Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Awkward Squad

Complexity and Contradiction in the work of Alison and Peter Smithson

One outcome of all the hullabaloo about Robin Hood Gardens is that everyone and their dog seems to be writing about Alison and Peter Smithson again. Hugh Pearman’s Gabion piece is a good place to start but it misses out a couple of their buildings which for me suggest some different ways in which their legacy can be interpreted.

The Smithsons have long occupied an odd place in British architectural history. In one sense they are very ‘un-British’, belonging to a continental avant-garde lineage viewed with suspicion by British architects. British architecture has a strong strain of anti-intellectualism, exemplified by the high-tech school of Hopkins, Rogers and Foster, which has always viewed architecture as a pragmatic, problem solving discipline rather than an art. Even the more playfully provovative end of the spectrum represented by Peter Cook in the ‘70’s and someone like Will Alsop today is inherently anti-theory and anti-concept. The Smithsons by contrast were arch theorists who wrote and spoke more than they built and saw architecture as a primarily intellectual discipline.

But there is more to them than that. They are, in fact, a mess of contradictions. On the other hand they could play up their Britishness while simultaneously expressing a disdain for English parochialism. They could be both radically modern and strangely sentimental. They could design a plastic self-washing House of the future and be interested in the terraces of London’s east end. Their work combined ‘kitchen-sink’ realism with an interest in pop art. Alison Smithson wrote AS in DS, a poem to the automotive modernism of her Citroen DS, as well as Beatrix Potter Spaces, an essay about the English love of nooks, crannies and miniature places.

This dichotomy is evident in their buildings too. Their student halls at St Hilda’s College, Oxford for example were an uncompromising piece of Modernism, but also one covered with a curious wooden trellis that referring to traditional timber framed buildings. David Dunster has argued that their Economist buildings at St James’, in London, represents the ultimate marriage of high-modernism and English compromise. Not only are these diminutive Miesian towers arranged to form a curiously small scale and intimate public space, but they are chamfered at the corners, the sharp edges of Modernism literally rubbed off.

This unpredictability has its roots in the compromise that the Smithsons explored between the everyday and the exceptional or, put more grandly, between Architecture and the Ordinary. Their buildings are an awkward result of the struggle between the two. Not only that but their notion of the ordinary was itself developed in different directions. The split might best be identified by looking at two very different houses they designed.

Solar Pavilion
The Solar Pavilion represents the apogee of what you could call The Smithson’s Hair-Shirt Modernism. A timber framed pavilion perched on an existing brick wall without heating or plumbing, this is a building that exempified their interest in ‘ordinariness and light’. It is an austere little pavilion rooted in a rigorous aesthetic purity.

This strain of thought has been taken up by what you might call the ‘ordinary and every day’ school of British architects: Caruso St John, Sergison Bates, Lynch Architects. Sergison Bates recently renovated the Solar House, almost as an act of homage rather than a straightforward refurbishment. Sergison Bates' work has its roots in A and P’s interest in simplicity grounded in a notion of ordinariness. This, of course, is quite different from Minimalism, which attempts to deny the everyday rather than celebrate or accommodate it. The Smithson’s sense of the everyday allows for awkwardness and a mix of the platonic and the quotidian. Needless to say decoration and ornament find no place in this austere aesthetic, which has a strong Anglo-Saxon strain of puritanism to it. This is manifested in a desire to avoid the flashy, the ephemeral and the luxurious. There is a humbleness to this kind of architecture as well as a lack of interest in spatial gymnastics or specious shape throwing.

This work moves between an uncomfortably ordinariness to a slightly cross legged preciousness. At its worst this tendency has taken the dissonant imagery of the Eurpoean Modernism and given it a particularly British homeliness. This is the Modernism of Ben Nicholson and the St Ives painters, an overly tasteful and domesticated version of its European counterpart best exemplified in the Cambridge school of architects - contemporary to the Smithsons - such as Leslie Martin.

Sugden House

Another tendency of the Smithson’s work is found in this strange little house in Watford. More extreme in its ordinariness than the Solar house - which still retained traces of a Miesian lineage - the Sugden House is hard at first glance to tell from thousands of similar residences across suburban Britain. Inside, the interconnected spaces, black and white floor tiles and clever plan allude to English domestic architecture and in particular to the arts and crafts tradition. It is like a little Edwin Lutyens house done on a miniscule budget.

Look closer at the outside and its idiosyncracies become more apparent, especially in the odd three quarter windows and their not quite symmetrical arrangement. It appears ordinary but the elements have been consciously played around with. This time though, the references to high architecture take second place to a popular domestic vernacular. This is a piece of Pop architecture, a foray into controversial territory.

Cutting across the Smithson’s gritty realism then was an interest in pop, science fiction imagery and consumer culture which developed out of their involvement in the Independent Group. It was present in the photographs of East End life taken by photographer Nigel Henderson and in the work of Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton. Hamilton's collages laid the groundwork for an architecture that used the everyday as a valid source of inspiration. His cut ups and collages are analogous to the fragments of disembodied suburban architecture present in the Sugden house. The vestigial fire place that hangs where the wall between dining and kitchen used to be is like one of the fragments from a Hamilton collage. This work formed the starting point for pop art's reinvigoration of Modernism’s shock tactics combined with a new subject matter: the everyday consumer landscape.

Arguably this work crossed the Atlantic with Denise Scott Brown, a student at the AA when the Smithsons were teaching, to become one of the strands that led to American post modernism. Look at something like the Sugden house in the light of work like the Trubeck and Wislocki houses by VSBA or the sea ranch condominium by Charles Moore and you can see a different direction that this interest in the everyday and the vernacular could take. Here a bracing American lack of restraint and avoidance of too much good taste is combined with the same feel for the humble and the familiar. One could go further and say that Scott Brown’s interest in an inclusive approach to the built landscape, her interest not just in the signs and symbols of standard American housing but its spatiality too, is drawn from the Smithson’s similar analysis of London’s East End. This strain of thought came to a dead end in the UK. Archigram took the pop imagery but shorn of social content and with a boyish enthusiasm for technology. In turn, the pop imagery went too and we were left with the technology, or at least the image of the technology, and the High Tech school.

The Smithson’s were at the end of the day too awkward and too intellectually curious to fit into a UK architectural climate that distrusts conceptualism. Their work opened up some still unexplored territory. Whilst the restrained puritanism of the Solar pavilion remains an important touchstone for contemporary architects, the collageist aesthetic of the Sugden House remains fertile ground.


Dan Hill said...

Very nice piece. I like your placing of them within a kind of tradition of English modernism, alongside the Cornwall lot etc.

I too found Hugh Pearman's piece, though interesting, to be anti-intellectual in a particularly British sniffy way, when I wrote about The Smithsons a few years back.

But although you qualify it by referring to Hopkins, Foster and Rogers in particular, you sail dangerously close to equating 'hi-tech and pragmatic' with 'anti-intellectual', no? There's no reason why one couldn't be both hi-tech and intellectual - again, particularly outside of that British mindset that sees art and science as two cultures.

owen hatherley said...

There's no reason why one couldn't be both hi-tech and intellectual.

Richard Rogers once quoted Herbert Marcuse at a talk to the RIBA, one of the two reasons (the other being Lloyds, the post about which on here was tremendous) why I find him very difficult to dislike.

Charles Holland said...

that's interesting...i think i was indeed equating high tech with anti-intellectual. not the work but the discourse around it. i think that there are lots of interesting things about 'high tech' work (i'm trying to cobble together something on it right now actually) but very few of them are directly addressed by its adherents or regular apologists.

when i wrote about rogers before it was to try to describe what i liked about his work whilst avoiding the rhetoric of pragmatic techno-functionalism. and yes, he is hard to dislike. as are his buildings. talking of which, what about the pompidou centre re streets in the sky?

owen hatherley said...

Shockingly enough, I've never been to the Pompidou, am rather better informed about Baudrillard's essay on it...although didn't one of the public access bits of it get removed recently...? Presumably for different reasons to why the walkways were taken out of Broadwater farm (or the same, as the case may be - to eliminate crime and loitering without intent to buy stuff).

Incidentally I found myself in Gillett Square the other day, quite by accident. It is indeed crap and empty, and amusingly self-trumpeting.

Charles Holland said...

yes, lots of banners flapping depressingly in the wind announcing....not very much at all.

not sure about the pompidou losing an access way, but its a great building, though I think they've painted more of it white than i remember.

owen hatherley said...

So it's less jolly now, I presume

Just found a ref for the removal thing, in the little Guardian pull-out about it last year:

'(In 1997) interior spaces were rejigged, new escalators installed, and a certain amount of 'flexibility' removed in order to create a more functional space. The dream of the modular building died, along with the public-spirited, free access to the roof via the snaking glass-enclosed escalators - much to Rogers' disappointment.'

(Btw, I wrote a quick little thing abt how function and 'flexibility' are so rarely combined here a while ago which might or might not be pertinent).

Charles Holland said...

thanks for the comment re the pompidou - i just borrowed it for a post about public space! duly acknowledged of course.

the flexibility thing is interesting...i've been wanting to write something for ages about high tech and its utopian side. i think the dematerialisation of architecture that they pursued n their more radical projects has been forgotten about.

by land by air by sea said...

years ago their daughter worked for me in london.

i'll never forget going to her mum's house

there she was

in the garden

with platform shoes on


i think that just about sums up the contradictions.

such a pity there was not more recognition of what they achieved

in the here and now.