Poets of the everyday
The Charged Void: Architecture By Alison and Peter Smithson.Monacelli Press, 2002. 608pp. £50 This is the first volume of the Smithsons' long-awaited oeuvre complète; a second, on their urban projects, will follow soon. Both books cover 50 years of projects, ideas and thoughts.
The Charged Void: Architecture fills an intellectual void left at a time when style and lifestyle have triumphed over content. The Smithsons invented, took risks, changed course, moved on, and repeated the cycle.
They stayed outside the academy, revered and respected, managing to remain avantgarde - the Duchamps of architecture.
Each project lays down a depth charge.
Take Hunstanton School, an incredible achievement for 1948, completed with no direct experience of Mies' work at IIT. Hunstanton followed Peter Smithson's diploma thesis for a new Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, one of the most eloquent of Miesian essays. Hunstanton charged the void: where would a generation of AA students have been without it? Hopkins at Schlumberger and Bedfont Lakes is really only Hunstanton on silicone, fritted glass and low-emissivity coatings, without the depth, or rawness, or particularly English 'Palladian' response to Mies.
The Smithsons set out a position that they never wavered from: legibility of plan, expression of structure and the use of materials 'as found'. They left the style to others and moved on. For English High-Tech, Hunstanton is the crucible.
They built a house for Derek Sugden, low budget, in an era of shortages in building materials - a house that says houses can be elemental and different, using ordinary bricks and standard joinery. It was a profound influence on the Venturis and the iconic Mother's House. The Smithsons left this field too, and only now is the 'ordinary', another of their preoccupations, being picked up again by the likes of Sergison Bates.
With the House of the Future at the 1956 Ideal Home Exhibition - an arena as static as the state opening of Parliament - the Smithsons made a radical proposition about living, home technology and fashion. Its style became a source for all the injectionmoulded, plastic NASA fantasies and all those Future Systems oval apertures. The Smithsons never returned to this territory either, perhaps because it was too close to the American commodification and sci-fi comics that had inspired Pop (or as Hal Foster has so precisely put it, the apparent contradiction of being both 'American leaning and left-orientated').
Then there is the Economist Building, which still casts a long shadow over corporate urban architecture. It remains the standard against which every Broadgate must be judged. It is to the Rockefeller Centre what Chiswick House is to the Villa Rotonda, scaled down and intense. At once embedded in English architecture, reworking Mies, and with archaic and Classical allusions, it has an exceptional quality.
'As in the components of ancient buildings, the modern components of the Economist Building indicate an architecture that has been first made in the mind': here is another Smithsons' theme - architecture locked directly into other architectures in the charged void.
This volume is filled with projects worthy of hours of study; many have planted seeds that are still dormant. Some central ideas - 'layering', 'conglomerate ordering' - are reexamined or redeveloped on projects years later, becoming still more resonant in the process.
Robin Hood Gardens was another turning point. In response, and in rejection, Cullinan and MacCormac embraced Wright, the vernacular, and consciously led the move to prettier work (where they have stayed); and Farrell went through his Po-Mo period. Now Robin Hood looks almost tame - robust, and oddly heroic compared to the later dross in Docklands. But the Smithsons remained defiantly with work that is difficult, uncomfortable, that baffles, and sometimes is deliberately almost ugly (much harder to do than pretty).
In hindsight, we can see that the paradigm shift of the early 1970s, that the Smithsons eschewed, was far more complex: a move from legibility, abstraction, found materials, and 'left-leaning' to forms and images loaded with allusions, to gismos, complex shape grammars and the software to construct them. This shift eclipsed the Smithsons' attempt, grounded in the 1950s, 'to drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work in a mass production society'.
But then we also have to understand the aftermath of the Second World War: its austerity, its make-do-and-mend, its flush of optimism, the disappointment at the prettiness of the Festival of Britain, the Cold War.
Alison studied during the war, and Peter's training was prolonged by national service.
Working with ordinary materials and low budgets was a social obligation that they never discarded.
The Smithsons positioned themselves consistently on the edge, as part of a European avant garde (rejecting CIAM, founding Team X and The Independent Group). No one has matched this - not the MARS group, not NATO, not the maverick Cedric Price. And who else has, at the same time, made their explorations so personal and so poetic? Much of their writing has a haiku-like compression: you need to read it several times and let it reverberate.
It is also hard to think who else has been so deeply influenced by Modernism, but by its underlying content rather than as a style, and who has had such a personal communion with previous generations. The Smithsons' work is wedded to the antecedents of these shores, to the handsomeness of namesake Robert Smythson.
Their thinking, however, is wedded to what used to be called the continent, where ideas are no less valued than pragmatic action.
Following these highly distilled volumes, we will need a comprehensive study of the Smithsons from a historian who can relate the changing landscape to their explorations - who can explain to a new generation what the famous photograph in the 'This is Tomorrow' catalogue, of Peter, Alison, Eduardo Paolozzi and Nigel Henderson in a grimy Limerston Street, says about the time and the culture.
Fortunately, the Smithsons' archive is comprehensive and detailed. There is correspondence with everyone - the Eameses, Le Corbusier, Kahn - and annotated photoalbums with buildings and details that you never knew existed. There are many more jewels to come.
Stephen Greenberg is director of Metaphor