Alison and Peter Smithson are two of the most influential architects of the 20th century. This is in spite of the fact that only several of their buildings made it past the design stage and that, of those that did in the UK at least, they have often been reviled as the most grim of Brutalist designs. Yet, apart from their buildings standing out for their confident, if occasionally misplaced, solidity, the pair’s initial designs are in themselves a wonderful evocation of a past’s vision of future living. Within these designs, there’s a true sense of discarding excessive flourishes of almost all past architectural movements in favour of addressing the heart of the 20th century’s architectural problem; that of the dramatic increase in volume of the population and their need for housing. Almost every facet of their designs succumbs to this problem, streamlining any design aspect to address the, almost compulsory, shared living spaces required in post-war Europe. The collage works that were put together to sell these ideas, therefore, are some of the most telling and modern of any visual artwork made during the period simply because the issue has, if anything, worsened as time has gone on.
The Smithson’s almost immersive embracement of all aspects of popular culture has some role to play in their designs, from pop art, the new developments of advertising and even pulp science fiction. In the pair’s 1956 piece of writing “But Today We Collect Ads” from Ark (the journal of the Royal College of Art), this becomes abundantly clear. They write the following on the influence of the concepts of mass product and design upon architecture:
As far as architecture is concerned, the influence on mass standards and mass aspirations of advertising is now infinitely stronger than the pace setting of avant-garde architects, and it is taking over the functions of social reformers and politicians. Already the mass production industries have revolutionized half the house – kitchen, bathroom, utility room, and garage – without the intervention of the architect, and the curtain wall and the modular prefabricated building are causing us to revise our attitude to the relationship between architect and industrial production. (1956)
The process is key here as it is the amalgamation of mass advertising practices with the desire to accommodate avant-garde tendencies into practical housing that appears to be the crux of the Smithson philosophy. This made them, at least in terms of the thematic content of their designs, outsiders within the form. As Max Risselada writes in his preface to the volume on the Smithsons, From the House of the Future to a House of Today, “Alison and Peter Smithson cherished their marginal position on the fringes of their trade. It afforded them a degree of intellectual independence and freedom…” (link). This can be seen not simply in their buildings, but in their design collages which speak more of a Richard Hamilton-like attempt to collate and organise collections of objects and materials than to set-out the rigour of a building. Perhaps this is where some of the pair’s naivety comes from; that, with their total open-plan communal avenues of concrete and walls, they underestimated the attitudes of people eventually crammed into those spaces. This would be an attitude eventually surmised most brilliantly in J.G. Ballard’s novel, High-Rise (1975), which acts more of capsule of the post-Smithsonian moment where the spaces are having a degrading effect upon the occupants. Consider the following two passages from the novel:
They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed. (1975)
A new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool, unemotional personality impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life, with minimal needs for privacy, who thrived like an advanced species of machine in the neutral atmosphere. (1975)
These are the sorts of visions that the Smithsons did not quite envisage and this is most apparent in their early designs. In several, whole floors and corridors and peopled with only lone figures rather than full thriving communities; their vision seems to be more about objects and the placement of such objects than how the people are intending to use the spaces around them. The naivety of such a view may have made their buildings problematic but it makes their designs fit the description of a modernist whimsy; the sort of future vision alongside the “dinner in a pill” visions of the future that consistently appeared in pulp content from this period. In the BBC series, Out Of The Unknown (1965-1971), the same mixture of these ideals is present; filmed whenever applicable in modern, Brutalist buildings but coupled with futuristic accoutrements and ideas that both work with and against such spaces. To finalise these points, I decided to walk around some of the pair’s buildings left standing in London.
I first made a trip to the Economist Building in Piccadilly; a building more famous for opening Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film, Blow-Up. In the film, a mad-cap group of mimes drive a jeep into the square created by this building and generally mess around. Antonioni, perhaps even deliberately, captures that same mixture of naive play and potential usage of the space. Walking around it today reveals a strangely Smithsonian ideal of a handful of people meandering around, cut out like collages and stuck on to the space; simultaneously interacting with it whilst not being a part of it, such is the emphasis on the inhuman materials that make up the building. It’s almost Vorticist.
Later, I travelled east to the infamous Robin Hood Gardens project at Blackwell; probably the pair’s biggest development and one of the bastions that often is used to criticise the Brutalist movement as a whole. The site has had a schizophrenic history of late, being on the end of several planning arguments, either to redevelop it or to knock it to the ground (which is still supposedly meant to be occurring though has yet to begin in spite of being decided in 2012). Walking around this odd building today – a huge cacophony of straight lines and cubes, heavy material weighing down upon each other – its outer wall feels almost prison like. In comparison to the designs, the realisation is harsh, even less peopled than the empty collages of the pair though that particular reality will no doubt be well realised by the adjacent and ironic luxury development opposite it which screams of being an investment opportunity more than a space to live in. As a final hurrah, I walked its perimeter only to find the building engulfing everything around it, akin to a gravitational pull. The sun was blotted out, the objects were in conflict and the new dreams of a past future had dissipated into the crumbling concrete.
A man is glued to a corridor,
Perspective blurs as he steps over the boarder page, taller than the doors,
Through a glassy concrete yet to be conceived and nurtured.
The windows blink in the bright sun before engulfed by the clouds of ballast.
Sinking into the ground, the curved wall overture reverts to its present tense; defunct, keep out.
The sound of people past, laughing at the new future before its aged withering,
Moss on the walls.
Cold and dead before the decade ran dry,
violence brewing in the lift-shaft luminaries – the experiment gone awry.
Street lights send out Morse code, grafted into the ground,
crying for help; they didn’t ask to be here, they didn’t ask to see,
What they alone and in the end of all things,
Were forced to see.