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Enigma variations

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Alison and Peter Smithson - From the House of the Future to a House of Today Edited by Dirk van den Heuvel and Max Risselada. 010 Publishers, 2004. 238 pp. £35

The title and the charming cover of this oddly-formed but seductively produced volume might surprise the innocent browser who opens it. For it is no client's coffee-table volume of dream houses.

Not that the Smithsons ever shunned publicity. The word 'shrinking' does not come to mind, though violets may have covered Peter's shirts. They were expert at regurgitating material - picking it up, turning it over, putting it with (their definition of 'as found'). So that it morphs, reappears once more anew, and then finally, just before Peter's death last year, there it all is again in the vast and pompous The Charged Void:

Architecture, the first of a three volume, themed, oeuvre complÞte.

Valuable critiques, however, have been far rarer. For the Smithsons are difficult and enigmatic. They might be pretentious and unbelievably boorish; they might be charming, humorous and deeply original. Their work, similarly, could force us, for example, to look at domestic design anew; and it could be Robin Hood Gardens. ('The fussy and drab building conjured up to cope with the [appalling] situation - which it fails to do - shows the error of depending on style to solve urban planning problems, ' as Anthony McIntyre politely commented in 1996. ) They have generated a certain mystique among architects and become the object of the gaze of historians. Yet, as Stephen Greenberg noted with some exasperation when reviewing Modernism without Rhetoric:

Essays on A + P Smithson, 'someone must tell a new generation why this architecture mattered.' (AJ 19.3.98) Recently, however, there has been a shift, perhaps beginning with OASE 51 (where Henkt Engel and Enric Miralles joined the present authors). This new mood is best seen in the Smithson symposium at the AA before Christmas, the more recent Design Museum exhibition (AJ 22.1.04), and now the book of that show, offering the Smithsons' take on domestic inhabitation.

Their houses (almost all unbuilt) are here lovingly documented, sandwiched between critical introductions, by the editors and Beatriz Colomina, and yet more fragments of Smithson text. This is beautifully produced in the current habit of treating architectural drawings as archival art works, the patina of yellowing Sellotape to be loved as much as the Smithsons' odd typing error.

The photo of the Tehran street which Peter Smithson sent to his client Axel Bruchhauser (Golden Lane and the CIAM 1950 'grilles' look especially gorgeous. ) As to the houses - what a range! Even though Robin Hood is never once mentioned. I still squirm at the House of the Future, with its absurd Star Trek and pixiecostumed models looking embarrassed amid its equally absurdly styled gadgetry and surfaces. Colomina's article on this house deals only with styling: there is nothing on how one might possibly inhabit it;

what one might do with or within it. 'The Smithsons wanted to offer an alternative to the endless reproduction of detached houses on one (often tiny) lot, ' says Risselada. So they proposed these blobs in the centre of tiny plots at 70 to the acre, up and down narrow roads with no off-street parking. Such crude banality as an image of the future 1980s, and this at a time when Europeans such as Utzon, De Carlo and van Eyck were really exploring that domestic alternative!

There are other horrors here, like the Rumble villa scheme with its bizarre central enclosed living space, even more oppressive than the Haus am Horn; their own - built but probably uninhabitable - Upper Lawn, running in condensation, a hermit's lookout in freezing or boiling austerity.

But mainly this volume is rich with fascinating thoughts on ordinariness and 'as found' from the early work, and equally startlingly original architectural ideas towards the end.

And it is through drawings and images here that we learn even more than from the supporting texts. We can closely explore the Sudgen house or the proposed Bates house from half a century ago.We follow the Smithsons' growing concern with the glut of domestic belongings from the 'two gantries' house (1977) to Peter's 'put-away house' with its wonderful configuration around storage (1993-2000). And we can see the last accretions which slowly created Axel Bruchhauser's 'Hexenhaus', within the theme which Peter Smithson called 'conglomerate ordering'.

The image in the architect's mind is illuminated by a photograph he sent to his client two years ago, showing a street in Tehran. 'Somehow this picture has the ficontentfl of the new spaces at the Hexenhaus, ' he wrote. This warm and humane, complex and most subtly ordinary picture sums up that art of inhabitation which only Peter Smithson could evoke.

John McKean is a professor at Brighton School of Architecture

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