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Hype or home-makers?

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The Smithsons: The House of the Future to a House for Today At the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1, until 29 February Norfolk teachers will tell you that Alison and Peter Smithson's first major commission, the award-winning, Mies van der Rohe-inspired Hunstanton School, has a tendency to freeze children in the winter, boil them in summer, and amplify their noise all the year round.

When Peter Smithson died in March 2003, 10 years after his wife, assessments of the Smithsons' joint career tended to follow a familiar pattern: accolades from fellow architects, criticisms from those who worked or lived in some of the Smithsons' Brutalist creations.

Certainly Robin Hood Gardens, a 200home estate near the Blackwall Tunnel in Poplar, east London, is an example of a well-intentioned plan gone badly wrong. Far from the bustling, sociable 'streets in the sky' (the phrase was first coined by the Smithsons) that were intended, the reality is so bleak that the buildings have been used in Levi's ads to represent Moscow apartment blocks. Inauspiciously named after a famous robber, the estate has also had problems with crime. The London Borough of Tower Hamlets concedes that 'it is a matter of debate as to whether this particular style of design is suitable for social housing'.

Interestingly, though, the Design Museum's current exhibition of the Smithsons' work includes very little that is related to these famous, controversial public commissions.

Neither does it dwell on another landmark project, the Economist complex in St James's Street, London, which is generally held as being more successful (and which had a much more generous construction budget).

Instead, the show focuses on the Smithsons' work on the domestic scale, featuring two widely differing houses in particular.

The House of the Future, the visionary 'model house' created for the 1956 Daily Mail 'Ideal Home Exhibition', demonstrates the influence of the Pop Art movement (the Smithsons co-curated the famous 'This Is Tomorrow' show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, with artist Eduardo Paolozzi and photographer Nigel Henderson). The House of the Future was made of plastic, could be mass-produced in its entirety, and included such revolutionary features as a remote control for the TV.

With the Hexenhaus, by contrast, the Smithsons produced designs for someone they knew - German furniture-maker Axel Bruchhauser. Between 1985 and 2002, they made a series of additons to a building that, with its pitched roof and exposed timbers, is altogether more traditional in appearance than the House of the Future (AJ 16.8.01).

In the exhibition, plans and photographs of these buildings are accompanied by examples of the Smithsons' many pronouncements on their craft made in lectures and publications. Time and again these reveal a concern to create buildings that foster a sense of belonging in those that live and work in them. But the Smithsons understood that this sense of belonging is a subtle quality, not easily transplanted from the bad old urban housing to the new: 'the short narrow street of the slum succeeds where spacious redevelopment frequently fails'.

Possessions are also prominent in the Smithsons' ideas of domesticity. The House of the Future in particular is packed with consumer goods, and in many cases even incorporates them, so that it becomes itself a kind of appliance. But if this model house seems to predict our contemporary taste for such items, it also anticipates our need to feel unencumbered by them. Much is made of concealment in these designs for houses; the 1956 version even features a coffee table that disappears into the floor at the flick of a switch.

The Smithsons were colourful characters, whose self-promotion has been seen by some simply as hype, with little of substance behind it. This engaging Design Museum show is not a full retrospective, nor is it a systematic attempt at a reappraisal. It does suggest, though, that the Smithsons are of interest as much for the continuing potential of their ideas as for the completed public buildings in which those ideas are perhaps only imperfectly embodied.

Matt Shinn is a writer and editor in London

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