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Context Thinking: A Reflection on the Work of Alison and Peter Smithson.

Part 2 Dissertation 2008
Joseph Mackey
University of Sheffield Sheffield UK
Alison and Peter Smithson played a central role in shaping the landscape of post-war architectural debate in this country. As the self-appointed figureheads for a new generation they contributed extensively to architectural discourse. Their influence arrived in many forms; buildings, teaching positions, manifestos, exhibitions, ephemeral objects, handmade clothes, magazine cuttings, throw-away comments, city walks and, importantly, a succession of significant collaborations with other architects and artists.

They saw themselves as part of a Modern architectural tradition and looked to update the movement in response to the changes they observed in society. Industrial Britain was being replaced by a fragmented mobile society of consumerism, and the abstracted architectural models of previous generations were failing. The Smithsons were inspired by the complexities of street life, by the dirt of forgotten objects and the bustle of change. They championed an architecture that allowed room for user appropriation and rejected any notion of fashion or aesthetic spectacle. They understood the modern city as a heterogeneous, chaotic and transitional space but they always intervened carefully with a dense, intellectual responsibility for context.

They were contradictory and confusing, and much of their built output became quite unpopular. But their actions, when combined, describe a body of work whose legacy continues to affect architectural thought today, over fifty years later.

The purpose of this dissertation was not to venerate or amplify the Smithsons’ reputation as hero architects. The ambition was simply to construct an historical analysis of their work and to uncover the methodologies they employed to reconcile a social position with the material reality of built form. By using my own experience of five Smithsons’ buildings I reflected upon the motives that informed their architectural production and extracted lessons and warnings for the practice of architecture today.

Joseph Mackey

This dissertation is very attractively presented and also well written and fully noted. A good deal of research has been done, and it constitutes a bold attempt to make sense of the Smithsons and their context in the light of today. The biggest weakness in my view is the early background: who were the ‘elders’ against whom they were reacting, and was Pevsner really behind the presentation of ‘townscape’ in the AR? The dismissal of Sweden and the New Empiricism is really too glib, and there seems no understanding that Britain only really accepted Modernist architecture after the war: i.e. around 1950. Another of the dissertations this time around concerns Chamberlin Powell and Bonn, who won and built the Golden Lane housing and went on to build the Barbican, yet are now forgotten and neglected. Why has the reputation of the Smithsons, whose works were at the time less successful, risen so much higher? Because of all the writing and teaching, the propaganda? Because they were lucky enough to be made the centre of Banham’s reluctant Brutalism? Because they are lauded by currently respected architects like Caruso and Salter? It seems that their social role as teachers and architectural intermediaries has been far more important than anything they actually built.

(Tutor’s comment at the time of marking)

Prof. Peter Blundell Jones
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