The Smithsons

Building the Truth

This essay will examine the design philosophy of two of the most dogmatic believers in architectural truth, ever.


Shortly after Peter and Alison Smithson moved to London they won the competition for the Hunstanton Secondary Modern School. A competition on which they worked after office hours at the Schools Division of Greater London Council. (Vidotto p 11) The architectural debate at the time consisted mainly of two camps, the soft Scandinavian inspired ‘New empiricists’ and the modernists. The Smithsons clearly believed in the continental modernism.

The Hunstanton School was inspired by the works of Mies van der Rohe especially his American period and the buildings at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Rayner Banham suggested that the Smithsons were correcting Mies—showing how it should be done. There are many Miesian aspects of the building besides the obvious Cartesian compositions and exposed frame structure. The theoretically more important aspect is the raised podium, which they later used several times.

This—their first building— set an architectural language which remained recognizable throughout their career. It was a language of directness, lack of interest in fine detailing and the use of untreated standard building materials.

The Smithsons developed—as part of the Independent Group— the ideas of the ‘As Found’ and the ‘Found’. Ideas about art originating in an anthropological and sociological valuation and definition of culture. The direct inspiration came from the artist and photographer Nigel Hendersons’ photos from the streets outside his home in Bethnal green. They showed the grimy reality of post-war Britain in photos of children playing, shop-fronts and other everyday scenes. Henderson wrote.

“I fell happiest among discarded things, vituperative fragments, cast casually from life, with the fizz of vitality still about them. There is an irony in this and it forms at least a partial symbol for an artists’ activity.” -- (Frampton, p 265)

Alison Smithson explained the ‘As Found’ as

“…where the art is in the picking up, turning over and putting with…” -- (Robbins p 210)

Architecturally it meant using and seeing materials as they were, buildings as they were built and also treating the site as a found object with valuable meanings embedded in the fabric. The reality was not in the idealised utopia of geometrical compositions proposed by the first generation modernists. The existing living patterns and city fabrics were to be transformed, not wiped out and replaced with something shiny. They used the term ‘hierarchy of human association to describe how a sense of place is created though the hierarchies of ‘the house, the street, the district and the city’ (Webster p 46).

As Found

The competition proposal for the Golden Lane Housing scheme (1952) used the ideas of the ‘as found’ and ‘the hierarchy of human association’. Large, irregular, snaking 10 story high slab-blocks were to be inserted in the existing fabric. The intention was to create a network of buildings and link them together with elevated pedestrian routes into a three-dimensional city structure.

The ‘streets in the air’—basically decks—were supposed to have all the place- making features of their outdated earthbound ancestors, even backyards—on the front—, the life in the pictures from Bethnal Green would be played on out on the decks. They seemed to have missed the fact that streets on the ground are inhabited on both sides. It was never build, but a similar structure with all the mentioned features was built by Womersly, Smith and Lynn in Sheffield (1961)—the decks proved to fail as place-making devices.

During this time they also designed a house for themselves in Soho with simple direct façade treatment and rough off-the-shelf building materials, it was never built. The competition entry from Sergison Bates for the Jewish Cultural Centre in Munich has several—at least superficial—similarities(Building Design, 11/01/02). The Smithsons did not build again until 1955 when the engineer Derek Sugden and this family wanted a new home and asked the for Smithsons advice on suitable architects, they recommended themselves.

The Sugdens wanted a simple but possibly radical house built, the fabulous budget was £2.5000. The Sugdens rejected the first design proposal, the butterfly roof with its internal gutter and the narrow an asymmetrically pitched roof and large windows did. The interior was as usual minimally dressed, the brickwork exposed and most of the wood unpainted. This level of simplicity and roughness of surfaces in a home was shocked to the British people.

Before the Sugden house their competition entry for the Sheffield University further developed the ideas of a building whose design is determined by connections, routes and transport. Walkways, accentuated lift and service towers were the main features of the design. The footprint pushes their ideas of irregular topography driven layouts.

During this period they also design five small but very interesting housing schemes presented at the ciam 10 meeting in Dubrovnik 1956. The presentation made with Bakema, van Eyck, van Ginkel, Hoven Greve and Voelcker was the starting point of the Team 10 period.

The houses presented were designed for different levels of urban complexity, the countryside, the village, the town, a low-density city and a denser city. The methodology used was based on diagrams of movement patterns, again the connections and routes were of top priority. In short the projects were. (Vidotto p 46-55)

For the countryside—the Bates house— whose main features were a concrete ground floor, housing the garage, storage and utility rooms. The first floor was a steel-frame construction, cantilevering out from the ground floor on three sides. This was made possible through an external and internal plywood skin with special jointing developed for making boats. A circular ‘dishing’ surrounded the building with openings for the car and a path.

The Fold houses were to be placed in the existing village fabric and were designed as two story houses with varying plan-shapes but a common full height fold around an outdoor space.

The Close House was a narrow house to be placed in a town terrace. It featured the broken pitch top-lit roofs featured later in the 6 East Building in Bath.

The Galleon Cottage was a two story elongated multi family building. For the denser city environment they proposed a horizontally tapering multi-story crescent terrace. Everyone had a terrace of his or her own.

In 1955 they designed the house of the future, an uncharacteristically pop building of moulded plastic and full of all consumerist gadgets. It seems to be the base for a critique against the Smithsons that they had an inherently contradictory attitude toward consumerism and pop culture. Personally I believe that Rayner Banhams’ and others critique was influenced by their own positive stance towards pop culture and consumerism and read to much into the House of the Future and the TV set in their 1956 exhibition Patio and Pavilion. The Smithsons themselves stated that they never had the Banham uncritical stance towards pop culture and that the TV set in ‘this is Tomorrow’ was actually a caution against consumerism.

“We were taking position in the acquisitive society as it began its run , by offering in a gîte a reminder of other values, other pleasures” -- (Alison Smithson, The ‘As Found’ and the ‘Found’, Robbins p 210)

I do not find this impossible to believe because the Smithsons elitist stance would hardly allow them to be so pop, concerned with ‘reality’ yes, but not truly common. I cannot find any other evidence of a consumerist attitude except the above mentioned.

Team 10

Working further with Team 10 they stepped up in scale and developed further the themes of cluster, growth, change and mobility (Webster p 53). Their propositions were mainly concerned with overlaying built infrastructure on the existing city fabric but moving away from the snaking buildings of the Golden Lane scheme. Their Berlin Haubstadt competition entry in 1957 was based on the differing needs when driving a car and walking (Vidotto p 64). Two superimposed structures linked clustered buildings together, the existing right angle grid for cars and a raised variable mesh of pedestrian walkways. The jury commented:

“A remarkable town-planning contribution… however , some essentials, especially ‘old Berlin’ has not been sufficiently considered in the design, so that in formal regard the proposal is unsatisfactory.” -- (Vidotto p 66)

Some of their other propositions, for example the London Roads Study 1959 were also heavily criticized by the rest of Team 10 for the lack of concern for the existing city fabric.

In 1959 they also managed to design an Infants school, two countryside houses and a house extension that was actually built.


A softening in the architectural language followed the large-scale ideas. The very successful Economist building was basically a small part of the Berlin proposal. Consisting again of a raised pedestrian platform with vehicular access below. Three towers—one for each function in the brief—were clustered on the platform creating a plaza.

The towers have chamfered corners and a remarkably sensitive—context based—façade treatment. The scale of the façade elements blend perfectly with the other building on the street, but the architectural language is modern and completely different from anything—modern or otherwise. Again the influence of Mies is clearly visible, this time the Seagram building acts as precedence for the urban side of the design.

The ‘folly at Upper Lawn’ as Peter Smithson calls it in Webster, was a fantastic example of their ability to merge a new building with the existing fabric. Personally I find the views of the pavilion from the roadside extremely exciting. It reminds me of Mies Brick Country House with the walls extending infinitely off the edges of the drawing. The way the new building merges with the wall and how the step in the wall coincides with the door, the amazing two windows through it—one into the house the other into the garden. You almost want to forgive the Smithsons for everything. It is a really good example of an ‘As Found’ building. It is not though a good solar pavilion, it does simply not work hence ‘the folly’ at Upper lawn.

The later project for the British embassy in Brasilia showed for the first time the idea of a ground hugging building that follows the slope of the land articulating the slope by a ‘stepped’ exposed concrete edge-beam. Due to funding problems it was never built.

On a site in the Tower Hamlets—surrounded on three sides with traffic—the Smithsons proposed and built Robin Hood Gardens 1966-1972. This was an obvious relapse to their old Brutalist Golden Lane ideas that were already under heavy critique. What they did develop further was the layering of the façade, but this is of little comfort when the circulation spaces are unable to serve the vast number of people without becoming vandalised or outright dangerous. The public open space between the buildings was one of those unspecified modernist wastelands (+mound) they previously argued against. The Smithsons seemed to have big problems letting go of the old ideas, time and time again Le Corbusier and Ville Radieuse haunted them. Their strong belief that the old city is totally inadequate to modern conditions kept pulling them in that direction.

They were allowed to build again in 1967 Robin Hood Gardens was not yet finished. St Hilda’s’ college in Oxford—Outrageously one of the first colleges to be built after women were admitted…1967!—needed more housing accommodation. The façade is actually decorated, not the word the Smithsons would use but the chunky latticework definitely have pattern-making properties. The rational explanation is to enhance ‘the art of inhabitation’ prevent glare, provide glimpses in and out and introduce some visual protection.

‘The art of inhabitation’ being a further development of the ‘As Found’ and the ‘Hierarchy of human association’ is a concept on the subject of what changes the user can make to the building. The Smithsons wanted to design for this change, by subtle means invite the user to customise their environment while the building itself would remain the same. The latticework was the buildings main vehicle for this idea. Other aspects of the building were very similar to the Economist buildings for instance the chamfered corners and the central core for circulation and services.’

Again a long period without any built projects followed. In 1979 they were invited to build new facilities at the University of Bath were Peter now worked as a tutor. During the decade without any projects to build they worked on a series of competition entries and theoretical projects most of which were refining old ideas especially the layering of façades through latticework. In looking carefully at the ‘Art of inhabitation’ they slowly started to think about storage (House with Two Gantries) but the Smithsons always seem to forget their lessons until they a few years later suddenly include them in a building or theoretical work.

In 1969 they worked on a project for the new Kuwait city, which had many similarities with the 1963 Frankfurt-Römerberg project by Team 10 members Josic, Woods and Candilis. Both entries consisted of a low complex building with roads, walkways, parks and other features cut out of the building mass in several layers. The Smithsons interpretation of the mat-concept was of course more heroic than the other Team 10 members. Working on a larger scale and with a more unified system of routes and facilities.

They designed a second mat building for the Lucas headquarters, this time using their lattice system extensively on the façade. But this time the lattices performed a structural function, supporting the ground-floor slab above the semi sunken car parks.

During this period, ilaud (The International Laboratory for Architecture and Urban Design) workshops under Giancarlo De Carlo had a large influence on the Smithsons shifting them towards a more historical approach and also towards smaller buildings rather that urban mega structures. They also continued their search for a modern vernacular, a modernism without rhetoric and beyond style.

When they finally started working on a real project again in 1978 the ideas from the Brasilia embassy and the Bates house previously not put in practice were used with some modifications. The first project for a Staff Amenities building used the stepped ground-following edge-beams from the Brasilia embassy and the heavy ground-floor light first floor from the Bates house. The construction was very important for this building since it was built in two distinct phases.

“It is hoped that the building will carry on its face a picture of the process of its making…” -- Peter Smithson (Vidotto p 162)

Conglomerate Order

The next addition to the University was a second arts building 1979-1981. For this building they used grooves in the concrete extensively. They took advantage of the way the formwork is made and concrete poured, to control the water flow and dirt deposition on the façade.

The Arts Barn 1981 was the next project, although it was never finished it showed clear signs of the Concept of Conglomerate ordering which was their attempt to come up with a methodology that achieves a modern building with the qualities of a ‘natural’ building described in the essay ‘The Canon of Conglomerate Order’ (Webster p 150). This is a short extract explaining a few of the qualities of ‘A building of the Conglomerate Order’

It has a thick building mass, wide but not very high and penetrated from the top for light and air. Has faces, which are all equally considered… no back; no front; all faces equally engaged with what lies before them; the roof is ‘another face’ Is an inextricable part of a larger fabric Is dominated by one material… the conglomerate’s matrix” (Webster p 150-160)

Sigurd Lewerentz probably influenced the relaxed, almost picturesque siting of the Arts Barn and its severe formal language. About whom the Smithsons wrote at the time. The Barn was a leisure facility made up of different connected buildings designed on beforehand but to be built according to funding. Unfortunately the funding ended after the first piece was built, it still sits there, alone.

The rational methodology developed by the Smithsons to create a building of the Conglomerate Order was very typical of them.

“if a building were to be designed according to the functional requirements of a programme both quantitative and qualitative, then a ‘true’ and ‘natural’ architecture—an architecture without rhetoric—would result. It followed that if this methodology truly mimicked the unconscious generative process of the vernacular, the resultant buildings would automatically display the generic ‘natural’ characteristics of indigenous structures.” -- (Webster p 110)

Building East 6 in Bath (1982-1988), was based on their theory of Conglomerate Ordering, unfortunately it fails at some of the key conceptual points. For instance: the building is build around fixed routes. These routes were meant to be internal streets where the ‘art of inhabitation’ were to take place sadly the architects designed them much too narrow and they turned into unusable corridors. This time the concept with a heavy ground floor and lighter structures on top caused another problem. The noise from the vibrating workshop equipment on the ground floor is transferred through the massive concrete frame and makes the crit room above unusable at times.

The focus on routes and walkways—one of their oldest concepts—also fail at one point. The entrance to the school of architecture and civil engineering opens up away from the main route of approach and is too inconspicuous to be easily spotted. I find this unacceptable in a building where the routes are supposed to be the generators of the overall form.

In 1985 the German furniture manufacturer Axel Bruchhauser commissioned the Smithsons to build a new door for his house—he was initially interested in manufacturing their furniture. Alison convinced him that what he really wanted was enhanced contact with the surrounding landscape. The work they did impressed Axel so much that he has commissioned them to do several more additions to his home as well as to his Tecta furniture factory (Architects Journal 16/23 August 2001).

The house is a ‘fairytale’ building, a small cottage in the German woods with a steeply pitched tile clad roof , sandstone and timber walls. The owner is so pleased with the work of the Smithsons that he told the AJ.

“I don’t have to take holidays or go travelling- I have paradise on earth right here “

So what have they done that is so amazing. This is a true example of both a building of the ‘Conglomerate Order’ and a building ‘As Found’. Since 1985 small changes has been made as Axel finds new needs or identifies a problem.

The first intervention was a small porch for Axel and his cat Karlchen. It is an irregular glass porch at the south-west corner of the house extending the living space of the house and moreover bringing the outside and the seasons into the building. Since it is such a small addition it is built to perfectly suit the clients needs including a seat for him a seat for his cat. The inside outside transition consists of an elaborate gradient of materials and spatial qualities. Alison called the porch.

“ an example of a method by which a small physical change – a layering-over of air adhered to an existing fabric- can bring about a delicate tuning of the relationship of persons with place” (Gustavo Gili , 1997)

Again the latticework concept is used to layer the façade and control your views.

Besides Axel, Karlchen and the Smithsons a third person has played an important role, a local carpenter whose skills Peter deeply respect. He has been used for each one of the extensions. Alison died in 1993 but Peter has continued to design according to the precedence set by the porch mainly designed by Alison.

The porch was extended in both directions into an L-shape with faceted outer edges. Another porch was added to the entrance of the building and a bay window on the south side of the house. Several holes have been cut through internal and external walls and ceilings to provide visual links to the surroundings.

Outside the house a small lookout tower, a tea house and the fabulous Hexenbesenraum. A room on 9 11m steel-reinforced stilts, swaying slowly with the surrounding trees the floor is made of glass and the ceiling of large irregular sheets of glass and wood. Coming from northern Sweden and having spent approximately 70% of my childhood up in trees I can just from looking at the pictures in the AJ see that that building is actually a tree. But a improved tree to allow an old man to experience hiding from the world among leaves and sky regardless the of weather.

The House is now almost completely encrusted with tuning devices, finally a building that almost matches up with their theories.


The Independent Group, ciam, Team 10, ilaud: the Smithsons were always deeply involved in groups and forums for discussion and exchange of architectural ideas. It seems though that they hardly ever extended their network beyond a small selection of people. For instance during the Team 10 period they fell out with van Eyck over the nature of Team 10. Van Eyck wanted the group to become less exclusive, the Smithsons refused.

They published their work mainly in yearbooks and documents closely related to the group they were currently involved in. Were the Smithsons consciously trying to become exclusive and mythical or did they simply not care about anything except moving their ideas further along the chosen path?

They seem to provoke so many questions like that, were they geniuses or did they completely lack talent? When reading about them for this essay I constantly moved between these extremes. They were extreme, the consistency with which they slowly moved their ideas along the same old line is almost worrying.

The consistency was definitely one of their weaknesses they had so much trouble abandoning the heroic modernism, even though the started of by challenging it. But it was also their strength, their fame in relation to the number of built projects and satisfied clients is an achievement.

Process &Progress

In Webster Peter Smithson states that they always wrote before they built. They used ideas in their buildings that they had arrived at through intellectual exercise. Their design process is probably best looked at through a career perspective. Because it is almost as if they worked on one project their entire career, developing it bit by bit. Very consistently moving it forward, it is as if their belief in continuity and progress by sheer will power created continuity and progress.

Their objective and modernist methodology managed in the end to include subjective qualities without acknowledging it. Of course there is no such thing as objectivity in design and the Smithsons are probably the best proof of that.

The truth, reality, objectivity… old people have so strange ideas.