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date: 28 February 2024

Smithson, Peter Denhamfree

(1923–2003)

Smithson, Peter Denhamfree

(1923–2003)
  • Elain Harwood

Peter Denham Smithson (1923–2003)

by Godfrey Argent, 1969 [The Smithsons: Peter Denham Smithson (1923–2003) and Alison Margaret Smithson (1928-1993)]

Smithson, Peter Denham (1923–2003), architect, writer, and teacher, was born on 18 September 1923 at 14 Lambton Road, Stockton-on-Tees, the only child of William Blenkiron Smithson (1888–1972), commercial traveller in drapery, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Denham. He studied at the grammar school in Stockton-on-Tees and the King's College School of Architecture (1939–42 and 1945–8) in Newcastle upon Tyne, then part of Durham University. During the latter part of the Second World War he served with the Royal Engineers and Queen Victoria's Own Madras Sappers and Miners, before returning to Newcastle as a student and then a studio assistant. He attended the Royal Academy Schools in 1948–9 under Albert Richardson, when he discovered the work of Mies van der Rohe.

Alison Margaret Smithson [née Gill] (1928–1993), architect and writer, was born on 22 June 1928 at 3 Clarkehouse Road, Broomhall, Sheffield, the only child of Ernest Gill (1887–1980), graphic artist and principal of the South Shields School of Art from 1929 to 1950, and his wife, Alison Jessie, née Malcolm (1901–1989), who trained as a weaver. She attended South Shields High School for Girls, Sunderland Church High School, and, briefly during the war, George Watson Ladies' College in Edinburgh, while staying with relatives. She studied at the King's College School of Architecture, University of Durham, in 1944–9, meeting Peter when he was a studio assistant. She later wrote a semi-autobiographical novel indebted to her childhood, A Portrait of the Female Mind as a Young Girl (1966).

The Smithsons married on 18 August 1949. They joined the schools division of the London county council the same year and rented a flat in Bloomsbury from the architect and critic Theo Crosby. In May 1950 they won a competition for a secondary school at Hunstanton, which enabled them to start their own practice. The school's plan was traditional and compact, a contrast to looser forms then popular, having a central hall between two courtyards, around which were set classrooms and laboratories. The welded steel frame, then novel in Britain, was designed on the plastic principle that there is no weak point. Mies and the golden section are unmistakable influences. Hunstanton was also the built manifestation of Peter Smithson's early fascination with Renaissance central planning as expounded by Rudolf Wittkower in public lectures in 1948, and seen in the couple's unplaced competition entry for rebuilding Coventry Cathedral in 1950–51. The Smithsons insisted that Hunstanton School be photographed empty, which highlights the startling quality of the exposed steel ceilings and pipework, and a Braithwaite water tank which prompted a fashion for industrial components such as patent glazing. The school was hated by most teachers, and by architects committed to providing for occupants' needs rather than architectural niceties.

By the time of Hunstanton's completion in 1954 the Smithsons preferred brick, concrete, and timber to steel for their natural finishes and greater availability. They planned a house in Fitzrovia, with materials left 'as found', including a corrugated iron roof and unplastered internal walls. Peter had christened himself Brutus at college, a name which stuck with his contemporaries although it was hated by Alison. It was while designing this house that they conceived the New Brutalist movement, perhaps as a response to articles in the Architectural Review (1947–8) on Swedish architecture which described a 'New Empiricism'. The term first appeared in a feature on the Smithsons' unbuilt house in Architectural Design for December 1953, and was widely adopted when Crosby published a 'manifesto' by the Smithsons in the same magazine in January 1955. Yet the two sides were closer than is commonly supposed, and the Smithsons emphasized the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Japanese timber traditions. The term was rapidly debased to become associated with heavy concrete structures alien to most of their work. After a visit to Japan in 1960 the Smithsons' work softened further, and they increasingly saw buildings as neutral spaces to be filled by the occupants' possessions. Their domestic work included converting houses in Limerston Street and Gilston Road, London, as offices and accommodation for themselves and their three children, Simon (b. 1954), Samantha (b. 1957), and (Alison) Soraya (b. 1964).

Hunstanton's success heralded the Smithsons as 'the bright young hopes of the profession' (Architects' Journal, 21 Jan 1954). Yet only limited success followed: a brick house in Watford for Derek Sugden (1954–6), and small additions for other friends. As a weekend retreat for themselves, they rebuilt a farmworker's cottage to classical proportions, its new and reused materials honestly expressed. Perhaps it was their reputation for being 'difficult', as well as a desire to keep their office small, which kept them short of work. Yet clients found them efficient and solicitous of their needs. Peter Smithson taught at London's Architectural Association from 1955, becoming master of the fifth year in 1957–60. Much of the Smithsons' renown came through competition entries, their radical ideas realized only a decade later—often in the work of others. Their entry for housing at Golden Lane in the City of London (1952) introduced the concept of 'streets in the sky', which they considered more neighbourly and more akin to traditional housing than the newly fashionable point blocks. By the time the Smithsons realized a version at Robin Hood Gardens, Docklands (1968–72), the Greater London council imposed a different brief, fashions had changed, and the building was vandalized. For Sheffield University in 1953 they put lecture halls into a separate block from the faculty buildings, linked by a raised walkway, as became common in British universities in the 1960s. The Smithsons also produced grandiose town-planning projects. Their ideas on high-level roads, pedestrian walkways, and spine buildings were influential through Peter's teaching, and included a third-placed entry for remodelling central Berlin in 1957–8. Their association with such ideas tended to overshadow their more sensitive ideas for ground-level routes in historic cities, including Cambridge and Jerusalem, and imaginative landscaping such as at Robin Hood Gardens.

The Smithsons' entry for the competition for Churchill College, Cambridge (1958), led to their largest built commission: offices for The Economist magazine in St James's Street, London, with a bank and extensions to Boodle's Club (1959–63). Each element was realized as a separate tower arranged around a new, raised piazza. The complex has a serene quality thanks to its careful proportions and expensive stone finishes, and also succeeds as a new piece of townscape within a historic setting, linking new and old elements. A similar single tower at St Hilda's College, Oxford (1966–8), provided study bedrooms concealed by timber screens 'like a yashmak' to create 'a girl's place' (Vidotto, 128). The Smithsons lost two important jobs in the mid-1960s, which seems to have limited their careers decisively. They turned down a commission for offices for The Times, offered through The Economist's editor, Geoffrey Crowther, because they were invited in late 1963 to build a British embassy in Brasilia. The Smithsons produced a linear, low design suited to a hot climate, but cutbacks and policy changes led the government to terminate the project in 1968.

In the early 1950s the Smithsons were associated with the Independent Group, based around the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Dover Street. An article for the Royal College of Art in 1956 shows their interest in Americana and ephemera, which extended from advertisements to a friendship with Charles and Ray Eames and a fascination for Christmas cards and flags. They worked with the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi and the photographer Nigel Henderson on the exhibitions ‘Parallel of Life and Art’ in 1953 and ‘Patio and Pavilion’ in 1956, the latter a contribution to the ‘This is Tomorrow’ show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery which sought to link art and architecture. A House of the Future for the Ideal Home Exhibition of 1956 offered innovative furniture and appliance designs as well as space-age outfits for its actor-occupants.

The Smithsons were the chief British representatives of the post-war generation who set out to reform the Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne, or CIAM, a platform for modern architects founded in 1928 and subsequently dominated by Le Corbusier and Siegfried Giedion. In 1959 CIAM folded, to be replaced by Team 10, a small ideas forum of like-minded architects from across western Europe that included the Smithsons among its core members. These discussions inspired their interest in 'mat' building or neutral, flexible space, seen in Brasilia and their later work at Bath University (1978–90), coinciding with Peter's years as visiting professor there. In return Team 10 introduced the Smithsons to an international audience, which was extended through their writings. In the 1950s they published their schemes in the Architects' Year Books, and they wrote extensively for Architectural Design between 1955 and 1975. They recast these projects and articles as books. In 1968 the couple produced a lament to the Euston Arch, an indication of their interest in historic fabric developed by Peter Smithson in his lectures, and writing on Bath (including Walks within the Walls: a Study of Bath, 1971). Perhaps this owed much to the influence of Crosby, who was then coming to reject modernism entirely. In the 1980s the Smithsons secured small commissions from Axel Bruchhäuser, manager of Tecta furniture in Bad Karlshafen, Germany. After Alison's death these were continued by Peter, who also compiled two volumes of the couple's work, The Charged Void (2001 and 2005), the second published posthumously. Alison Smithson died at the Royal Marsden Hospital, Chelsea, London, of breast cancer, on 14 August 1993. Peter Smithson died on 3 March 2003 at his home, Cato Lodge, 24 Gilston Road, Chelsea, London, of heart disease and a sudden stroke. They were survived by their three children.

Sources

  • P. Smithson and A. Smithson, ‘An urban project: Golden Lane’, Architects' Year Book, 5 (1953), 49–55
  • ‘Men of the year’, Architects' Journal (21 Jan 1954)
  • P. Smithson and A. Smithson, ‘The new brutalism’, Architectural Design, 25/1 (Jan 1955), 1
  • R. Banham, ‘The new brutalism’, Architectural Review, 118/708 (Dec 1955)
  • P. Smithson and A. Smithson, ‘Thoughts in progress: the new brutalism’, Architectural Design, 27/4 (April 1957)
  • ‘A Smithson file: dated work sequence’, Arena [Architectural Association journal] (Feb 1966)
  • A. Smithson and P. Smithson, The shift (1982)
  • A. Smithson, A portrait of the female mind as a young girl (1966)
  • R. Banham, The new brutalism (1966)
  • A. Smithson, ‘Alison Smithson’, The evacuees, ed. B. Johnson (1968), 245–51
  • P. Cook, ‘Regarding the Smithsons’, Architectural Review, 172 (1982), 36–43
  • R. Maxwell, ‘Truth without rhetoric, the new softly smiling face of our discipline’, AA Files, 28 (1994)
  • M. Vidotto, Alison and Peter Smithson: works and projects (1997)
  • H. Webster, ed., Modernism without rhetoric: essays on the work of Alison and Peter Smithson (1997)
  • OASE [Rearrangements, a Smithsons celebration], 51 (spring 2000)
  • D. van den Heuvel and M. Risselada, eds., Alison and Peter Smithson: from the House of the Future to a house of today (2004)
  • P. Johnston, ed., Architecture is not made with the brain: the labour of Alison and Peter Smithson (2005)
  • M. Risselada and D. van den Heuvel, eds., Team 10, 1953–81: in search of a utopia of the present (Rotterdam, 2005)
  • The Times (20 Aug 1993) [Alison Smithson]
  • The Guardian (20 Aug 1993) [Alison Smithson]
  • Financial Times (23 Aug 1993) [Alison Smithson]
  • Architects' Journal (1 Sept 1993) [Alison Smithson]
  • Building Design (3 Sept 1993) [Alison Smithson]
  • Progressive Architecture (Oct 1993) [Alison Smithson]
  • L. Walker, ‘Smithson [née Gill], Alison Margaret (1928–1993)’, Oxford DNB (2004)
  • The Guardian (8 Feb 2003)
  • The Economist (8 March 2003)
  • The Times (10 March 2003)
  • The Times (19 March 2003)
  • Daily Telegraph (10 March 2003)
  • The Independent (20 March 2003)
  • Architectural Review (June 2003)
  • private information (2007)
  • personal knowledge (2007)
  • b. cert. [P. Smithson]
  • b. cert. [A. Gill]
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert. [A. Smithson]
  • d. cert. [P. Smithson]

Archives

  • Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal
  • Harvard U., school of design, Francis Loeb Library

Film

Sound

Likenesses

  • two photographs, 1953–61, Getty Images, London
  • N. G. Henderson, group portrait, vintage bromide print, 1956, NPG
  • G. Argent, double portrait, print, 1969 (with Alison Smithson), NPG [see illus.]
  • G. Argent, double portrait, print, 1969 (with Alison Smithson), NPG
  • J. S. Lewinski, double portrait, bromide print, 1972 (with Alison Smithson), NPG
  • photographs, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal
  • photographs, Harvard U., school of design, Francis Loeb Library
  • photographs, priv. coll.

Wealth at Death

£3,424,399: probate, 28 Oct 2003, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

under £125,000—Alison Smithson: probate, 23 Dec 1993, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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