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Alison and Peter Smithson

Peter and Alison Smithson (1923-2003 en 1928-1993)were among the most influential and controversial British architects of the mid 20th century, thanks to such landmarks as the Economist Building and the Robin Hood Gardens housing complex. They both were uncompromising in their determination to define a new approach to modernist architecture.

Peter and Alison Smithson met while studying architecture at Durham University and married in 1949. Together, they joined the architecture department of the London County Council before establishing their own partnership in 1950.

The Hunstaton school building in Norfolk. Hunstaton (1954), known locally as the Glasshouse, established the Smithsons as leading lights of post-war British architecture. All their subsequent projects were infused with the same crusading zeal to build school, workplaces and homes for a progressive, more meritocratic post-war society.

Both were uncompromising in their determination to define a new approach to modernist architecture which, like the pre-war International Style, would exploit the low cost and pragmatism of mass-produced materials and pre-fabricated components, and the aesthetic purity of their architectural heroes like Mies Van Der Röhe, but would produce buildings that were specific to their location and purpose. Precisely elegant with its exposed steel and brick structure, Hunstanton School was a pure expression of the Smithsons’ ideals.

Those ideals were articulated at a CIAM conference in 1953 when Alison and Peter attacked the decades-old dogma propounded by Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius that cities should be zoned into specific areas for living, working, leisure and transport and that urban housing should consist of tall, widely spaced towers. The Smithsons’ ideal city combined different activities within the same areas and they envisaged modern housing being built as “streets in the sky” to encourage the residents to feel a sense of “belonging” and “neighbourliness”.

The Smithsons’ key projects included the House of the Future (1956), The Economist building (1962) and the Robin Hood Gardens housing complex (1972). The first was a ‘model home’, a plastic structure that could be mass produced in its entirety. It was fitted with innovative gadgets such as a self-cleaning bath and remote-controlled light switches.

In 1959, the couple designed a new head office for the journal The Economist. Three beautifully modelled towers, each modelled to a different scale, clad with a traditional type of stone. It was because of the success of this building that they were commissioned to build a new British embassy in Brasilia. Due to cutbacks, their plan never came to fruition, however.

At the end of the 1960s, the Smithsons had the opportunity to put their ideas of modern housing into practice. The Robin Hood Gardens complex was designed as a series of galleries that were to function as a street where children could play and people could meet. The complex was to become a role model for progressive social housing, but it was plagued by constructional problems and high crime rates.

Source: Design Museum

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