The MA Architecture + Urbanism course is the Manchester School of Architecture's taught postgraduate course which conducts research into how global cultural and economic forces influence contemporary cities. The design, functioning and future of urban situations is explored in written, drawn and modelled work which builds on the legacy of twentieth century urban theory and is directed towards the development of sustainable cities.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Alison and Peter Smithson: The Charged Void: Urbanism (2005)

Discussed by Zoe Mason

Alison and Peter Smithson met at the school of architecture in Newcastle; they then married and set up their own practice in London after winning a competition to design Hunstanton School in (1950 - now a Grade II listed building). After completion of the school, the Smithson’s began to move away from modernism and establish ‘new brutalism’; a style evident in much of their own work, as well as the numerous projects that they have influenced. They disagreed with the ideals of Le Corbusier and the Athens charter; what they felt was lacking was identity, a concept discussed at length throughout the book. ‘The Charged Void: Urbanism’ is one of two volumes by Alison and Peter Smithson, published in 2005, four years after their first book ‘The Charged Void: Architecture’. The book is a series of case studies in roughly chronological order. Each project is thoroughly illustrated and described in relation to a number of themes, which form the 14 chapters of the book. Some of these themes are reiterated in the chapter titles, showing consistency to the principles followed by the Smithsons throughout their working life. 

The first chapter considers house types and their context, a result of the studying the Valley Section created by Patrick Geddes; a biologist, sociologist and urban planner who was interested in the relationship between life and its environment. The Smithson’s used Geddes’ Valley Section to devise a range of house types to suit different communities; the hamlet, the village, the town and the city. These designs were hugely influential, with a number of housing schemes taking inspiration from them. The term ‘Cluster’ is used to avoid association with the concept of the ‘street’; a place that the Smithson’s felt was outdated, since the use of cars prevents the street from being a place for a resident to identify with their environment. This led to their project ‘Golden Lane’, designed in 1952, a multi level project with housing occupying one side of wide ‘streets in the sky’, designed to provide residents with direct pedestrian access to activities intended to give the community a strong sense of identity.

The Smithsons' house type designs appear in a number of urban planning schemes, most notably ‘Hamburg Steilshoop’. This project is discussed in one of two chapters entitled ‘Connection allows scatter’, along with ‘Berlin Haupstadt’. Both were large utopian masterplans for development, designed with similar basic concepts; allowance for maximum mobility, which was done by separating pedestrian and vehicular movement as much as possible with pedestrian ‘streets in the sky’; the creation of an inverted profile to allow for open space in the centre; allowance for growth and change and the inclusion of green space. Both schemes are designed with transportation networks forming the primary structure; connections and routes, whether vehicular or pedestrian, are the main focus for much of the Smithsons' urban planning. 
‘Connection allows scatter’ is a concept that is also reflected in the projects studied in the chapter ‘Cohesion’; which concerns the ‘poetry of movement, the connection of the city’. In this chapter we see plans for a triangulated net of urban motorways, as well as ‘greenways and land castles’; intended to allow London to develop as a motorised city while maintaining safe, green pedestrian and cycle connections. Similar to the ‘Greenways’ of London are the ‘Wild Ways’ of Berlin; a leisure network of green routes created using the disused railways in Berlin. Alison and Peter Smithson also briefly introduce their ‘ideal city’ as an infrastructure of motorways connecting scattered points of intensity which are three miles apart; the ‘3 mile measure’. These proposals are illustrative of a recurring concept in the book, ‘Pavilion and Route’. The Smithson’s idea was to separate the two, and allow them to develop independently. 

A particularly interesting scheme which reflects many of the ideas already discussed is the Kuwait urban study; a project intended to give the city its own Arab identity, which they felt had been destroyed by fragmented Westernised development. The outcome was logical with interesting research and development, which resulted in the design of a low level ‘MAT’ building on stilts across the city. This ‘MAT’ building was to be divided on various gridlines to create a ‘Galleria’, which allowed for sight lines between the ‘fixes’ in the city; the mosques. The design was proposed to create shade across the city for freedom of pedestrian movement in the hot climate. Cars were to be separated from the pedestrian movement and lead to covered car parks, or into the multi-storey car park built along the boundary of the old city, where the earthen rampart once stood. 

The book mostly consists of Urban Planning schemes which were designed but never built; however it does also cover the Smithsons' most successful built project, the Economist Building in London, a small cluster of towers with a public plaza (which is now also Grade II listed). This contrasts enormously with the failure of another of their built projects, ‘Robin Hood Gardens’; a housing estate in London built around a central green mound referred to as the ‘stress free zone’, which was to be overlooked by the surrounding flats and their ‘streets in the sky’. This building was a physical representation of the Smithsons' ideals of community, an arena for social interaction with visual and physical connections encouraging expression of identity; but in reality it was vandalised and neglected by its unhappy residents. The project (but not its failures) is discussed briefly in the context of ‘Holes in the cities’.

The book is concluded with a range of much smaller design projects such as the Yellow lookout; a small installation intended to be one of many ‘Signals’; or the leafy arbours over the Verbindungskanal in Berlin, designed as a ‘Minimal Intervention’. These smaller projects perhaps show the damage that the failure of Robin Hood Gardens did to their reputation, which never fully recovered.

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