City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

The Smithsons and adaptive architecture

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How buildings might learn from their (unsuccessful) competition entry for Sheffield University in 1953—and how we might learn adaptive design from buildings

Ed. This article was originally published at City of Sound on 21 June 2004. It's been lightly edited to fix broken links.

A new book, The Charged Void: Architecture, catalogues and reflects on the work of Alison and Peter Smithson, leaders or provocateurs of much inventive thought and practice in post-war British architecture. In no particular order, The Smithsons are best-known for their groundbreaking Hunstanton School (1949–54), their landmark ‘House of the Future’ at the 1956 Daily Mail Ideal Home show, The Economist building in central London (1959–64), participating in the legendary This Is Tomorrow exhibition (1956), hanging out with Eduardo Paolozzi, Nigel Henderson, and Reyner Banham, also hanging out in the influential Team 10, and the Robin Hood Gardens housing complex in Poplar, east London (1966–72).

I scribbled these notes from this incredibly handsome, and expensive, book whilst sitting in Borders. Please excuse any misquotes and the hasty sketch.

As with much of their pioneering work in the 1950s-1960s, the architectural style tends towards brutalism. I’ve focused on a particular project here, their plans for Sheffield University (1953), as it highlights the themes I currently find particularly interesting: namely designing buildings which can adapt over time and changing patterns of use, whilst working with and within their surroundings, cultural or physical (also see The Economist building’s plaza, based partly on medieval streets and alleys).

This lengthy extract juxtaposes notes from the original architects’ report on the Sheffield University building, with their reflections many years later. It feels a little like a fully-articulated adaptive approach to building (again, please forgive my quick sketch below!).

“This idea looks forward to the inevitable ‘growth and change’ of an expanding university: “The ring of high-level circulation and service in a continuous building complex makes it possible to satisfy the university’s desire to expand horizontally rather than vertically, in spite of the huge volume of building. Furthermore, the technological intention of much of the university seems to point to buildings of the maximum flexibility — so that today’s laboratory can be tomorrow’s testing room or group of studios … This flexibiliity is most easily achieved in a simple, repetitive, continuous structure.”

“Sheffield tries to take account of two pace of change: one responding to adjustment, the other to reorganisation: “All of the buildings of the new university have reinforced-concrete fixed construction and light steel flexible construction*. Two floors of flexible accommodation between main floors that are two and a half feet deep and twenty feet apart. The flexible accommodation is in lightweight construction on steel mullions, facias, a panel wall and window system, beams with steel decking for the intermediate floors. By this means, the accommodation can be large or small, single or double volume, or any combination which may suit functional requirements at any given time in a department’s life. Floors and panel walls can be stripped out as desired without involving the permanent structure.” [* Here entered the concept of the fixed and the changing; the permanent contrasting with the temporary]

“The report makes clear that the building’s identity is given by patterns of use and not by ‘design’: “The external and internal panel system can mesh in completely with the internal organisation of the building; when this organisation alters, the facade panel system is altered, thus continuing to give complete identity to the internal disposition.”

“The growth and change of Sheffield can be seen — in retrospect — as layers of strengths; of permanence and transience … Le Corbusier’s earliest studies had the simplest regular concrete frame with free-form walls. This was so much his own language that we discovered in the undercroft of Coventry the need for another sort of language indicating possibilities of accretion or adaptability.”

There are obvious parallels here with the theory and practice of adaptive design and the idea of pace layers, enabling change. Alison and Peter Smithson suggested “layers of strength”, providing a frame of permanence with ‘lighter’ transient layers overlaid, shifting in response to functional needs (laboratories become studios etc.) or organisational change (faculties merging and reforming etc.) It’s fascinating to see these ideas developed in 1953, albeit expressed in the not-so-light materials of the time: reinforced-concrete structures, steel frames holding fascias and panel walls.

On a recent visit to Sheffield I tried to track down the building but was unable to pick it out amidst the various redevelopments. I’m not even sure it’s there. I think I found a bit of it, but more detective work is required. If it is still there, but surrounded by subsequent development, it backs up their thinking about inevitable ‘growth and change’.

Ed. I quickly discovered shortly after posting this that it was never built. They did not win the competition. I was looking at other buildings of a similar vintage, although each with different responses, ultimately. Back in 2004, my excitement at discovering the theory overcame my ability to discern the lack of practice!

Bearing in mind the fate of Robin Hood Gardens (high-profile ‘alleged failure’, but still occupied), it’d be interesting to know the fate of the Sheffield University building and whether there are any details of post-occupancy evaluations (POEs) formal or informal.

Ed. It would be interesting, but it didn’t get built. A pre-occupancy evaluation — in fact, pre-build evaluation, or better, post-failed competition entry evaluation — is all one can do.

I encourage people to think of post-launch reviews of websites as ‘POEs’ — it gives a better sense of the live website inhabited by ‘others’, and now not something that the site’s designers can control, but they can learn from i.e. in the context of my work at the BBC, what happens with promo images not made by specialist designers but broadcast teams; what happens given the unpredictability of user-generated content; and so on. It’d be fascinating to see a POE done on the Sheffield University building, a good 50 years later.

Ed. Again, it would be, but one couldn’t. It didn’t get built.

Hugh Pearman provides a typically acerbic summing up of the Smithsons work…

Ed. Pearman's article was later removed from his website. Though it was referred to in this excellent 2007 overview by Charles Holland, and Pearman returned to the Smithsons theme in this even-handed 2017 piece on the redevelopment of Robin Hood Gardens.

…and many of his criticisms cannot be ignored. However, just as we could try to erode the inherent conservatism from Stewart Brand’s work leaving a solid frame of practical ideas, we can try to separate the outdated stylistic tropes and shoddy implementation from the innovative thinking in the work of the Smithsons.

Ed. Four years after this piece, I would write about what happened to the Smithsons-designed building at Robin Hood Gardens and the 2008 kerfuffle on whether a digital model, crossed with a typically British 'regeneration scheme', would do the job instead:

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Ed. This article was originally published at City of Sound on 21 June 2004. It's been lightly edited to fix broken links.


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