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Peter Smithson

Biographies
Peter Smithson

*  1923 Stocton-on-Tees
† 2002 London


The British architect Peter Smithson and his wife Alison are among the most important exponents of Brutalism. In addition, Alison and Peter Smithson were active members of the Independent Group, which was founded in England in 1952 and was heavily involved in a critical take on the rise of popular consumer culture in England. Between 1944 and 1949, Peter Smithson studied architecture at Durham University in north-east England (not all that far from Newcastle-upon-Tyne), where he met Alison, who would become his wife. In 1950 Peter and Alison Smithson moved to London. Alison and Peter Smithson, along with Eduardo Paolozzo, Nigel Henderson, and others, belonged to the British avant-garde of their day and to a group of aurtists who formulated the "as found" aesthetic for their work. For architecture, this meant that the specific qualities of a locale were to be used and assimilated in building and, further, that the building materials used were to be left virtually as they were in their original state. The term "Brutalism" was coined to describe such architecture; originally a broad term, it was soon reduced to the use of architectural concrete (béton brut). The work of such celebrated architects as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier in particular broke the ground for the advance of Brutalism. Hunstanton Secondary School (1950-1954), designed by Alison and Peter Smithson, is, however, regarded as the first Brutalist building. The steel skeleton of the building consists of welded standard channel industrial steel and the ceilings were made of pre-fab slabs of architectural concrete with the rough side showing. The brick façades were left roughcast and the electrical installations, pipes, and mains were left open to view. The "unfinished" look of the building caused an outcry at the time. Other important buildings by Alison and Peter Smithson are Coventry Cathedral (1951) and the British embassy in Brasilia (1964). Between 1966 and 1972 Alison and Peter Smithson built "Robin Hood Gardens", a public housing complex in the East End of London. This residential complex, too, was soon a bone of contention, and once again the aesthetic of architectural concrete was deplored by a large segment of the public. As designers, Alison and Peter Smithson participated in the 1956 exhibition "This is Tomorrow", mounted by the Independent Group. That same year Alison and Peter Smithson also designed seat furniture: the "Trundling Turk". Massively block-like, with low-slung seating and plastic foam upholstery, the "Trundling Turk" prefigured qualities integral to 1960s seat furniture. In 1955 Alison and Peter Smithson designed the "Pogo" chair in tubular steel and acrylic; for the 1956 "House of Tomorrow" they designed "Egg", a plastic chair.