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

I've been reading a bit about The Smithsons and Cedric Price, forerunners both of Archigram and much innovative thinking in post-war British architecture. On the former, there's a fabulous book called The Charged Void: Architecture [UK|US] cataloguing and reflecting on the work of Alison and Peter Smithson. They're known principally for groundbreaking Hunstanton School (1949-54) [+ve|-ve]; their landmark 'House of the Future' at the Ideal Home show (1956); Sheffield University (1953); 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; and the Robin Hood Garden housing complex in Poplar, east London (1966-72), the high-profile failure of which largely did for their reputation for years.

I scribbled these notes from this incredibly handsome 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 aesthetic tends towards brutalism. I've focused on a particular project here—Sheffield University (1953)—as it highlights the themes I find interesting, over and above the stylistic concerns of the day, namely designing buildings which can adapt with time and work within their surroundings, cultural or physical (also see The Economist building's plaza based 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. I've quoting at length as I find this so interesting: a fully-articulated and realised adaptive approach to building (again, that's my sketch!).

"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]

My hasty interpretation of revised axonometric with trees, Wally Birks, 1978

"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."

Obvious parallels here with adaptive design and the idea of layers of change. Alison and Peter Smithson suggested "layers of strength", providing a frame of permanence with 'lighter' layers of transience 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 materials of the time: reinforced-concrete structures, light steel frames with 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 still there. I think I found a bit of it, but more detective work is required to verify. If it is still there, but surrounded by subsequent development, it backs up their thinking about inevitable 'growth and change'. [Editor's subsequent note: as comments below indicate, it was never built. I was looking at something else]

Bearing in mind the fate of Robin Hood Gardens (high-profile 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) (e.g.), formal or informal. [aside: 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 out of control of the site's designers i.e. promo images not made by specialists, the unpredictability of user-generated content]. It'd be fascinating to see a POE done on Sheffield, a good 50 years later. [Editor's subsequent note 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, 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 surely try to separate the outdated stylistic tropes and shoddy implementation from the innovative thinking in the work of the Smithsons.

The Charged Void: Architecture [Amazon UK|US]
Open University: From Here To Modernity: Alison and Peter Smithson
Design Museum: The House of the Future to a House for Today
Hugh Pearman: Meet the Smithsons


4 responses to “Journal: The Smithsons and adaptive architecture”

  1. Theo Honohan Avatar
    Theo Honohan

    This building didn’t win the competion, and so was never constructed.
    Don’t be seduced by the pretty axonometrics!


  2. Matthew Jones Avatar
    Matthew Jones

    As a student of architecture at sheffield given the task of a research project and presentation on the Smithsons in first year the article makes intreasting reading, espicially given a stunning lack of information in Sheffield.
    What is particulary intreasting is what was built instead given the comments on horzontality – the arts tower, still the tallest building in Sheffield at 20 stories. I’d be fascinated to know what you were looking at that you thought might have been by the Smithsons.


  3. Ursula Avatar

    Hello, I need information of Allison and Peter Smithsons house of the future, and the house Hexenhaus, near Lauenforde.


  4. juan Avatar

    i’m making my phD thesis about constructed thoughts by a+p smithsons. be utopians of the present, and try to think about inhabitants please. thanks.


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