Out of the ordinary
Complex Ordinariness: The Upper Lawn Pavilion by Alison and Peter Smithson By Bruno Krucker. ETH, Zurich, 2002. 80 pp. £25
Papers By Jonathan Sergison and Stephen Bates. Sergison Bates, 2001. 72pp. £18.
Both are available from Triangle bookshop 020 7631 1381 For a book extolling the virtues of finelytuned ordinariness, Bruno Krucker's begins badly: the Smithsons, he announces, 'succeeded in achieving high contextual discursive density'. Do not be put off, however, as this is happily one of very few pretentious phrases in an exquisitely designed and illustrated book which, while centred on the Upper Lawn Pavilion, offers an absorbing exploration and re-evaluation of the Smithsons' ideas and work.
Built between 1959 and 1961 as a summer house for the Smithsons' own use, Upper Lawn does not loom large in the literature on or by them. True, in 1985 Alison did publish a paper modestly comparing it to the Farnsworth and Eames houses, but it has not been placed in that company by others.
Krucker's book offers comprehensive documentation - fine measured drawings, and seductive black and white photographs by Georg Aerni (see above and right) - and a persuasive argument that the project deserves to be seen as a poetic condensation of many of the architects' abiding themes.
The review of 'clusters', 'select and arrange', 'conglomerate ordering', and other techniques of the Smithsons' distinctive design repertoire, will be a valuable primer for those unfamiliar with their ideas, while for devotees, Krucker's account has the benefit of being written from a continental perspective. He is very good on the 'carefully careless'making of the Economist group, and his analysis of the pavilion itself is a delight, effortlessly integrating an impressive range of ideas.
Sited on land overlooking the location of William Beckford's ill-fated Fonthill Abbey, Upper Lawn incorporates an existing garden wall and the remains of an old house. The artfulness of the Smithsons' response is exemplified by the treatment of two windows, one absorbed unselfconsciously into the house, the other - still glazed and shuttered - forming an opening in what became part of the garden wall. It was clearly intended to bring to mind Le Corbusier's Petite Maison on Lake Geneva, and Krucker also convincingly links it to what the Smithsons called 'materials of Duchampian ordinariness'.
Krucker's fascination with this quintessentially English ensemble is turned to contemporary ends in his closing paragraphs.
'Large parts of this text, ' he writes, 'are intended as a rehabilitation of the Picturesque as a 'theory of practice'.' Just as the Picturesque developed in reaction to the formalism of 'Capability' Brown and his followers, so Krucker's antagonist is the mono-material 'Swiss Box' school - alluded to in the text, but only mentioned in a footnote.
With its concern for context, allusion and image, rather than a preoccupation with abstract form, the Picturesque commended itself to the Smithsons in their search for a 'natural order' born from the 'poetic relationship between living things and environment' - and might do so again to us now.
Krucker mentions Sergison Bates as being among the practices pursuing this direction, and Jonathan Sergison and Stephen Bates in turn cite the Smithsons' method of 'disciplined reflection' as a model.
Several of the essays presented in Papers, such as 'A view of how things are' and 'Way to work', combine image and text to offer insights into everyday, taken-for-granted scenes. And like the Smithsons in their time, Sergison Bates draws on recent art practices - from Pop to Minimalism - in its search for the 'ordinary'.
To their detractors, the Smithsons' mixture of historical commentary and self-analysis/promotion could seem selfregarding, and Sergison Bates exposes itself to the same accusation. With its artcatalogue style - five dust-wrappers, large typefaces, minimal margins, bibliography on the rear cover - and phrases such as 'our own cultural and sociological location', the whiff of pretension is ever-present. The Walsall pub interior, we are told, deploys 'a strategy of using linings and claddings to express an atmosphere', as if this were revelatory, rather than something Adolf Loos did rather well a century ago (see picture below).
Enough carping. Sergison Bates' interests are interesting, and it uses materials in ways that are fresh - designed to evoke associations as well as assert, Swiss-fashion, the matter-of-factness of their buildings. Its preoccupation with the ordinary is timely, but also highlights what a problematic category 'ordinariness' is. For Robert Venturi it was 'ugly and ordinary'Main Street - closer to Sergison Bates' fascination with suburbia than it might wish to admit. For Christopher Alexander it was supposedly unselfconscious vernaculars - a pole of the 'pure work' of 'geniuses and peasants' which Le Corbusier pursued in his programme of self-education, and the Smithsons echoed in their conviction that 'things need to be ordinary and heroic at the same time'.
Like the art practices upon which it draws, the Sergison Bates brand of ordinariness is artful and clever, and is earning it an international reputation and a coterie of admirers.
But to my non-metropolitan eyes, the work gathered in Papers feels altogether too knowing and self-conscious. In a vulgar age, its restraint and apparent modesty are admirable, but both buildings and essays seem to me more like commentaries on architecture than compelling evidence of a determination to build it.
Richard Weston is a professor at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University