The term ‘new brutalism’, coined by critic Reyner Banham, was first used in the 1950s to describe the work of Alison and Peter Smithson. Their work was full of post war idealism and hard fought theory, yet it was criticised by some for being uncompromising and at times alienating, as with their Robin Hood Gardens housing scheme in London. Here and in their Golden Lane study they had famously argued for ‘streets in the sky,’ creating balcony walkways to foster a spirit of neighbourly wellbeing. But, while the theory may have been innovative, user specific and laudable, the resulting building proved deeply controversial and divisive. Nonetheless the Smithsons had an enormous influence on the public housing field in England, for both their ideas and for their contentious designs. Whether in response or in rejection, many works such as Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith’s Park Hill, Neave Brown’s Alexandra Gardens and Fleet Road Terraces, Dendy Lasduns ‘cluster blocks’, as well as Robert Venturi’s ideas in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, stand as tangible proof of this influence.
Figure 1: Minoru Yamasaki, Pruitt Igoe low-cost housing, St Louis, Missouri, 1950-4 demolished in 1972 – a chief example of poor quality and compromise.
At the beginning of the 1950’s due to a world shortage of steel, there was a lapse in general building activity. ‘This pause seemed the right moment to try to set out as clearly as we could, a basis for a new beginning,’ the Smithsons explain in their text, Ordinariness and Light, an idealistic detailing of their projections and approaches. Here they elucidate the problem that society has been neutralized into an in between position in public housing estates, unsatisfying and insipid, largely because of their spread. ‘We have forced on ourselves, by our wasteful practices, an era when we must make strict economies. We are told to cut from our spaces every odd corner. We compromise functions by making rooms multi purpose, spaces meaner, and we risk building the next decade’s slums.’ The Smithsons in their attempt to understand to public housing looked to the Manifesto of Antonia Sant’ Elia July 14th 1914, ‘every generation to its own house’ and conceded that modern industrial society was no longer a ‘multiplication of a number of simple self sufficient social grouping, each able to detach itself from the other without damage to itself. It is multi-cellular, not unicellular’. Each part, they believed, was connected as though by an ‘infinite variety of nerves with all the others, so that separation is now a mutilation.’
Figure 2,3,4: The Smithsons Golden Lane study: The Smithsons believed this could be the pattern of our large cities, where the street mesh slots into the vertical circulation of such complexes.
Public housing groups being built in England when this breakdown of elements of the city was first proposed (in 1952) were to high standards of construction, and met the needs of society as outlined by official sociologists. But they lacked an exceptionally vital quality; a quality which this Smithsons’ believed was undoubtedly necessary in order to achieve active and creative grouping of houses. This missing quality, essential to man’s sense of wellbeing, was as they explained ‘Identity’. The Smithson approach to public housing design thus was concerned with the problem of identity in an increasingly mobile society. It proposed that a community should be built up from a hierarchy of associational elements and, tried to express the various levels of association: the house, the street the district, the city. ‘It is important to realise that the terms used, street, district, etc, are not to be taken as the reality but as the idea, and that it is our task to find new equivalents for these forms of...