Obituary: Alison Smithson
Thursday 19 August 1993
ALISON SMITHSON was half the internationally-renowned architectural team of Peter and Alison Smithson, active since the late 1940s.
Their first important commission was for the Secondary Modern School in Hunstanton, north Norfolk (1950-52), which put them on the architectural map very early in their careers. Nikolaus Pevsner describes it in his Buildings of England as 'the paramount example among the innumerable post-war schools of England of a rigidly formal, symmetrical layout . . . evidently inspired by Mies van der Rohe'. Probably the best-known of their later buildings in the UK is the Economist complex in St James's, Westminster, recently altered but unfortunately not by their hand.
Their teaching, projects and theoretical writings are as influential as their built work, particularly in the international field of architecture, and their seminal work within the Team X group of CIAM (Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne) has long been recognised as overturning the accepted pre-war principles of the older generation world figures. Peter Smithson says:
For Alison Smithson Team X had its origin in the spontaneous recognition of there being others whose ideas and work ran parallel to her own. At the ninth Congress of CIAM at Aix-en-Provence (1953) those others were Georges Kandelis and Shadrach Woods then working in Morocco, and Jaap Bakema and Aldo van Eyck working in Holland. For the group working then Alison Smithson was the necessary primitive force to its existence.
As she said, 'We (Alison and Peter Smithson) needed Team X most . . . having no adherence to any other architectural institutions or groups.' It was her sole outlet to a collective endeavour. In a sense - because we live in a book culture - she made Team X through the publication of her Team X Primer in 1962 and Team X Meetings in 1991.
The post-war period was a period of upheaval and general renewal, particularly of ideas. Alison, looking at it from a recent perspective, saw it as a time when like-minded groups were active and effective, rather than that of individuals making lone stands. Team X was her most important professional group. The other (non-architectural) group in which she and Peter were closely involved, and whose ideas have stood the test of time, was the Independent Group at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in the first half of the 1950s. Again it was a reaction of the young against entrenched pre-war views and an attempt (among much else) to break down barriers between the arts and the sciences, all of them burgeoning with new ideas after and frequently springing from the Second World War. The Smithsons worked with their co-members Eduardo Paolozzi and Nigel Henderson on their seminal exhibit for the Whitechapel Gallery's 'This Is Tomorrow' exhibition in 1956 which marked the end of the Independent Group's active period at the ICA and the start of its influence into the future as represented by the work of its increasingly well-known members.
That same year saw the Smithsons' 'House of the Future' at the Ideal Home Exhibition with its detailing culled from contemporary American- dream car design and its pioneering mechanical services.
The Smithsons' architectural office, in Chelsea, south-west London, was always ahead of the game, sadly less appreciated since the onset of the 'nostalgia industry' which has affected architecture perhaps more strongly than other professions. In recent years there has been a strong interest in the 1950s and 1960s and the Smithsons were asked to talk and write about their crucial contribution. They were also invited by the young American organiser of the travelling exhibition 'The Independent Group: post-war Britain and the aesthetics of plenty' (1990-91), Jackie Baas, to reconstruct their 'This Is Tomorrow' exhibit and to speak about it and the group in Valencia, Spain and in Berkeley, California, and Buffalo, New York, when the exhibition was showing in their major galleries. For Alison this helped to soothe but not totally to allay her consciousness of being insufficiently used for her architectural design abilities in more recent times.
My long-term friendship with Alison was illuminated for me by her acts of great generosity at the most difficult times in my life - wonderful practical offers from imaginative leaps of which only she seemed capable. Her professional colleagues say that she could solve knotty architectural problems that had been concerning them all for weeks by her similarly sudden and spontaneous flashes of genius.
At the time of her death Alison Smithson had published one novel, A Portrait of the Female Mind as a Young Girl (1966), and others await publication.
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