Witte de With Contemporary Art
Alison & Peter Smithson
Alison & Peter Smithson

Alison Margaret Gill (1928-1993) and Peter Denham Smithson (1923-2003) met at the Architecture School of the University of Durham in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. They married in 1949. After working for a short period at the London County Council School Division they started their own practice when they won the competition to design the secondary school in Hunstanton.

In 1953 they became members of the British CIAM-group MARS (Modern Architecture Research group), and participated in the CIAM conference at Aix-en-Provence where they met Jaap Bakema, Aldo van Eyck, Georges Candilis, and other architects. This new generation of modern architects is now known as Team 10. They prepared the tenth CIAM congress in Dubrovnik and would ultimately dissolve the CIAM organization in 1959. Team 10 would continue to meet on a very informal basis, until the death of Jaap Bakema in 1981.

In the early 1950s, Alison and Peter Smithson were also part of the Independent Group (IG) meetings, set up by the London Institute of Contemporary Arts. Their friends, the photographer Nigel Henderson and sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, were also members of the IG. Together the foursome produced two now famous exhibition installations: Parallel of Life and Art (1953) and Patio Pavilion (1956).

Within the CIAM discourse and at the later Team 10 meetings the Smithsons would criticize Modernist urban planning as one-dimensionally functionalistic, while formulating new ideas concerning the contemporary city. Issues they addressed ranged from mobility and individual and group identity to strategies for growth and change. The IG meetings focused on the impending consumer culture and its new aesthetics. It is generally accepted that the IG meetings laid the foundations for the Pop Art movement of the 1960s.

During the 1950s the practice of the Smithsons was mostly limited to writing and participating in competitions. Competition entries for Coventry Cathedral (1951), Golden Lane (1952), and Sheffield University (1953) did not result in actual commissions, with the exception of the Hunstanton school. From the series of private houses they designed, only the Sugden House and their minute weekend home in Fonthill were realized. Success came with The Economist’s Building (1959-1964). After acquiring this prestigious commission, more big jobs followed: the Garden Building at St. Hilda’s College in Oxford (1967-1970), the British Embassy in Brasilia (1964-1965, eventually not built) and Robin Hood Gardens (1966-1972).

After finishing Robin Hood Gardens, a “silent” period followed during which the Smithsons once again started participating in competitions, including the Lucas Headquarters (1974), the Pahlavi Library (1978), and the Berlin IBA (1980). A series of commissions came from the University of Bath where Peter Smithson was a Visiting Professor from 1978 to 1990. The most notable projects were the Second Arts Building (1979-1981) and the 6 East Building (1984-1988).
A special series of projects was commissioned by Axel Bruchhäuser, director of the furniture factory Tecta. From the mid-1980s, Alison and Peter Smithson were given the opportunity to continuously realize smaller and larger building projects at both the factory and Bruchhäuser’s own house. These ranged from porches and bay windows to the Hexenbesenraum pavilion. After Alison Smithson died in 1993, Peter continued working with Bruchhäuser, developing this series further by designing other buildings and adding two pavilions: the Tea Pavilion and the Lantern Pavilion. When Peter Smithson died, he was still working on the museum for Bruchhäuser’s extensive collection of furniture, mostly chairs. Besides these architectural interventions, the Smithsons collaborated with Bruchhäuser on a number of furniture pieces, such as the Waterlily/Fish Desk and the Collector’s Table.

A major part of Alison and Peter Smithson’s architectural practice consisted of their writing. They published numerous articles, reviews, comments, and books. In their early years they had a special relationship with Monica Pidgeon, editor of Architectural Design, who would publish special issues edited by the Smithsons, about CIAM and Team 10 (1960, 1962, and 1964) and the Eames Celebration issue (1966) about the work of Charles and Ray Eames. Their books were mostly compilations of articles, grouped thematically, sometimes also rewritten. They include Ordinariness and Light (1970),
Without Rethoric (1973), The Shift (1982), and Changing the Art of Inhabitation (1994).

Other activities that led to publications were lectures and professorships, especially in the 1980s, when the Smithsons taught in Delft, Barcelona and Munich. A special series of publications resulted from the visits of Peter Smithson to the summer school in Urbino, which was organized by his former Team 10 colleague Giancarlo de Carlo. This publication – Italian Thoughts (1993), translated into German as Italienische Gedanken (1996) – revolved around the idea of “Conglomerate Ordering,” a reformulation of many of Smithson’s early concepts such as “New Brutalism” and “Without Rethoric.” Apart from this Alison Smithson wrote a number of novels, though A Portrait of the Female Mind as a Young Girl (1966) was the only one published. Other publications slightly outside the scope of architecture were AS in DS (1983) and Imprint of India (1994), which the Smithsons called “sensibility primers.” Their final major publication was The Charged Void, a series of three collections of their complete works. So far only the first one has been published, Architecture (2001).