Max Risselada has spent the last decade engaged in research on Team 10 and its founding members Alison and Peter Smithson. In his latest of several books on the subject, he has assembled 27 essays by colleagues, admirers, critics, and historians of the Smithsons. Since so much of the their own writings and projects have already been published (much by the Smithsons themselves), it seems fitting that Risselada has opted to organize a collection of critical commentaries as testimony to the couple’s varied and continued influence. Risselada’s own interest in them runs deep, going back to his teaching days at the Faculty of Architecture at the Delft University of Technology, where the Smithsons also taught from 1982 to 1983. Although the Smithsons built relatively little, they were prolific writers, making a significant contribution to the discipline through their teaching and numerous publications.
The essays here are organized chronologically, though not according to the chronology of the essays themselves. With the exception of the first two contributions by Christine Boyer and Richard Padovan, which reflect on the fundamental role of writing in the Smithsons’ oeuvre, essays are more generally organized according to the chronology of realized projects, beginning with the Hunstanton School in Norfolk, U.K. (1949–54), and ending with the Hexenhaus (1984–2001) and TECTA Chair Museum (2003–7), both in Germany, for Axel Bruchhäuser, the Smithsons’ last client. These ruminations are often presented in pairs, as if to underscore the multivalent interpretations the Smithsons’ work offers at different historical moments. But although such pairings risk being repetitive, or even confusing, here the parallax is mostly illuminating.
Take, for example, the two essays on the Economist building, one by Kenneth Frampton and the other by Irenée Scalbert. In his article, originally published in AD in 1965, Frampton reviews the Smithsons’ second major built work shortly after its completion, relating this important project to the corpus of ideas that inform it. If some of the earlier projects, such as the Patio and Pavilion installation, seem tentative in their experimentation, the Economist, as Frampton argues, serves as tangible evidence of a decade’s worth of Team 10’s theorizing. Among precedents, it is the Smithsons’ Berlin Hauptstadt competition of 1958 that Frampton sees as formative of a strategy to extend the built environment. With its gently raised plaza, contrapuntal arrangement of low and high towers, the Economist is a strategy of form and space making, applied to the existing fabric with remarkable foresight, sensitivity, and precision. Yet Frampton is moderately critical of the repetitive nature of construction details that ignore differences in scale, and he laments the missed opportunity to develop, even hypothetically, a more comprehensive scheme for local redevelopment. While Frampton contemplates the Economist on formal and conceptual grounds, Scalbert describes the same project from the perspective of professional practice and the interplay of architect, client, and consultant architect. He reveals the extent to which many of the important design decisions were, to some extent, determined in advance of the Smithsons’ participation, dismantling the misleading notion of the architect as a lone, creative genius.
In addition to the more well-known essays, such as Reyner Banham’s “New Brutalism,” the anthology sheds lights on many of the Smithsons’ lesser known projects, built in the 1980s, when a new generation of architects had stolen the limelight for postmodernism. David Turnbull, for example, discusses the set of buildings the Smithsons designed for the university campus at Bath (1978–88), a period coinciding with their involvement since 1976 with the International Laboratory of Architecture and Urban Design (ILA&UD), summer workshops in Urbino, and later Siena, organized by their Team 10 colleague Giancarlo De Carlo. This project reworks earlier themes, such as the idea of urban layering instanced by the Economist, and introduces new ones arising out of the ILA&UD workshops. Turnbull parses through the Smithsons’ late concept of “conglomerate ordering” (an idea that is not so easy to pin down but refers generally to tectonic means of organizing the environment). His essay is followed by Peter Salter’s personal account of working in the Smithsons’ office. Salter notes how the office redrew entire projects after they were completed, taking into account any changes that were made during the construction process. This unusual exercise was perhaps done in an effort to develop a rigorous, visual logic for building details. The Smithsons, notes Maddalena Scimemi in another essay, “set themselves the task of ‘Anglicizing the influence of Mies,’” but despite their efforts, detailing, as Frampton and Turnbull suggest, was not exactly the Smithsons’ forte.
Interspersed throughout the anthology are reflections on the Smithsons’ oeuvre at particular moments in their career. While some of these reflections are personal homages by well-known architects (Enric Miralles and Peter Cook), others contextualize the couple’s thinking within a broader framework of historical and critical inquiry. Beatriz Colomina builds upon the Smithsons’ own homage to the heroic modern period and reflects on their indebtedness to architect-couples before them, such as Charles and Ray Eames, Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand, and Gerrit Rietveld and Truus Schröder-Schräder. Mark Wigley, in the final chapter, considers the Smithsons’ career and publication output from the perspective of the editing process, which hones a lifelong investigation to a refined point.
All together, the anthology constitutes what Risselada calls a prism for considering the work, a metaphor that corresponds to the couple’s own thinking on layering, interweaving, and the open-ended nature of the urban fabric. Many of the essays finely knit together how various ideas—“new brutalism,” “ordinariness and light,” “the mat,” “conglomerate ordering,” the “charged void,” and so on—were made manifest in their designs, and conversely, how their projects serve as tangible evidence of their thinking. But if the reader is left with any doubt about the overall logic, Wigley offers this insight: editing their last, two-volume monograph, titled The Charged Void (2002 and 2003), the Smithsons polemically constructed, in retrospect, “a seamless and singular research project, stressing the relentlessly gradual ‘evolution’ within each project, between projects, and with the projects of previous generations.” Clearly if future generations are to continue learning from the Smithsons, we should, as Wigley states, pick up where they left off, carefully incubating gestures and productively mining the gaps. In many ways, this “picking up” is precisely what Risselada’s anthology on the Smithsons accomplishes.