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Monday, February 25, 2013

Alison and Peter Smithson

Alison (1928-1993) and Peter (1923-2003) Smithson were two of the most influential and controversial British architects of the mid-Twentieth Century.

Their first public building, Hunstanton Secondary Modern School, was completed in 1954 when they were still in their 20s. Known locally as The Glasshouse, the modern school was highly controversial but established the husband-and-wife team as major players in post-war British architecture. The school made use of mass-produced and prefabricated materials and reflected the influence of the Smithson's hero Mies van der Rohe.

Subsequent projects were the 1956 House of the Future, the early 1960s Economist Building and the early 1970s Robin Hood Gardens housing complex. Each demonstrated the Smithsons' determination to build schools, workplaces and homes for a progressive society.

Peter Smithson was born in Stockton-on-Tees and met Alison Gill, born in Sheffield, in 1928 when they were students at the school of architecture in Newcastle. The Smithsons married in 1949 and set up a practice together in South Kensington, which they ran as equals.

The Smithsons were not only part of the avant garde architectural movement in 1950s London, but they were part of the Independent Group, a cross-cultural discussion group, which proved to be highly influential in the British pop art movement.

The House of the Future was designed primarily by Alison for the 1956 Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition. It featured a self-cleaning bath, easy-to-clean corners and remote controls for the television and the lighting.

In 1959, the Smithsons were commissioned to design a new headquarters for The Economist magazine. The success of this project led to their securing a commission for the new British Embassy in Brasilia. However, the project was dropped as a result of government spending cuts.

In the late 1969s, the Smithsons designed 213 homes at Robin Hood Gardens in east London. Unfortunately, the project suffered from structural flaws and a high crime rate. It was often used as an example of the folly of modernist architecture, and its failure was very damaging to their reputation. They only did one more major public commission and spent the rest of their careers designing residential projects for private clients.

From designmuseum.org


The Hunstanton Secondary Modern School
designmuseum.com

The Economist building
inglesparaarquitectos.blogspot.com

Robin Hood Gardens
archdaily.com

The Smithson's weekend house
djibnet.com

Hexenhaus
designmuseum.org

Designed by David Levitt with additions by Alison and Peter Smithson
retrotogo.com

10 comments:

  1. That last building is amazing. I can remember this style of architecture being thought so modern it was practically scandalous when banks or heaven forbid, churches, used it.

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    1. We're so accustomed to seeing schools like the Hunstanton that it's hard to imagine a time when that would be shocking and bring them criticism.

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  2. A self cleaning bath. I could do with one of those.
    (and a weekend house like the Smithson's would be quite nice too - but for seven days a week, not just two!)

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    1. The self-cleaning bath idea appeals to me too, and I think I could easily make myself at home in their weekend house or in the Hexenhaus.

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  3. That last structure is a jaw-dropper. Forget self-cleanin bathtubs... how about some self-cleaning windows. That's a lot of glass!
    All totally worth it, no doubt! STUNNING!

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    1. Isn't that home amazing? I would never have thought to build a retaining wall and have half the house on one side and the other half of the house a step above. I guess that's why I'm not an architect!

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  4. I echo what others have said, the house on the hillside by David Levitt is exquisite! I wouldn't mind living in such a house (as if).

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    1. That would be a dream come true, wouldn't it?

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  5. The Smithsons were such an influential couple! They were among the founders of Team 10, who started as a fraction within CIAM, but later distanced themselves from CIAM as their ideas of the architect role as well as city planning and the welfare state shifted.

    I visited Robin Hood gardens when I studied architecture and we got to see one of the apartments. It's a social housing project in an area of London dominated by similar large scale brutalist housing projects. It's a very interesting project that reflects both the structuralist ideas of the Smithsons, and also the ideas of social housing projects at the time. Whether they were successful, one can argue. There was a campaign to save the large scale structure from demolition and have it listed, a campaign that was signed by a wide specter of architects, all the way from Zaha Hadid down to little me, but it was unsuccessful. I'm not sure if the demolition has started yet.

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    1. It's so sad when a campaign to save a structure fails and you have to see it demolished. We came close to losing an A. Quincy Jones home here in Fort Worth, where there was never much modernist design to begin with, making it all the more precious. The house was saved and eventually sold to a couple who plans to restore it. Success!

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