Though they only designed a handful of buildings during their four decades career, British architects Alison and Peter Smithson were amongst the most influential and controversial pioneers of the New Brutalist movement. The husband and wife partnership achieved early success by winning a competition to design Hunstanton Secondary Modern School in Norfolk, England in May 1950, but due to post-war steel shortages, the school was not constructed until 1954.
Their design of a “single oblong with three internal courtyards—the middle of which is roofed to provide the school with a hall” was made from steel, concrete and glass and owed much to Mies van der Rohe for its style and structure. The construction was highly praised by fellow architects, including Philip Johnson who wrote in the Architectural Review in 1954:
...the plan is not only radical but good Mies van der Rohe, yet the architects have never seen Mies’s work. And though the Smithsons may not agree, much of the excellence of their work is a tribute not only to themselves but also to the genius of Mies van der Rohe.
Johnson was wrong on one point, the Smithsons had seen the work of van der Rohe. However the building also had its detractors in particular the children and teachers who used the building claimed it was too hot in summer and unbearably cold in winter.
When the completed school was photographed for architectural journals Peter had every piece of furniture removed from the interior to best show the building in its pristine glory. There of course is the problem, for what makes architecture seem good on paper, is often foiled the moment humans inhabit the space.
The Smithsons moved away from van der Rohe and embraced Le Corbusier and his ideas for urban planning as propagated through the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM). They described themselves as the “New Brutalists,” and their early success was followed by almost a decade without commissions. This may have been in part due to the institutionalized sexism of the day—in a world where a woman architect was almost unheard of—and also to the couple’s didactic and over-bearing personalities. As Rachel Cooke put it in her essay on Alison Smithson in her excellent book Her Brilliant Career:
[Alison] and Peter were increasingly convinced that, at bottom, the drought was personal—that competition judges and planning officers had only to see their names on a drawing to lose interest. It had been a political statement, of sorts, to call their partnership ‘Alison and Peter Smithson’, and Alison now suggested, only half-jokingly, that they should start using only Peter’s name, or even a pseudonym.
The dry spell would continue for the rest of the Fifties. But it wasn’t only their designs that caused people to baulk. Somewhere along the way the Smithsons gained a reputation for being difficult. Specifically, Alison gained a reputation for being difficult. ‘The problem was that she could upset clients,’ says a former assistant. ‘It wasn’t just the case that she thought she was right; the client should do what she said too. That didn’t go down well.’ Another architect: ‘Alison whined. She was relentless. Her voice was relentless. She had a chip on her shoulder.’ And another: ‘I found her difficult. She had a beastly temper, and she could be horrid to people.’ And here is Jane Drew: ‘I thought her voice always had a moan in it somewhere.’ I take all of these comments with a pinch of salt; visible women in male-dominated professions are often characterised as shrill, bossy, chippy, stubborn and complaining, even by other visible women. On the other hand, Alison could be exasperating. Even those who loved her will tell you so.
The Smithsons next major project was “The Economist Building” (1959-62) in London, which proved to be successful with both commissioner (chairman of The Economist, Sir Geoffrey Crowther) and the magazine’s staff. The Smithsons wrote of the project:
[The Economist] had the nerve to commission and to build their own building, without any previous experience of how to do such a thing; allowing their architects to shape their work space with its presence in St. James’s Street, Piccadilly, to its filling systems and taps in the lavatories.
Some consider “The Economist Building” to be the Smithson’s masterpiece that has “withstood the flow of time.” But yet again, the success of a concrete and glass building did not last long and the couple were faced with another spell without commissions.
This changed at the end of the decade, when Alison and Peter bagged their biggest public commission from the London County Council to build a modern housing estate, consisting of two long concrete tower blocks.
The scheme had a pretty name: Robin Hood Gardens. But though it looked fabulously arresting in photographs, as such egg boxes always do, it was not at all pretty in the flesh. It consisted of two non-identical slab blocks of pre-cast concrete, ‘split like a kipper’ as Peter put it, and bent around a green mound made with the spoil of the buildings it replaced. There were 213 [apartments] in all, access to which was provided by [elevators] at the end of every block and continuous decks that ran the full length.
Robin Hood Gardens was occupied in 1971, and completed in 1972, at a cost of £1,845,585. Vandals began their angry work soon after the first residents moved in. The facilities at the base of the building—the social centre and the laundrette among them—closed just weeks later.
In 1970, novelist B. S. Johnson was commissioned by the BBC to make a documentary on Alison and Peter Smithson and the building of Robin Hood Gardens. Called The Smithsons on Housing, the documentary was damningly criticized on its screening by both BBC management (who thought it disappointing and amateurish) and by critics. Johnson was a fan of the Smithsons but one would never guess it from his documentary, the main fault of which is the manner in which he collaborated with the couple in presenting them in horrendous mid-close-up, talking directly and endlessly to camera. They come across as unsympathetic and unlikable and it perhaps explains why they were often unsuccessful in their careers. Or, as Jonathan Coe described the film in his biography on Johnson Like a Fiery Elephant:
Watching it today is a positively eerie experience. This is not just a question of hindsight—of knowing that the brave new housing project which these two theorists discuss with such daunting intellectual fervour would come to be regarded, by many, as a social and architectural disaster—but of the whole atmosphere of the film, an atmosphere dictated by the screen presence of Peter and Alison Smithson themselves. Never can late ‘60s fashions have looked so eccentric, for one thing. Sitting upright at what appears to be a kitchen table in extreme close-up, reading cue cards with all the expressive variety of a dalek with a PhD, Alison Smithson appears to be wearing a child’s spacesuit improvised out of tin foil for much of the film. The effect is frankly terrifying, and it’s frequently hard to concentrate on what either of them is saying.
Over-earnestness can undermine the most well intentioned speaker and here the Smithson’s veer between Monty Python’s “most boring man” and one of Eleanor Bron’s satirical characters, which is unfortunate, as in amongst the suggestion of making London a future Venice or admitting that they “maybe asking people to live in a way that is stupid,” there are some interesting ideas. However, Johnson’s film is a powerful presentation of why the Smithsons were perceived so unsympathetically by their critics, as they come across as zealots, who cared more for the theory of architecture than the practice of living.
More of The Smithsons after the jump…