Filling a void
The last five years have seen a renewed interest in the work of Alison and Peter Smithson.
Supporting a re-examination of their production, there have been numerous articles, publications and symposia (as often happens with the loss, or imminent passing, of a great artist). Certainly the Smithsons' currency has never been greater, and it is a daunting task to offer fresh insights into their work, to accompany those of some great thinkers who have been reconsidering the Smithsons' practice.
Bruno Krucker, Thomas Schregenberger, Irénée Scalbert and Dirk van den Heuvel enjoyed privileged access to the Smithsons' archive, and have produced some of the most helpful interpretations, while Peter Salter and Louisa Hutton have described the experience of working in the Smithsons' studio. (All are contributors to a new book from the Architectural Association, Architecture is not Made with the Brain: The Labour of Alison and Peter Smithson. ) The Charged Void: Urbanism is the second of two volumes that order and catalogue the Smithsons' archive (the first being The Charged Void: Buildings, AJ 6.6.02). For me, what makes this publication so eagerly awaited is that it is very much a work by the Smithsons themselves.
Alison Smithson is quoted as saying: 'For us, a book is a small building.' The initial compilation was made by her in April 1980 and was revised numerous times through to the summer of 1993. Peter Smithson continued this project until summer 2002. I understand from Derek Brampton of the Triangle Bookshop that Peter Smithson greeted the arrival of The Charged Void: Buildings with a rare excitement. Sadly, he did not get to see this second volume and Alison never saw the completion of the project she initiated.
Organised chronologically and thematically, The Charged Void: Urbanism provides a clear insight into a unique way of thinking and working. There is a certain amount of doubling up, as projects appear in both volumes - and don't be misled by the covers, the books have a striking similarity; which, of course, was intentional.
The Smithsons' definition of 'urbanism' is broad, ranging from the scale of a footbridge across the Thames in Oxfordshire, or a gateway through the old city wall in Urbino, to the 'Citizens' Cambridge' project (a study of a small city) or 'Transportation Net South, London' (a transport study in London).
In all their work, there was a careful study of existing situations and a freedom to draw upon reference to illustrate a concept. Some of their projects read now rather naively and feel as if they have suffered from too much introspection. It is a shortcoming that perhaps came from not building enough, and is recognisable too in the work of the Smithsons' contemporary, Cedric Price.
But the Smithsons and Price also shared a great ability to use drawing to express architectural concepts. What is impressive in this book is the richness of drawing technique. I can think of very few current practitioners who have the ability to ask what a drawing is trying to express and find a means of doing this; Tony Fretton and East are the only ones who come to mind.
All of the drawings in this book are carefully credited to the author, which makes for a fascinating record of the characters that passed through the office. Some drawings were made by many hands; others were made years after the intensity of working on a 'live project'. The Smithsons were great archivists of their own production, as this book testifies. Above all else, it is a wonderfully clear record of an unparalleled way of thinking about the city and the place of buildings in it.
My only regret is that there will not be a third volume, collecting together all of the Smithsons' writing, because it was through their texts and articles that they were able to develop a powerful position. Their writing is lucid and evocative, drawing on a wide choice of references to make a point clear.
This freedom to examine existing conditions is part of a great architectural legacy.
Jonathan Sergison is a partner at Sergison Bates Architects and visiting professor at ETH Zurich