mooted in 1952. This was a low-rise snake of housing, with wide, 'streets in the sky'- an attempt to humanise Modernist urban theory. But the houses were all on the one side of the street, therefore losing the enclosed element which preserved community on the ground, and even the Smithsons noted that once you get above six storeys, the sense of being on a street had disappeared anyway.

In 1961, this plan inspired Sheffield city council's Park Hill Estate. The Smithsons themselves built Robin Hood Gardens in 1972, but by then the wider deficiencies of Modernism, first noted by the couple twenty years previously, were becoming apparent to the general public as well.

Robin Hood Lane was not a popular development. Its grim concrete and prison-like appearance, as well as its setting next to two of London's busiest roads certainly didn't help. It's birth a mere twelve months before the end of the post-war economic boom ensured that it (along with the similarly unlucky Trellick Tower) would soon be swept away by the rising problems of economic crisis, despite the Smithsons' protests that one day people would be proud to say that they lived there.

The couple's reputation has never recovered, despite the popularity of Hunstanton and their Economist building of 1964.

The Modernist Architects

 

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