Not only were ALISON AND PETER SMITHSON (1928-1993 and 1923-2003) among the most influential and controversial British architects of the mid-20th century, thanks to such landmarks as the Economist Building and the Robin Hood Gardens housing complex, they also played an important part in the fledgling British pop art movement.
When Peter Smithson died aged 79 in March 2003, The Times devoted a page of readers’ letters commenting on the buildings he had designed with his wife Alison. They ranged from glowing tributes to this “brilliant pair” and affectionate anecdotes from friends to a scathing critique of their first public building, the prize-winning Hunstanton School in Norfolk, which one man, who had taught there for 37 years condemned as “more suited to being a prison than a school.”
This combination of accolades and attacks had accompanied the Smithsons throughout their long career ever since Hunstanton – known locally as the “glasshouse” – was completed in 1954. Controversial though it was, Hunstanton established Alison and Peter Smithson as leading lights of post-war British architecture.
All their subsequent projects – from the 1956 House of the Future, the visionary home exhibited at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, and the early 1960s Economist Building, to the early 1970s Robin Hood Gardens housing complex in east London – were infused with the same crusading zeal to build schools, workplaces and homes for a progressive, more meritocratic post-war society.
Born in Stockton-on-Tees in 1923, Peter Smithson met Alison Gill, born in Sheffield in 1928, when they were studying at the school of architecture in Newcastle, then part of Durham University. Peter had started his studies in 1939, only to enlist in the army in 1942 to serve with Queen Victoria’s Own Madras Sappers and Miners in India and Burma. After the war, he returned to Newcastle to complete his course and then enrolled at the Royal Academy in London. He and Alison married in 1949. After winning the competition to design Hunstanton School, they set up a practice together in South Kensington.
Hunstanton offered a rare opportunity for young, idealistic architects like the Smithsons, both still in their 20s when they won the commission, to realise their vision. Both were uncompromising in their determination to define a new approach to modernist architecture which, like the pre-war International Style, would exploit the low cost and pragmatism of mass-produced materials and pre-fabricated components, and the aesthetic purity of their architectural heroes like Mies Van Der R?he, but would produce buildings that were specific to their location and purpose. Precisely elegant with its exposed steel and brick structure, Hunstanton School was a pure expression of the Smithsons’ ideals.
Those ideals were articulated at a CIAM conference in 1953 when Alison and Peter attacked the decades-old dogma propounded by Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius that cities should be zoned into specific areas for living, working, leisure and transport and that urban housing should consist of tall, widely spaced towers. The Smithsons’ ideal city combined different activities within the same areas and they envisaged modern housing being built as “streets in the sky” to encourage the residents to feel a sense of “belonging” and “neighbourliness”.
The Smithsons’ friend, the design theorist Reyner Banham, hailed them in 1955 as the pioneers of “the new brutalism”, a reference to both their ascetic style and Peter’s student nickname – ‘Brutus’. A fashionable joke in mid-1950s architectural circles was that: “Brutalism equals Brutus plus Alison”.
Not only did the Smithsons share the same ideals, each was equally ambitious. Peter’s student friends recalled his confident prediction that, one day, he would become “the world’s greatest architect”. After meeting Alison, neither he nor she saw any reason why she should not share that status with him, even in the male-dominated arena of architecture. Friends admired their convictions, but the Smithsons’ critics considered them opinionated to the point of obdurateness. From the start they ran their practice as equals by sharing the responsibility of bringing up their three children – Simon, Samantha and Soraya – initially above their office, and then in the house they bought a few streets away.
The Smithsons were central figures not only in avant garde architectural circles, but on the broader cultural scene in 1950s London. Through their friendships with the critic Reyner Banham, the artist Eduardo Paolozzi and photographer Nigel Henderson, they became involved with Independent Group, a cross-cultural discussion group which met at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, over dinner at the Smithsons’ house, Sunday lunch with the Banhams’ in Primrose Hill and drinks at the French Pub in Soho. They were also co-curators, with Paolozzi and Henderson, of the art and architecture exhibitions – Parallel of Art and Life at the ICA and This Is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Art Gallery – which were to prove highly influential in the development of the British pop art movement.
The artist Richard Hamilton summed up the pop spirit in a 1957 letter to the Smithsons as “popular, transient, expendable, low cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, big business”. At the time, Alison and Peter embraced these values in every aspect of their lives from their choice of car – initially an open-topped Jeep and then a Citro?n DS19 which, when it was unveiled in 1955, was hailed as the apogee of modernity with its plastic rear window and revolutionary engineering – to the fantastical outfits that Alison made. She once threw a glass of red wine over the architect James Stirling when he poked fun at one outfit by unrolling its exaggerated collar and tying it on top of her head.
Arguably the purest expression of the Smithsons’ pop ideology was the House of the Future, the visionary ‘model home’ they devised for the 1956 Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition. Designed, predominantly by Alison, to be a plastic structure which could be mass-produced in its entirety, rather than in parts, the house included then-innovative futuristic features, such as a self-cleaning bath, easy-to-clean corners and remote controls for the television and lighting.
In 1959, the Smithsons were commissioned to design a new headquarters for The Economist magazine in Piccadilly. Inspired by the narrow lanes and courts of the old City of London, they created an elegantly spacious pedestrian plaza as a trio of finely detailed towers, each built on a different scale, clad in traditional Portland stone. The office interiors were based on their lengthy research into the working practices of The Economist journalists. At the opening the editor Sir Geoffrey Crowther said that the staff had felt “trepidation” on first meeting the Smithsons but took “leave of them now with awe and affection”.
The success of The Economist project secured a commission for the new British Embassy in Brasilia. Alison and Peter produced their design after conducting yet more rigorous research – this time into how the embassy’s staff worked. One senior diplomat described their scheme as an “embassy of great beauty and certainly the most efficient embassy building ever conceived”. Unfortunately it fell victim to government spending cuts and was never built.
In the late 1960s, the Smithsons were given the opportunity to realise their vision of modern housing by designing an estate of 213 homes at Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, east London. They conceived it as a series of “streets in the sky” mixing single-storey apartments with two-storey maisonettes and including a wide balcony on every third floor which, they hoped, the residents would use for children’s play and chatting to neighbours like a traditional street. Sadly Robin Hood Gardens was plagued by structural flaws and a high crime rate. It was often derided as an example of modernist architectural folly rather than the role model for progressive social housing that Alison and Peter had hoped.
Its failure dealt lasting damage to their reputation. The couple would only complete one more major public commission in the UK – five buildings at Bath University in the 1980s. Most of their later architectural work would be residential projects for private clients such as a folly at Hadspen estate in Somerset for their friend Niall Hobhouse, which was based on an unrealised design for a tower in Siena, and the extensions to Hexenhaus, the home of Axel Bruchhauser, the German furniture manufacturer for whom they also designed a small furniture museum.
Uncompromising to the last, the Smithsons continued to propound their ideas in lectures and books. Peter, in particular, was praised as a devoted and inspiring teacher. For the decade in which he lived and worked alone after Alison’s death in 1993, he devoted most of his time to lecturing and to analysing their work in writings.
1923 Peter Smithson is born in Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham.
1928 Birth of Alison Gill in Sheffield.
1939 Peter enrols at the school of architecture in Newcastle, part of Durham University.
1942 Forced to interrupt his studies to serve in the army during World War II, Peter enlists in Queen Victoria’s Own Madras Sappers and Miners in India and Burma.
1945 After the War Peter returns to Newcastle to complete his degree and meets Alison Gill, a fellow architecture student.
1949 Having moved to London together after graduation, Alison and Peter marry and set up an architecture practice in their South Kensington home. They win their first public commission to design a secondary modern school at Hunstanton in Norfolk.
1952 Co-found the Independent Group with friends such as Eduardo Paolozzi and Nigel Henderson at the ICA in London.
1953 The Independent Group curates the Parallel of Art and Life exhibition at the ICA. The Smithsons unveil their theory of building modern housing as “streets in the sky” at the CIAM conference in Aix-en-Provence. This concept was articulated a year earlier in their design proposal for the Golden Lane housing complex in London.
1956 Design an open-plan house for Derek Sugden of the structural engineers Arup Associates and the House of the Future for the Daily Mail Ideal Home Show in London. Participate in the This Is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London.
1959 Commissioned to design the headquarters for The Economist magazine in St James’s Piccadilly. Built as a trio of three office towers around a spacious plaza, the project is completed in 1964.
1964 The Smithsons are invited to design the British Embassy in Brasilia, only for the project to be cancelled by government spending cuts.
1966 Begin work on Robin Hood Gardens, a housing complex in Poplar, east London, which proves highly controversial when completed in 1972.
1967 Design the elegant garden building at St Hilda’s College, Oxford inspired by traditional Japanese wooden structures.
1973 Start a two year project to design the Lucas group’s headquarters.
1978 Peter is appointed visiting professor at Bath University, for which he and Alison will design five faculty buildings over the next decade.
1985 Design the first of numerous extensions to the Hexenhaus, the home of the German furniture manufacturer Axel Bruchh?user, which will continue for the next fifteen years.
1993 Death of Alison Smithson.
2001 Publication of The Charged Void: Architecture
2003 Death of Peter Smithson.
2004 International touring exhibition of the work of Alison and Peter Smithson opens at the Design Musuem, London.
Alison + Peter Smithson, The Charged Void – Urbanism, The Monacelli Press, 2003
Alison + Peter Smithson, The Charged Void – Architecture, The Monacelli Press, 2001
Helena Webster, Modernism Without Rhetoric – The Work of Alison and Peter Smithson, John Wiley + Sons, 1997
Alison + Peter Smithson, Changing The Art of Inhabitation, Artemis, 1994
Alison + Peter Smithson, The Shift, Academy Editions, 1983
Marco Vidotto, Alison + Peter Smithson – Works and Projects, Gustavo Gill, 1997
Alison + Peter Smithson, Without Rhetoric – Architectural Aesthetic, 1955-72, Latimer New Dimensions, 1973
Peter Smithson, Bath Walks Within Walls, Bath University Press, 1980
Alison + Peter Smithson, Smithson – Team 10 Primer, The MIT Press, 1975
Alison + Peter Smithson, Urban Structuring, Studio Vista, 1967
Alison + Peter Smithson, Heroic Period of Modern Architecture, Thames + Hudson, 1981
Alison + Peter Smithson, Smithson - Without Rhetoric, The MIT Press, 1974
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain