Philip Johnson analyses the influences of Mies van der Rohe on the work of Alison and Peter Smithson.
This piece was originally published in AR August 1954, and was republished online in January 2012, to coincide with a Reputations profile on Alison and Peter Smithson by Stephen Parnell in AR February 2012. Read Reputations on the Smithsons here
Comment by Philip Johnson as an American follower of Mies van der Rohe
This is an extraordinary group of buildings. To an American architect like myself, and especially to a Mies van der Rohe follower such as I have been, it seems probably more extraordinary than to an Englishman or a Frank Lloyd Wright boy. For many reasons:
1. We in the United States do not give out school jobs in open competition. An architect must have already built a dozen projects with an identical programme before he is considered at all; then he is picked by a committee. (How a young architect gets started in this country is a mystery even to me.) Competitions are frowned on.
‘Maybe the unknown winner is incapable and impractical.’ ‘The scheme may look well only on paper!’ Apparently the British Commission is made of sterner stuff. For here we have an unknown team, admittedly of talent, but unknown as school architects, being allowed to win and to build.
2. Most surprisingly they are allowed to build, in a way that is quite opposite of the prevailing trend: a formal, symmetrical, two-storeyed project. What a jury! It is the usual fate of competitions here to have a safe, second ranking project as a winner, simply out of the desire of the jury for unanimity.
The scheme with the least faults wins and the startling innovation comes in second. If a strange design should somehow be chosen as first, its fate is to be shelved until the programme is sufficiently changed for a safe architect to be hired. ‘Radical prize winners never get built’ is a safe axiom in this country. It would be interesting to find out how all these wonders come to pass in England.
3. The plan is not only radical, but also very Mies-like in its nature. Yet the architects have never seen Mies’s work. And though the Smithsons may not agree, much of the excellence of their work is a tribute not only to themselves but also to the genius of Mies van der Rohe.
For it is Mies who has codified the exposed steel-glass-and-brick-filled-frame grammar for the rest of us to use. Since designing this school the Smithsons no longer wish to use it; therefore all the more credit to them for mastering and using the language so well – in my opinion as well as anyone ever has on either side of the ocean, not excluding the Midwesterners, who have worked directly with Mies.
The Mies vernacular is not good by chance. Mies believes that architects should seek to create generally applicable ideas, not ‘sports’ or exciting individual buildings. He will create so that others may build well.
The Smithsons admittedly had their troubles. The programme is shoe-horned into the formal pattern very successfully (except the caretaker’s cottage). Especially good is the auditorium, which is two storeys high. (The up-sticking auditorium and gymnasium is the bane of the humanitarian, ranch-type schools we see so much of in America.)
The chimney, the water tower and the kitchens all project asymmetrically in front of the symmetrical facade and disturb the formal composition, which is so clear from the rear view. But then the Smithsons are only formal at times. The gymnasium façade is the most formal and also the most successful part of the building. Symmetry suits this programme. The openings, the framing and the bricks are well proportioned indeed.
There are additional troubles inherent in any attempt to do Mies on the cheap. One should remember the reproach often thrown at Mies: ‘As simple as possible, no matter what the cost.’ It is correspondingly difficult to save money and keep the elegance. The Smithsons have succeeded in many ways, and where they have not I am sure they are not as displeased as I am apt to be.
The glass panels, for example, are ingenious and show a fine tolerance that in itself is a tribute to the steel fabricators and erectors. This detail alone makes the building light in appearance and, I should imagine, reasonable in cost. On the other hand is there no other solution for roof leaders and electric conduit?
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4. Perhaps the most unusual thing for an American to be surprised about is in the quality of the steel engineering. Much of the refinement of the building is certainly due to the efforts of the Smithsons’ engineer, Mr, Jenkins of Ove Arup and Partners.
The ‘frames’ of the building allow a 9-inch I-beam (a shape we do not have) to span 24 feet, and a glance at the thin truss members in the photograph is enough to make us (at least Americans) wonder. Is it our building codes? Is it our engineers? Is it the high cost of engineering fees compared to the low cost of steel, which keeps us conservative? Or is it the weather? At any rate, our steel is heavier.
Of course, there are troubles again. By using a frame system, the architects have given themselves a difficult problem where the frames meet at right angles. Their solution is to have two separate columns almost touching but with their axes at right angles. In the main hall we have, for example, three different conditions in one room. Definitely not elegant!
But there are always difficulties and we cannot cavil in the face of so much distinction. Now that the Smithsons have turned against such formalistic and ‘composed’ designs toward an Adolf Loos type of Anti-Design, which they call the New Brutalism (a phrase which is already being picked up by the Smithsons’ contemporaries to defend atrocities) One wonders, whether their new executed work will show the same inherent elegance.
I like to think of them as youngsters, who utilize what they can of their elders’ philosophies (a sounder beginning than the ‘express yourself at twenty-one’ group of architectural school seniors) and who then proceed, having, one hopes, digested their early lessons, to go on from there.
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The importance of this building is manifested at sight, and rests upon a radicalism, which becomes increasingly manifest upon inspection. This radicalism makes the building obtrusive, but it is a quality, which has clear English precedent-as in the architects’ namesake’s work at Hardwick Hall, or in All Saints’, Margaret Street.
But it is here a radicalism, which owes nothing to precedent, and everything to the inner mechanisms of the Modern Movement. It does not merely imply a special kind of plan or structure, but a peculiar ruthlessness – overriding gentlemen’s agreements and routine solutions – which pervades the whole design from original conception to finished details.
While it is but one of many designs which have lately rejected the loose disorder of the free-plan school, it goes further than any in insisting on formal legibility, as well as compactness and economical circulation. It may be read from all sides as a block enfolding inner courts.
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The architectural gain given by the block plan is balanced by the risk of squalor in interior courts, and if the architects’ claim that ‘It is a school, not a prison’ is justified, it is because they saw that without a radical solution to the courtyard problem, pretty detailing and applied art-work could only make a more artistic prison.
Their solution implied maximum glazing as a first principle, and that in its turn implied a steel frame. But such a frame was another principle in the conception of the classroom blocks which enclose the courts, carried in H-frames welded up from 9-inch RSJ’s, the 9-inch dimension being implicit in the use of Plastic Theory as a stressing discipline, and that, in turn, made possible by welding.
But both Plastic Theory and welding stem from a conception of steel as a unique material-not as a kind of abstract stiffness cut to length, but as a ductile, wieldable substance with elastic and plastic limits, with a surface, feel, and appearance of its own, to be appreciated and used as Queen Anne builders used brick, or Regency engineers used stone.
That is why architects and engineer unite, as in all other matters, in asserting that theirs is a traditional building, free from the sentimentalism of Frank Lloyd Wright or the formalism of Mies van der Rohe. This may seem a hard saying, since Mies is the obvious comparison, but at Hunstanton every element is truly what it appears to be, serving as necessary structure and necessary decoration.
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The brick panels in the end elevations are not only there to set off the glass visually, nor only to provide necessary blank walls internally, nor only to stiffen the frame-though that in Plastic Theory they must do. They were conceived from the very first, as were all other elements, as performing structurally, functionally and decoratively as parts of an integrated architecture.
This imposes an existential responsibility upon the architect for every brick laid, every joint welded, every panel offered up, for, apart from pipes laid in ducts (in the interests of maintenance and because a duct could serve to resist overturning moments), apart from these, literally every structural and functional element is visible, and, since there is nothing else to see, they are the totality of the architectural elements.
For this reason the architects must scrutinise every subcontractor’s drawing, and the Clerk of Works begins to resume an almost forgotten status.
Equally, there must be a new aesthetic of materials, which must be valued for the surfaces they have on delivery to the site-since paint is only used where structurally or functionally unavoidable-a valuation like that of the Dadaists, who accepted their materials ‘as found’, a valuation built into the Modern Movement by Moholy-Nagy at the Bauhaus.
It is this valuation of materials which has led to the appellation ‘New Brutalist’, but it should now be clear that this is not merely a surface aesthetic of untrimmed edges and exposed services, but a radical philosophy reaching back to the first conception of the building.
In this sense this is probably the most truly modern building in England, fully accepting the moral load which theModern Movement lays upon the architect’s shoulders. It does not ingratiate itself with cosmetic detailing, but, like it or dislike it, demands that we should make up our minds about it, and examine our consciences in the light of that decision.
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This is a three-form entry Secondary Modern School in the 1950 MOE building programme. It was won in open competition by the architects in the summer of 1950 and the contract was signed in February, 1951. Work began on the site in March and shortly after the job was held up for fourteen months by a delay in the steel work supply. During this period the ducts, drains and site slab were constructed.
The site is just outside the seaside town of Hunstanton, on the main road to King’s Lynn. It is a rectangle of 22 acres, bounded by the main road on the west and a secondary road on the north and surrounded by hedges and a few small trees, although there are none on the site itself. The ground slopes about one in 260 west to east in the building area and about one in 330-400 from north to south, with a pleasant view of rural landscape to the south.
The total area inside walls, excluding the caretaker’s flat and the adult house craft room, is 45,748 square feet, and the number of school places, calculated according to the MOE standard method, is 510. The area per place is therefore 89.7 square feet and the teaching area occupies 61.25 per cent of the total. The cost per place at letting of contract was £258; the final cost, due to increases in the cost of labour and materials, was approximately £290 per place.
The buildings, with their surrounding paths and play pitches, are raised on a level podium measuring approximately 240 feet by 600 feet, starting at ground level at the west end and finishing 2 feet 3 inches above existing ground level at the east end. On the south side is a bank at a slope of one in ten and along the north side, except at the entrance and car park, there is a ha-ha.
The main block, which is a long rectangle about 290 feet by 103 feet with two courtyards 52 feet by 72 feet, contains all the accommodation except the gymnasium with its changing rooms, the wood and metal workshops, the kitchen, the adult housecraft room and the boiler-house.
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The site is about 107 feet above sea level with a subsoil of chalk, no ground water was encountered. Most of the foundations are straightforward, although some of the stanchions are carried on the walls of reinforced concrete service ducts.
The construction of the podium involved considerable filling and hardcore was brought to the site for this, although some chalk from the boiler-house, the revetment, and duct excavation was also used. The site slab is 4 inches of concrete on building paper on hardcore.
The structural framework is fabricated by welding the beams and stanchions of rolled steel section into frames on site. So that all the welding could be carried out by hand, a jig was specially designed for the job to allow for each frame to be turned upside down.
The complete frame was then picked up by a caterpillar crane, carried to its position on the site slab and bolted down. It was then held steady with temporary ties and bracing until angle ties could be welded on at eaves and floor level.
Apart from the assembly hall and gymnasium, the building is constructed of two-storey frames of 20 feet, or 24-feet span placed at 10 feet 4 inch centres.
Facing frames, built up of 3 inches by 2 inch ¼ angles, 3 inches by 3/8 inches flats in 1/4 inch plate pressings, were welded together into full bay width and two-storey height on the site and then applied to the main frames at the right angles.
The facing frames were first bolted with countersunk bolts to the outer flanges of the stanchions at eaves level, first-floor level, and ground-floor level and by four cranked rag bolts to the site slab. The fixing of the facing frames was completed by a vertical fillet, welded to the flange of the stanchions. These facing frames act as lateral bracing to the structural frames and at the same time as window mullions and transoms and as a facing to the first floor and eaves.
Where the structural frame changes direction, two stanchions are used at the internal corners. The two stanchions are joined together and sealed by an angle welded to both.
The beams and stanchions were delivered to the site with a coat of aluminium paint. After being welded together, they were retouched with the aluminium paint. After erection, a coat of red lead primer was applied all over, followed by an undercoat of black bitumen paint, after all was completed a final coat was put on inside and out.
There are two expansion joints in the length of the main block. These are filled with two pieces of 3/8 inch impregnated cane fibreboard, covered with a 2 inch by 1/4 inch flat, fixed one side only, inside and out.
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The facing frames welded to the main frames are glazed directly without sub-frames, the walls on the south and west being single glazed and the north and east walls double glazed. 1/4 inch wired glass is used up to 3 feet 4 inches above floor level and a 12 inch horizontally pivoting ventilator is used continuously round the building on both floors. Specially designed vertical and horizontally sliding windows are also used.
Direct glazing in this way calls for a very accurately made steelwork, and the glazing subcontractors asked for tolerances of 1/16 inches between the frames. Their opinion now is that the accuracy achieved by the manufacturers of the steelwork was sufficient and only fifty squares of glass had to be trimmed.
The external walls are mostly glazed, but some have panels of yellow gault bricks. These walls are of two 4 1/2 inch skins, with the outer face of the inner skin painted with two coats of thick bitumen paint. Where the brickwork abuts steelwork, wire reinforcement is used vertically and horizontally and fixed to the steel with bolts and washers fired from a rapid hammer gun. Where the brickwork had to be cut round steel members a small circular saw bench with an 1/8-inch carborundum cutting wheel was used.
The gault bricks were found to be very porous and a 9 inch garden wall built with 1: 2: 9 cement-lime-sand mortar, cracked badly when subjected to the local conditions of frost after prolonged horizontally driven rain. The garden wall was rebuilt in 1:2 lime mortar and this mortar was used for the brick panel walls of the building.
The internal walls are built of 4 1/2 inches fair-faced gault brickwork, with two leaves each of 4 1/2 inches being used at expansion joints.
The floors are constructed of pre-stressed concrete floor slabs, 16 inches wide, seated on cleats welded to the steel beams. They are 4 inches deep, of an inverted trough section and covered with a half-inch layer of insulation, where required. On this are laid out the panel heating coils and the whole structure is then screeded over.
The original intention was to cut away a small portion from the upper edge of the RSJ to allow the floor slabs to be dropped in, but it was found that the steel members could be jacked apart sufficiently an inch or two in their centres to make this unnecessary. The floor slabs were then slid sideways into position on a 3 inch by ¼ of an inch steel flat, resting on the cheats, and this was slowly withdrawn.
At floor and eaves level, behind the facing frame, an in situ concrete beam was cast, continuity being obtained at the stanchions by passing bars through the holes in the web. The roofs are constructed of the same floor slabs as the floors, with 3 inches of insulation screed and finished with three layers of bituminous felt and fine white chippings.
Floor finishes are plastic tiles for classrooms and workshops (except for metalworking, which has granolithic floors),terrazzo tiles for circulation areas and kitchen, wood strip for the main hall and gymnasium, and linoleum for the staff rooms.
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The main services run in a reinforced concrete duct under the floor, with corrugated iron used as permanent shuttering for the slab over.
The space heating of the school is from a low-pressure, accelerated hot-water system with cast-iron boilers and automatic under-feed mechanical stokers, the intended fuel being bituminous coal.
The classrooms on the first floor, together with their adjacent store rooms, are heated by embedded copperpipe panels. These panels also supply some heat to the rooms on the ground fioor. Where there is not enough heat, the rooms are further heated by convectors and pipe coils on a two-pipe system. In the case of the gymnasium, workshops, kitchen and adult house craft rooms, where there is no heat from the ceiling, the full heating load is taken by convectors and pipe coils.
The pipe circuit supplying the convectors and pipe coils is a high-temperature circuit with a maximum boiler flow temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit. This circuit also serves local hot-water-storage calorifiers.
The embedded floor panels are formed from 1/2 inch nominal bore copper tube to BS 1386/47 of 18 SWG. The separate coils are connected in parallel to the low temperature circuit mains through horizontal header pipes fixed above the floor in a store or convenient position. The separate coils were designed to have an equal friction resistance not exceeding 7 feet so as to give an even heat output.
Economy in pipework was considered and cut lengths greater than 15 feet were used again. The joints used are capillary fittings, using silver solder. The coils have to penetrate the web of the 24 feet span RSJ and they are insulated at these points against electrolytic action by a split taper plug. In all first-floor teaching rooms, except those facing south and those facing east and west with one outside wall only, 1 1/2 inch pipe coils on the high temperature circuit are fixed at low level under the windows to prevent down draughts.
Four forced-flow convectors are used in both the main hall and the gymnasium controlled by a thermostat. The ductwork in the main hall is arranged so that fresh air can be drawn in in the summer.
A time switch was required to change over to a night setting of approximately 50 per cent day load. It is intended that night setting should operate at weekends. There are also manually operated valves to prolong either the day or night setting.
This piece was republished online to coincide with the Reptuations essay on Alison and Peter Smithson from AR February 2012. Read the Smithsons Reputations here