The married couple, Alison MargaretSmithson (1928-1993) and Peter Denham Smithson (1929-2003) were most known asthe representatives of the New Brutalism. Alison Smithson was born inSheffield, Yorkshire and Peter Smithson was born in Stockon on Tees, Durham andwere studying architecture in Newcastle which was part of Durham University.But then Peter Smithson had to stop his studies because the World War Two brokeout.
In 1945, when the war ended he returned to the Durham University where hemet Alison Gil, now known as Alison Smithson. They married in 1949, then bothjoined the architectural department of London County Council. In this essay, the discussion will be aboutthe question of how Alison and Peter Smithson can be seen to represent thevalues of their time. Which project, building or example really shows how theyset a milestone in their era. The couple was one of the first to question andchallenge modernist entrances to design and urban planning. They contributed moreto evolving the style into what became New Brutalism. This term was first used by the couple whenintroducing the project of the house in Soho, London.
The main concept for thearchitecture was that the exterior was left unvarnished which determined thatthe materials didn’t reflect anything other than their true selves. This acthad to do with the time period because after the World War Two it was quitedifficult and unaffordable to include things such as paint and wallpapers into designs.Le Corbusier’s buildings as ‘beton brut’ which means ‘rough cast concrete’influenced the idea of leaving the materials as they honestly are. The enormous changes in society after WorldWar Two induced to Alison and Peter Smithson’s breakthrough.
A new form ofschools, called the secondary modern school, was created. Which was a number ofsecondary schools for pupils between the age 11 to 15 in England, NorthernIreland and Wales. This new system had to have a new aesthetic inclusive ofarchitecturally bold and enormous school buildings.
After winning the firstcommission the couple was finally able to open their own practice. Thefollowing example supports the answer of how they can be seen to represent thevalues of their time. This was their first project and breakthrough also it ledthe way for many buildings to come in Britain. And it meant that they were finallyable to reflect their ideas of new forms and visions onto the building.
Thiswas the building which highlighted and emphasised the characteristics of New Brutalism.The outcome of this was that “The firstbuilding completed in the world to be called ‘New Brutalist’ by its architectswas the school at Hunstanton in Norfolk.” (Reyner Banham, 1966) The Hunstanton School (1954) with itsclear, groundbreaking and pragmatic design and large expanses of glass composedthe definition of New Brutalism. Now, the school is in a Statutory List ofBuildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest. Leading from this tojoin the Team X (Team 10) a group of architects who assembled and created theirown design philosophy.
The couple helped approach the core meanings ofbrutalism: low costs, material focus, reflects inhabitants and location.” The phrase The New Brutalism wasimmediately applied to it, though it had been designed in the spring of 1950,long before even the house in Soho, but the Brutalists themselves have acceptedthis appellation, and it has become the tag for the Hunstanton wherever thebuilding has been discussed.” (Reyner Banham,1955) Therefore, this building is amongst the firstthat started the New Brutalism movement in England by offering new elements offormalism and structuralism that dares to seek for more functional solutions inarchitecture. The architecture introduces a two-story rectangular block whichhas a large multiuse assembly hall at its centre.
Also, the organization of thebuilding widens which enables the outdoor spaces to be more usable.In terms of materials, the building is madeof what it appears to be made. The idea was to leave the materials in their rawand unfinished states, therefore this was a treatment of ‘as found’. “Alison and Peter Smithson have remarked onthis, ‘as Found’ is a perceptive recognition of reality, a new seeing of theordinary, an openness as to how prosaic ‘things’ could re-energise ourinventive activity.” Claude Lichtenstein,2001) This next project was designed in the late60s and built in the early 70s hoping to create the “streets in the sky” as atool to combine the community of the Victorian slums with the efficiency and quantityof Le Corbusier’s housing blocks.
The Robin Hood Gardens, a social housingproject in Poplar was the visualization of many developed ideas the pair hadexplored at the Hunstanton and at the competition for the Golden Lane which wasunsuccessful but the idea of ‘streets in the air’ bloomed there. The design consists of two not tallresidential blocks with a garden area in the centre. The gardens include raisedmounds for the greenery to be visible from even higher floors and windows. Theidea was to create more possibilities of a social mix by including more thanone type of dwelling. The blocks are equipped with flats and maisonettes.
Theintentions were that residents were going to access their properties via the”streets in the sky” to have interactions between neighbours in order to form acommunity. This was a movement for the realization ofimproved social ideals which had been influenced by brutalist thinking. In theend, it was a failed project because by the time they finished the housingcomplex in 1972, the Brutalist moment had already been past. The idealism didnot correlate with the new consumerist realities of the 70s.
The estate wasmeant to alleviate poverty instead, the complex was associated with criminalacts. “Brutalism was not just abouthonesty in the use and construction of ‘as found’ materials… but was based on asocial program committed to creating economically, environmentally, andculturally relevant architecture.” (Webster,1997) the intentions of the movementwere reflecting the values of their time. The couple also contributed to otherprojects than architectural ones. For example, the House of the Future whichwas meant to be for theoretical discussions rather than actual use.
The Houseof the Future was a simulation and speculation of the future lifestyle includingautomated housework, technologically enabled broadcasting of image and soundtowards the world and Mars. The simulation was designed for the Daily MailIdeal Home Exhibition. It was created around a courtyard garden which providednatural lighting and a private outdoor area. The houses had just a few windowsto grant the buildings to be right next to each other.
In order to be able toobserve the house, there was an elevated platform for viewers to look downinside the model of the house. The cabins for the appliances and work areasenabled a larger, clearer and more open living space. Beatriz Colomina who is a Spanish architecturehistorian discovered in her comprehensive essay (2004) that in fact, thematerials for the house were plywood with plaster covered with emulsion paintinstead of it being plastic. “In thoseyears the House of the Future (1956) was still the Smithsons’ most radical proposalfor a housing design.
Their thoughts on a different kind of interior and a neworganisation of daily patterns of life led to a radical transformation of thedwelling into a new sort of ‘container’ with no separate, fixed rooms.” (Dirkvan de Heuvel,2004) Then again, the architects managed to create a new livingmethod which had useful characteristics because they were looking forinnovations. All these projects which contributed to animportant movement of ideas, this architect couple is known and should be knownfor introducing new methods of visualising authenticity in structure, use ofmaterials and consideration of the environment. They established to representthe values of their time by characterising the movement of New Brutalism as anact of honesty towards what the architecture actually exists of. In the exampleof the Robin Hood Gardens the idea of creating socially relevant architecturewas the aim. Additionally, the project tried to respond to the needs ofcreating an environment full of improved living.
In summary, Alison and Peter Smithsons shouldbe seen as enlightenment for such a controversial movement to be able toinfluence and enrich architecture and be relevant to this day.