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Alison Smithson (1928-1993) and Peter Smithson (1923-2003)

Steve Parnell elaborates on the extraordinary lives of The Smithsons

Alison and Peter Smithson were catapulted to premature architectural stardom on winning the competition to design Hunstanton Secondary Modern School in 1950. Peter was only 26 and Alison, his new wife and former student, a mere 21 years old. Having worked in the schools division of London County Council Architects’ Department for less than a year, winning the competition allowed them to set up their own practice.

Designed and built in deep austerity, Hunstanton School was a crafted building of assembled components, deliberately resisting the fashion for modular construction in favour of mimicking a Miesian aesthetic and pre-empting their ‘as found’ sensibility. The reason it took so long to complete was that despite its simplicity of construction and lack of finishes, the school used Norfolk County Council’s entire steel allocation until the end of steel rationing in May 1953.

Hunstanton was described by one teacher who spent 37 years there as ‘a tragedy’. He itemised its leaking roofs, cracking glass panels, extreme temperatures in summer and winter, horrendous sound transmission and other practical shortcomings. Even the famous wash-basin drain outlets hovering above the gulley had previously been done by Banister Fletcher at his Brentford Gillette Factory in 1936-37. But as a work of architecture, it was a rare glimmer of hope for architects wishing to reconstruct a post-war Britain in the modern idiom. It remains canonical to this day, largely thanks to Reyner Banham’s definitive 1966 book The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic?

According to Banham, the Smithsons were, ‘the bell-wethers of the young throughout the middle Fifties’. They were the architectural equivalent of the ‘angry young men’ of the Kitchen Sink social realism art movement, determined to break down the barriers between high and low culture and to establish themselves ahead of institutions such as the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) and The Architectural Review. But after Hunstanton, their principal achievements consisted of rhetoric and polemic: words and images rather than buildings. These achievements were as considerable as they were enduring, however.

‘After Hunstanton, their principal achievements consisted of rhetoric and polemic’

First, the New Brutalism invented in antagonism to the AR’s New Empiricism and what the Smithsons considered the Festival of Britain’s effeminate aesthetic. The Smithsons defined the New Brutalism as Banham cheered them on from the sidelines, post-rationalising Hunstanton to be its first built example in search of his architecture autre. So closely was this movement associated with the Smithsons that one wag even wrote to Architectural Design: ‘Does the “New Brutalism” really mean anything other than the architecture of the Smithsons?’

Second, the introduction of a pop sensibility to architecture from the Independent Group, a vanguard faction of the ICA that included artists Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi and critics Reyner Banham and Lawrence Alloway.

This group is credited with the invention of Pop Art primarily via their fascination with (mostly American) popular culture such as adverts, comics and movies, and a willingness to not only take them seriously but to raise them to the level of art. The Smithsons’ moulded plastic House of the Future prototype for the 1956 Daily Mail Ideal Home Show embodied these pop principles for a technologically driven age of consumerism.

Third, the replacement of CIAM with Team 10. This was by no means just a Smithson project as they were aided and abetted by an international contingent of young architects including Aldo van Eyck, John Voelcker and Giancarlo De Carlo. But most crucially, Alison brilliantly understood the vicissitudes of history writing and directed the process ruthlessly behind the scenes, favouring her and her husband’s contributions above the others and editing out those of their dissenters.

The informal nature of Team 10 meetings was documented and disseminated by Alison in a way that promoted the Smithsons’ ideas not unlike the means that Le Corbusier used CIAM to promote his propaganda. Until recently, Team 10’s only history existed in Alison’s books, the Team 10 Primer (1964), The Emergence of Team 10 out of CIAM (1982) and Team 10 Meetings: 1953-1984 (1991). Yet the Smithsons’ preferred instrument of diffusion was Monica Pidgeon’s increasingly popular Architectural Design.

Man-eating Pidgeon first noticed Peter in the Mediterranean at the 9th CIAM congress at Aix-en-Provence in 1953 because he was having trouble maintaining his modesty in the woollen trunks Alison had knitted for him. The Smithsons and Pidgeon thus became friends just weeks before Theo Crosby became Pidgeon’s assistant at AD. Crosby was Peter’s closest friend, having bumped into him while on holiday in Italy in 1948. They shared a flat in Bloomsbury while Smithson studied at the Royal Academy and Crosby worked at Fry and Drew, and when Peter and Alison married in 1949, Crosby simply moved upstairs.

Alison Smithson
Peter Smithson
Newcastle School of Architecture
Key buildings
Hunstanton Secondary Modern School,
Norfolk (1954)
The Economist Cluster, London (1964)
Garden Building, St Hilda’s College, Oxford (1967)
Robin Hood Gardens Estate, London (1972)
Key texts
Urban Structuring (1967)
Without Rhetoric: An Architectural Aesthetic 1955-1972 (1973)
The Charged Void: Architecture (2001)
‘What we are after is something more complex, and less geometric. We are more concerned with “flow” than with “measure”

When Crosby was sacked after breaking his arm in a motorbike accident, the Smithsons bought him a suit and encouraged him to apply for the advertised technical editor job at AD. Crosby got the job ahead of Joseph Rykwert, among others. From that moment on the Smithsons had almost complete freedom to publish their ideas. The relationship was symbiotic, of course: Pidgeon needed the avant-garde ideas of the Smithsons to promote her magazine against the more staid AR as much as the Smithsons needed a platform.

This is why the first published mention of the New Brutalism appears in AD’s December 1953 issue (the first Crosby put together), the Independent Group appeared extensively in AD and the Team 10 Primer was an AD issue guest-edited by Alison in December 1962.

After Hunstanton, the Smithsons had to wait a decade to complete another major building, the Economist Cluster, and almost another decade again to finish their final building of any significance, the Robin Hood Gardens Estate. Banham accused the Economist Cluster of betraying the notion of an ‘other’ architecture, especially when portrayed as a Townscape case study with Gordon Cullen’s sketches in the AR. The poorly received Robin Hood Gardens was the culmination of 20 years of thinking on housing that started with the Smithsons’ ‘Urban Reidentification’ grid presented at CIAM 9, and formed the basis of their unsuccessful Golden Lane Housing competition entry.

Ideas conceived in 1952 were, by 1972, becoming as unfashionable as the Smithsons. But these ideas did influence Peter’s students at the AA, Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, who designed Park Hill in Sheffield. Urban Reidentification is emblematic of how something that made little impact initially was promoted, published and rehearsed until it became foundational to modern architectural history.

The Smithsons’ reputation, then, rests on a small number of ordinary buildings and an extensive archive of extraordinarily well-documented architectural thinking, writing and teaching. Their position in architectural history relies less upon their built work than on their considerable and influential contribution to architectural culture which is, after all, the reason they reappear, once more, here in the AR. For a couple for whom ordinariness was such an important motif, they were anything but.


Raymond Lemstra • See more work on his website

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