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Justice not done to the Smithsons

BOOKS Modernism without Rhetoric: Essays on the Work of Alison and Peter Smithson Edited by Helena Webster. Academy, 1997. 224pp. £35

In the 1970s the Smithsons were revered. Rooms hushed, heads turned when they entered; magazines and students hung on their latest word, polemical writing, competition entry or completed project. They would surprise and shock, consciously eschewing any attempts to coerce them into the establishment tent. No gongs, no medals.

Their language and disposition was that of the avant garde - of questioning artists, not the political and commercial animals that some of their foremost students have become.

They have remained, to paraphrase Lyndon Johnson's wonderful phrase, on the outside of the Dome pissing in.

But how do you tell students today why the Smithsons were so vital and important? My generation could recite passages from the Team X CIAM '59 in Otterloo book; when one of my contemporaries got a summer job with them, we were in awe when he came back talking about 'thresholds' and affecting the Smithson pauses.

Well, not through this book, which has been hashed together from conference proceedings at Bath, where Peter Smithson was a visiting professor for many years.

There is a desperate need for a Smithson reader, but this is not it.

You would have thought that all the Bath groupies could have got closer and been able to impart the importance of the Smithsons to a wider audience. Yet the only essay which gets close is by Peter himself, which as ever is full of insight, speculation and questioning.

A collection of the best writing on the Smithsons would be of more use - Frampton, Middleton, Curtis, Jencks, Giancarlo de Carlo - or a few trips down to Chelsea with a taperecorder and a trawl through Peter's architectural photo albums.

In the hallway of his studio is his military trunk; the first book he showed me was Philip Johnson's Mies van der Rohe, still in its original wrapper. And there you have two vital clues to the Smithsons. You cannot ignore the effect of the Second World War on his generation, nor the intellectual journey from Mies. That should have been the cornerstone of the introductory and biographical essay.

Someone must tell a new generation why this architecture, inextricably linked to the remaking of a society, mattered. Otherwise the dustbin of history beckons. It is all the harder now that architecture - through Gehry, Hadid, Miralles and Libeskind - has reinvented itself as a medium for interpretation and narrative; and before we know it the circus will have moved on yet again.

Stephen Greenberg is director of architecture at DEGW

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