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Smithsons should get posthumous Gold Medal


The unresolved controversy surrounding the significance of the Smithsons' influence on English architecture during the second half of the 20th century will resonate through the architectural community, thus disallowing most English architects a generous understanding of the intellectual legacy they should inherit from such a powerful and imperious pair of architects.

All this because many here saw the Smithsons (pictured below) as rebels obsessed with difficult ideas, rather than an intellectual force hell bent on reinventing the way we ought to think about building and urbanism.

Peter Smithson was a compelling force in British architecture. He came to architectural maturity at a time when the profession had only just begun to comprehend the significance of the masters of the Modern Movement who had, at the start of the 20th century, invented and laid the foundations for a whole new egalitarian architecture. He and Alison, like a few others of the second wave of 20th century architects, had started to build in the post-war era their own superlative and ultimately massively influential designs and theories based on a constructive critique of the pioneers' philosophy, manifestos and work.

This 'second generation' had sensibly started to explore the kaleidoscopic possibilities thrown up by the earlier debate of their mentors and teachers and was plainly prepared to develop a rich and diverse Modern architecture.

The Smithsons were certainly not preoccupied with smashing up the whole edifice of the Modern Movement as later generations have attempted.

Peter Smithson was not easily defined and at times produced theoretical concepts that were a little inaccessible and sometimes downright obscure. Their 'Tram-Poppies-Rats' story presented to Art Net in 1975 as their contribution to Peter Cook's rather indulgent rally and exhibition, is an example.

On the other hand, the school at Hunstanton and the Economist Building in London, both milestones in post-war British architecture, are intellectually rigorous and display a masterly approach to the subject that has inspired generations of architects ever since.

Perhaps the Smithsons were too preoccupied with imagemaking, both in their architecture and their memoirs. Within the Team 10 group they often overruled their colleagues, dominated proceedings and have partially airbrushed the history of this important group who collectively dared to step in and criticise CIAM.

They were a fairly inaccessible couple and often a little too guarded when protecting their place in the history of architecture. Nevertheless, they belong to the heavyweights of their generation - a generation that includes van Eyck, Kahn, Stirling and Tange, all of whom were properly celebrated within their lifetimes.

The only problem now is:

how are we to redress this astonishing oversight and award them the Royal Gold Medal? We could appeal directly to the Queen, I suppose, since we know that thousands have written to the RIBA over a great number of years, strongly recommending that the Smithsons be given the Medal.

The RIBA can no longer make the excuse that their big award can only be given to a living architect, as they recently gave it to Archigram. They must now change the rules as they did by default in 2002 and give the Gold Medal to these two, posthumously, just as they did for both Warren Chalk and Ron Herron.

Julyan Wickham, Wickham van Eyck Architects, London

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