Peter Smithson remembered
Peter Smithson, who died earlier this month, is remembered by some of the many who regarded him as both colleague and friend
Sir Anthony Caro
I was at college with Peter, at the Royal Academy; he was doing architecture, I was doing sculpture.We bought this rather decrepit stables in Hampstead.We needed an architect and Peter and Alison were the people we chose. They did it bit by bit. When we had a child, Alison had the thought of turning the staircase round and made a completely new room.
They did good things, and as we went on they did more things.We always got the Smithsons.
They were so clever, such a pleasure to work with.We still live in the same house. They'll have to take me out of there in a coffin.
I had a workshop for painters and sculptors in New York State, and we thought 'why don't we have architects?' The Smithsons were very much enablers. They said to the artists and sculptors, 'tell us what you want and we will try to do it'. They didn't press themselves. They weren't like the other architects. They were much closer to the artists. I will always remember Peter sitting on the grass and looking like a leprechaun wondering what to do next. He was always so funny and so full of fun. Such a nice man but also with such big ideas about how to change things and make things happen.
I joined Arup in 1953. The real draw was two jobs they had engineered, Brynmawr and Hunstanton. I joined Hobbs' group who, with Jenkins, had designed the first-ever multi-storey plastic design for the Smithsons'Hunstanton School.
In 1953 Hunstanton was virtually finished and Hobbs was working with Smithson on his competition for Coventry Cathedral. I began to talk with Peter and worked closely with him on a steel framed house for the director of Luxfer who had manufactured the glazing for Hunstanton. It was never built.
About that time a friend and I had bought a plot of land in Watford and I was looking for an architect.A structural engineer looking for an architect - the reversal of the usual roles - creates a whole range of neuroses. Alison and Peter designed our house with loving care.We have lived in it for 46 years - have altered virtually nothing - and I hope, looked after it with the same loving care, which increases daily. We remained friends with the Smithsons and only recently Peter and I did a double act at a 20th Century Society seminar on the post-war house.When Elain Harwood suggested a chairman for our presentation, Peter telephoned me and said, in his inimical but amusing way: 'No, we don't need a chairman, we'll just do a Morecambe and Wise'.
The first time I ever saw them was in 1953.
We were at a CIAM conference in Aix-onProvence. We went down to the sea in the evening and I was teaching a young man to swim. I can't remember his name. A young architect. There in the water were Peter and Alison, and Peter was wearing the most ghastly knitted shorts which Alison had made for him.
After that, of course, we published them a lot in AD.
In the winter of 1983, Alison and Peter were invited to a jury and to give a lecture to AA students in a village hall near Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire. The students and teachers slept under ceiling heaters in the hall while the Smithsons stayed with the local vicar. The lecture was on the topic of 'Weather Register' and was illustrated with haystacks as spatial pieces, tarred boats and tarred buildings - ephemeral and transient architectural pieces that offered great physical presence while encouraging people to find their own accommodation. Kirby Hall was a place where the Smithsons took their children for picnics. Semi-derelict, a mysterious architecture of signs - and great places to hide.
On Sunday morning we were taken to Kirby Hall.We walked through a series of rooms to the bow-fronted library which faces south east. In the morning sunshine, Peter pointed out the relationship between the height of the leaded glazed windows, the sun angle and the fireplace.
One could imagine sitting on the window seat gradually warming one's back under weak winter sun and noticing that the shaft of sunlight stopped just at the limits of the fire hearth.
As an assistant to the Smithsons during the construction of the Second Arts Building in Bath, my job was to develop the construction joint system for the in-situ concrete of the facade.
During construction it was found that one spandrel panel had been poured too low for the function of the room behind. Fortunately, the system of concrete pours and joints allowed an extra spandrel height to be made up. The facade was not compromised by this addition. Peter told of a visit to site by Le Corbusier in which the builder apologised for the misshapen window on the stairs of a newly constructed house. The builder offered to demolish the work and rebuild because the formwork had shifted during the concrete pour. Le Corbusier replied by accepting the defect, stating that it showed the physical presence of the construction. Peter Smithson ended this story by saying that there were mistakes and mistakes.
I only really knew Peter in his days as a visiting professor at Bath, where I taught with him for five years. He was the main reason I taught, both to learn from him and because it was so much fun. The Peter I knew was essentially a romantic with a revolutionary undercurrent. The flowered shirts, that for him lasted long after the 60s, said it all. His work on the fringes of the Bath campus is both idiosyncratic and uncompromising. I well remember when the School of Architecture was being built, his childlike enjoyment of the process, his jovial relationships with contractors and his delight in the accidental consequences of unexpected juxtapositions of services and structure. The same enthusiasm went for students' work, he loved it or hated it and would rarely suggest figures between 20 per cent and 80 per cent. He was against mediocrity - though of course he delighted in considered ordinariness. As an inspirational friend/tutor to almost three generations of architects, he generated a huge influence on the profession. Whatever happened to the Gold Medal?
(We used to share a Bounty bar after lunch every tutorial day, and now I am blessed with a vision of Peter every time I scan the confectionery shelf when I pay for my petrol. ) Louisa Hutton I remember clearly the first time I met Peter. I came by bicycle for an interview and he happened to be in their garage. Peter decisively took hold of the plastic tube strapped on to my bicycle as I curved around him. He triumphantly extracted my roll of drawings in one deft movement. It was at once funny, elegant and direct - after all, he wasn't so interested in me as in the question of whether I was proficient in orthographic projection. Luckily I was, so I stayed.
Two incidents that occurred while I was working on the 6E building at Bath University made a lasting impression concerning Peter's way of thinking. First there was a stretch of an in-situ concrete wall which apparently had been demolished already three times by the contractors themselves, who were so embarrassed by their poor results that they did not want Peter even to have a chance of seeing it.When Peter found out about this he was very upset at the amount of sheer (human and material) effort that had gone into this one wall.
The second incident concerned one particular rectangular hole in an in-situ concrete floor, for which I was responsible. It had been executed wrongly, and had been set out at 30infinity instead of 60infinity to the reference line. I obviously hadn't explained the setting out clearly enough. There was absolutely no question of trying to rectify this mistake, Peter just accepted it (without a hint of blame towards myself ), and made a considerable alteration to the shape of the corridor.He explained to me that he likened the accumulation of such mistakes in a building to the accretions of, say, a Gothic cathedral.
Over the past years, due to being mainly in Berlin, I have probably spoken to Peter more on the phone than in person - I will miss his voice (set consistently on extra loud for the telephone, echoing down the line from his hard wooden floor), his jokes (at which he too would be chuckling, often obstructing the end of the sentence), his spare meting out of praise - 'that boy's not bad', referring to a thirty-something assistant professor who had delivered an impeccable analysis of the Economist Building - his true-to-the-end seriousness, and his professional solidarity with our own (as with any serious) architectural endeavours.
The Hexenbesenraum is the most wonderful gift from them. To take such serious care for one person - for his soul - is unbelievable I thankfully realise that every day I have paradise on earth right here.