Sheffield born Alison Gill, later to be known as Alison Smithson, was one half of one of the most influential Brutalist architectural partnerships in history. On the day that she would be celebrating her 86th birthday we take a look at how the impact of her and Peter Smithson's architecture still resonates well into the 21st century, most notably in the British Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale. With London's Robin Hood Gardens, one of their most well known and large scale social housing projects, facing imminent demolition how might their style, hailed by Reyner Banham in 1955 as the "new brutalism", hold the key for future housing projects?
Having studied in Newcastle at Durham University, where Alison met Peter, the team of architects won their first commission when they were still in their twenties. Hunstanton Secondary Modern School (Norfolk, 1949-1954) offered a rare opportunity for them to realise their bold idealised vision. When they visited the CIAM IX (Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne) in Aix-en-Provence (1953), they made this vision clear. They wanted to define a new approach to Modernism by harking back to the International Style (practiced by such architects as Mies Van Der Röhe) which had taken hold before World War Two. Their architecture, although exploiting the cost and labour efficiency of mass production and pre-fabrication, would be anchored to location. Hunstanton's steel and brick structure is often thought to be the clearest expression of these early ideas.
By the 1960s, having furrowed a new path in British architecture, Alison and Peter were presented with the opportunity to design an estate of homes at Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, London. Coining the phrase Streets in the Sky to describe their programmatic plan of the stacked apartments, the term soon became symbolic of the structural flaws and high crime rate the project was plagued by, ultimately masking the utopian ideals of social housing the architects had originally set out to achieve. Proving to be their penultimate major commission, their work has since become evocative of what is now seen as a pivotal moment in British post-war architecture.
Celebrated in this year's exhibition at the British Pavilion in Venice, A Clockwork Jerusalem is the product of years of research between London-based FAT Architecture and Rotterdam-based Crimson Architectural Historians. The major installation, an enormous mound of earth at the entrance of the pavilion, is not only a direct link to the circular mound in the centre of Robin Hood Gardens but is actually made up of soil collected from that same artificial hill.
In line with Rem Koolhaas' theme for this year's Venice Biennale, Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014, curators Sam Jacob and Wouter Vanstiphout have demonstrated that the architectural style pioneered by the Smithsons is indicative of a particularly British response to housing and urban planning following the Second World War. In what Jacob describes as an era which has "seen a shift to a globalised condition of modernity and financialisation", perhaps now we can fully appreciate not only what the Smithsons stood for, but also how an architecture 'for the people' might have now been lost to time. In contemporary London affordability of housing is reaching danger levels. It is possible to argue that, although projects like Robin Hood Gardens were dogged with problems, the fundamental idea behind them is part of what's lacking in the profession today.
References: Design Museum