Smithsons have earned themselves a very special place in 20th century British architectural world to sit on a high ledge and look back at their lifelong work consisting of some seminal buildings, influential and extensive writings and indeed some heartbreaking disappointments which almost drove them to despair.

Their final projects were built at Bath University campus which was founded in 1965 as a college of Advanced Technology based on a master plan by RMJM. I recently visited the campus for the first time to see Smithsons projects which are not very well known here as these were designed by them towards the end of their lives after a long and painful ‘drought’ of work. The architectural landscape of early 80s in Britain had changed and was dominated by new ‘superstars’ producing visually exciting stuff. The younger generation being taught by Smithsons failed to notice the pedigree and place of their new work in recent historical context being built around them. In fact, by this time most of the architectural world was not interested or impressed by what little they noticed in the press. Smithsons as usual were not to be swayed by the current fashions and in their normal defiant manner they took up the challenge to put their architectural legacy in rightful historical context with this last chapter they wrote and edited themselves.

Unfortunately, their good luck in obtaining this work in 80s coincided with another ‘drought’, this time financial, which almost decimated any attempt to produce buildings of decent standards to go with the growth demands of the campuses completed in the heady days of 60s. These campuses reflected the social and technological optimism of high hopes experienced by that period. The financial restrictions faced by Smithsons were bad enough but their insistence to ensure that their contributions were in keeping with their earlier intellectual aims made their life even more difficult. Although most of the ideas behind the master plan were derived from Smithsons/TeamX work but I feel that they were not entirely satisfied with this development as they clearly stated that they wanted to ‘…extend them and delicately shift their meaning.’

For Smithsons this opportunity to build meant “Almost a series of case studies. Each building could be a demonstration of different attitudes to location siting, and construction. Each could also show in built form both the development of formal, organisational or constructional ideas which had previously only existed in drawings for earlier projects, and the emergence of new thoughts related to the adaptation and extension of the fabric of existing settlements.” (From AJ article)

The Second Arts Building.

The second Arts Building was described by the architects as a new piece woven onto the edge of an existing mat… like a terminating fringe …seemingly complete. It is three storeys high and delta shaped in plan. A ‘knuckle’ lobby links this building to the older building next to a staircase. Three different departments were housed on different levels and the room functions were allocated according to type of occupancy, need of looking out, need for darkness and thermal requirements.

A Zumthor like feature has emerged where Smithsons wanted ‘internal ways’, (corridors to you and me) to have an exposed blockwork finish which had a carefully calculated acoustic quality – ‘the noise of one’s feet getting quieter as one penetrated the building’. This plan was foiled as the university proceeded to plaster these surfaces, which architects described as an occupational hazard.

The plan is attempting to create triangular landscaped courtyards which Smithsons were hoping to be full of mature landscaping after 20 years or so.

The most striking visual feature is the cornice described by Smithsons as ‘ a Moghul style chujja’ which ‘acts like the wide brimmed traditional English ladies’ garden party hat, its wide brim extending a protective field around its wearer yet making the eyes seem larger… it has an effect both of distancing and tempting.’

Smithsons used a similar analogy by calling the timber trelliced work at St Hilda as a kind of ‘yashmack’ offering some protection to the female occupiers of the bedrooms.

While the outer edges of tassels forming the triangular courtyards are straight with ribbon windows and v-joints in concrete surfaces (Smithsons first venture in exposed poured concrete) leading to a language of external surface grooves, the north facing face in between these edges has a zig-zag edge which is firmly held between two stairwell towers rising high to contain air-handling plants at either end.

This orientation of the building is also an attempt to make the back of building look more animated and less of a ‘back’ of ‘centrally focused mat’.

I also feel that Smithsons are referring to Lasdun’s student clusters of East Anglia. This is one of the very few British examples of modern architecture mentioned in their book ‘Without rhetoric- An architectural aesthetic’. They have very cleverly reversed the massing and orientation of Lasdun’s

ziggurats to achieve the architectural shift they sought. I was not able to go in Arts building, or talk to any occupier and therefore am unable to comment about the functional aspects. Unfortunately, the overall appearance of the building, massing and now fairly matured landscaping are not offensive in any way  still leaves the architectural anticipations and emotions ‘thirsty’ from such great names.

Non-academic staff building

 

This building is located on the south side of the main campus in a two storey high detached pavilion. One can see similarities with their famous1960s Upper Lawn Pavilion at Fonthill. The upper floor here looks in three directions and sits on a partly submerged heavily constructed ground floor. I am unable to find out whether this base was some existing structure or created by Smithson themselves. There is a very definite back/service side to this construction but other three sides and indeed the roof have been designed to deter any future additions to the structure. It is meant to be a defined punctuation mark not there to be meddled with in future. All this is perfectly understandable for a building to be seen and used by users approaching this key location from all parts of the campus also ensuring the edges of the ‘mat’ are suitably terminated.

The light weight steel construction of upper floor relies on heavy cross bracings on corner and a substantially heavy concrete fascia beam has been attached to light weight steel sections for support. The recessed voids on semi-sunken lower level remain function-less and are still cause for concern to the university and were recently fenced off.

The concrete fascia may be attempting to relate to the existing vocabulary of older campus buildings but it is worth remembering that the Arts Barn on the other side of the campus has also got a steel roof and fascias both covered with stainless steel skins.

However, the limited availability of funding an inherently expansive and space wasting semi-submerged resting base for a bridged access ‘piano-nobile’ and attached terraces may have produced an adequately functional building, but I am beginning to develop some inferiority complexes about my own ability to appreciate some hidden qualities of these two great architects who possibly are too cerebral for me to follow as I have to admit this building leaves me bereft of any architectural emotions resembling joy or pleasure.

The following issues of AJ were used for References, plans, photos and quotations; AJ 30 November  1983. AJ 16 January 1991. 

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  St Hilda’s Garden Building never failed to raise eyebrows from the day it was published and built. Smithsons reputation in this country meanwhile had its up and downs and is currently facing the final humiliation of the demolition of Robin Hood Garden housing in London.


Stirling took delight in doing summersaults and gymnastics with his dazzling display of form making and bursts of creativity, when questioned, criticized and taunted his short and sweet answer was a sign of  ‘two fingers’ and a ‘f*** off’. Stirling’s Florey building, built along the same river side is literally a few minutes walk from St Hilda and was built almost at the same time, but comparing these two buildings gives a fascinating insight into two very British creative mindsets, quirky yet brilliant.

  

One of the keys to understand this building to my mind is to look at client’s instruction and involvement. (Please enlarge by clicking on the scan below)

 

Smithsons could have chosen other locations for this building within the college site but dutifully decided not to close the view of the river for rest of the college at present or in future. They also attempted to create a service road at the back of the building, which could be extended to resolve the vehicular service for the future college growth without impacting on the green space.


Their preferred site was the space between Cherwell Hall (Wikinson’s Gothic mansion, 1879) and Wolfson Building (Richardson 1964), with tentative physical connections to each, formed using brick walls, timber frame and roof forming walkways. This sets the stage for a perpetual dance between the single mature copper beech standing close to the new building with a stretched arm twirling the building, dressed in an attire of see-through dress, embroidered with the lacework of greenery.

 Smithsons quickly arrived at forms by re-using ideas from Economist design. The floor plan was based on one of the towers. The concrete pre-cast posts, including the vertical recess/channel were also from Economist, which in modified form were also used in Robin Hood Lane as vertical sound baffle, although in both cases these were structurally not performing the implied load bearing/frame function.


 

It seems that right from day one Smithsons’ empathies were with this cash strapped girls college trying to make inroads in this well established ‘old boys’ network’. Anything remotely wasteful was to be shunned; answering the precise college requirements within the costs and design a building to bring a sense of coherence to the motley collection of college buildings was more important than adhering to any architectural philosophies, iconography or displays of egotism. This they achieved with great success but with a mischievous twist or two for their peers to resolve, who they fully expected will be watching and scratching their heads for some time to come.

 

This is exactly what followed. The indeterminate quality of elevations, floating timber oak frame work resting on concrete knuckles, precast concrete mullions masquerading as load bearing frames in front of load bearing cellular brick walls separating bedrooms behind, may have teased us all but there is no denying that the completed building remains calm and unpretentious and well and truly wedded to the site. The building fulfilled the brief requirements of bed layouts, acoustical privacy, short corridors, wash basins in mini-dressing rooms and pedantic insistence on clothing storage for each unit, which all came within the allocated costs.



 

Smithsons explanation for oak screen; “Starting from the fundamental English problem of needing a lot of light, we have provided big windows. But to prevent the girls being too ‘exposed’ (their psyche as well as person is exposed with much glass) there is a separate external screen of timber members, which we hope will cut down the glare, obviate any sense of insecurity, and prevent the casual eye from breaking too easily the ‘skin’ of the building. The timber screen is a kind of yashmak.”

The AD article calls it a ‘tudor yashmack’, a phrase difficult to improve on as at the time of designing St Hilda, holidays trips to Tunisia and fascination with Elizabethan black and white style is well recorded and Smithsons were fond and capable of playing architectural games.

A small ‘quip’ has also come to my notice. The building was definitely designed to have a front (three sides with windows) and a back (with London stock bricks). Smithsons were keen to emphasize this and decided to drop a big box of a lean-to roofed ‘Trunk room’ exactly the same size as the opening between the two brick panels, under the glazed cut out square forming the entrance. The box structure looks like a lid which has been unhinged from the building to rest on the ground.

This room blocks the entry by being bang in front of the main entrance, had a tenuous roof link, and defines the ritual of students arriving at the start of the term with trunks bursting at the seams and leaving empty suitcases in this shed to collect at the end of the year. There are two openings, one on each side of this room (which is now demolished) allowing entrance to the pedestrians approaching from the service area at the back. These openings have chamfered brick edges directing people towards the centrally placed entrance, highlighting the ‘pincer-movement’ of entry to avoid the Trunk Room. A little joke which obviously was not noticed or appreciated by recent architects who have dropped a rather mundane looking canopy where the room used to be.

 

 

For us to try to find the sources of inspiration, I feel, is a futile exercise for architects who have spent most of their life looking and studying a myriad of subjects in every corner of the world. However, I show the list of  inspirations from the AD article more as a game.

An article about this building in Architectural Design February 71 (photos and some information taken from this article) titled ‘The pursuit of ordinariness’ says that the building and room design is such that one is transported to the world of Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck and Mrs. Twiggy-winkle of which Alison Smithson has written so nostalgically. In Beatrix Potter’s interiors, she wrote in December 1967; “Objects and utensils in daily use are conveniently located, often on individual hooks and nails, and are all the ‘decorations’ the ‘simple’ spaces need , or in fact can take. Those things in secondary use or needing long term storage are in special storage cubicles whose forms define the house space proper – as well as being pleasant spaces in themselves. Here then, we find the basic necessities raised to a poetic level; the simple life well done.

This is in essence the percept of the whole modern movement in architecture, but it is only in the immediate post-war period that there have been architects, perhaps old enough, to stand off from theories sufficiently to be relaxed – and sophisticated about them in practice.”