A Compulsion towards The Real

article by Cassandra Wilkins
1 January 1996

Thinking about the body of work the Smithsons have left us and Peter Smithson is still working on, one is confronted with two seemingly disparate qualities in their thinking. On the one hand the Smithsons have an absolute power of abstraction, on the other they approach their objects of study empirically and in this way discover what the built environment conveys to us and how it impacts on us. In doing so, their sensitive eye for the simple and quiet manifestations of architecture and urban design is shown to be of the utmost importance. The Smithsons' ongoing interest in the simple, the ordinary, the anonymous, the as-found, found its voice in the fifties when they were part of the Independent Group, studying popular culture in the form of ads, Hollywood films and pulp fiction. In contrast to the later - American - Pop art their research was non-ironical and genuinely tried to define the qualities that everyday culture possessed.

The empirical and realistic approach in fact seeks to find the abstract or - as Alison and Peter Smithson called it - the poetic in the simple and the anonymous. It was in this vein that Alison Smithson wrote the article reprinted on the next page. The text explores one of the Smithsons' main themes: inhabitation. The container-spaces that are found in drawings accompanying Beatrix Potter's nursery rhymes are the object of research. In these interiors Alison Smithson finds the qualities she and Peter Smithson so admired in post-war Modernist projects such as Le Corbusier's Maison Jaoul or Mies van der Rohe's Lafayette park housing development. These spaces contain everything the inhabitant needs, nothing more, nothing less. Objects used daily each have their own place within easy reach and are therefore often displayed in the open. '[They] are all the "decoration" the "simple" spaces need, or in fact can take.' Not only does every function and object have its convenient place, the container (Glass House or rabbit hole) provides the necessary comfort, response and protection. These spaces are tailored to meet the needs of the individual and each room is tailored to its function. Even though - as Alison Smithson stresses - these container spaces accommodate the basic necessities, they are not austere cells. The Smithsons also include other human needs and treat them as important functions a house should be able to accommodate. For example: 'to sit comfortably and read or talk of an evening'.1
Or the story that Alison Smithson quotes in her article about Edwin Lutyens and his fiancee drinking hot elderberry wine and eating almonds in the chimney corner of Gertrude Jekyll's cottage. This tiny anecdotal remark reflects a sensibility in which the homey and the utilitarian are indistinguishable. One wonders if by including it in the text on Beatrix Potter an indirect reference is made to the architecture of Lutyens. A scarcely known side of his work is his interest in the 'simple life' and also in the paraphernalia of popular culture. Behind the severe Georgian facade of the house he designed in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea (1930), a cottage-like wing projects on the garden side. The interior is designed with a simple functionality while new and very unexpectedly as-found materials are used to finish the walls: pages from the Times in the service corridor, travel posters in the servant hall and a panoramic reprint of a French landscape painting in the day nursery.
Alison Smithson rightly warns us not to dismiss Potter's spaces as mere dreams. As an architectural concept these spaces exist and can be made. The Smithsons found such spaces in the Eameses' house (Santa Monica, 1949), the ultimate design attuned to the needs of the individual in the sense that it was built in direct working assembly and thus forms an exact recording of the insights of the Eameses. Their 'light-hearted thinking in featherweight climate-bits-and-pieces seeming off-the-peg-architecture ... [their] do-it-yourself out of gorgeous catalogues, the Sears-Roebuck thinking ... [their] whole blow-up, plug-in, camp-out, dump-digging type of thinking and living', could be seen to be the modern-day embodiment of Potter's spaces.2 The Smithsons sought to design similar spaces themselves in the Appliance House (1958) and the House of the Future (1955-56) and tried to build them in their own house in Upperlawn, Wiltshire in 1963. Writing of the Eameses' chairs Peter Smithson remarks: 'The chairs belong to the occupants, not to the building.'3 Their concept of the container called house is based on the idea that the house should belong to the occupant, not the other way around.

Wouldn't everyone want to live in a house exactly tailored to their needs with objects belonging to them, the occupants? Isn't it just blissful not to live at odds with a house and shouldn't every architect dream of designing such a house: totally individual and totally specific. Rem Koolhaas is implementing such a dream at this very moment, designing a house to meet the needs of his paraplegic client. In this case it is a machine - an elevator moving a whole room through the house - that is the most important and all pervading accommodating feature. Just as the Smithsons have always been searching for and pointing out the richness to be found in the simple and the ordinary, the anonymous and the as-found. Like the way in which they find luxury in Mies van der Rohe's feeling for simple materials: 'The luxury rests in the fact that one is aware of the essential thingness of brick and this particular facade is saying "and that is all you're getting".'4
The quote evokes the same nearness, sensuality and realness of materials and objects that permeates the Smithsons' own designs and writings. Things are what they are. They simply tell us about their use, they don't proclaim a reductionist ideology of functionalism. The Smithsons' attitude towards function is inclusive and non-hierarchic as opposed to that of their high-Modernist fathers. The way inhabitation is made empirical and disintermediated sets the Smithsons' work apart from the built sermons of their structuralist peers. It is ultimately the compulsion towards the real and the individual that forms the basis of an aesthetics which aspires to see and make with an innocent eye.

1. Alison and Peter Smithson, Changing the Art of Inhabitation. Mies' pieces. Eames' dreams. The Smithsons (London Artemis, 1994), 112 /
2. Ibid., 81 /
3. Ibid., 74 /
4. Ibid., 17

article 'A Compulsion towards The Real', in: Wiederhall, no.19, 1996