Rosalind Alexander | 30 September 2014
“The Smithsons on Housing”
Allow me to introduce you to B S Johnson’s 1970 documentary, “The Smithsons on Housing”, which might be better titled “The Smithsons on the Tragedy that is London.” Everything they discuss is from the perspective of their project at Robin Hood Garden in Poplar, east London, which was in mid-construction when they were interviewed. It is also somewhat difficult to get past the endless grievances against London. The vandalism! The crime! The pollution! Ah, if only it could be Venice!
In her opening statement, Alison Smithson tells us that “society at the moment asks architects to build these new homes for them”. She continues to suggest that this may be a “stupid” request as perhaps the residents would rather some basic repairs that allow them to continue to “smash it up in complete abandon and happiness.” This is telling of her views on society versus the (working class) public, despite the fact that neither of the Smithsons specify a difference at all. She might as well have said “these people” when describing those who “enjoy the welfare state” and are not to concern themselves with social or political issues such as the quality of roads, art, architecture, etc.
Actually, “these people” are the residents of the housing designed by the Smithsons at Robin Hood Gardens. The Smithsons are resigned to the fact that they do not and will not change. For example, Peter bemoans how architects, contractors and builders all feel the depression of putting effort into a doomed project.
Their fairly black and white view of society finds a resolution in their belief that we need a framework, one that enables the ‘makers’ to stay ahead of the ‘destroyers’. Such are the circumstances and rhetoric in which the Smithsons carved out the role of the architect, as they saw it.
They are very clear that they believe architects have a calling to create a better living environment. They want to build a “place of a special character that will release [the residents] and change them and be capable of being lived in generation after generation”. Yes, if the architecture one designs can achieve such things, then wonderful, but the sentiment is somewhat lessened when it follows the continuous complaints of how it will all get smashed up anyway.
The Smithsons are resolute. They have an obligation surpassing the current situation. An obligation to provide the “best possible quality irrespective of what people expect and what treatment it’s going to get.” They extend this obligation to include conceiving buildings that are easy to understand in terms of form, usage and scale, and endeavour to “inject new life” into the neighbouring buildings.
So, what is the Smithsons’ views on housing that emerges from this short documentary? Well, it is hard to tell. It reveals that they consider motorways, noise, pollution, vandalism and ball games to be bad in relation to housing. I also know that they approve of having more space that residents are responsible for, putting noisy areas such as circulation beside noisy areas on site to reduce impact, encouraging social interaction and making an architectural statement. Actually, it is interesting to see how common-sensical (or orthodox) that these stipulations became over the intervening years. That said, in today’s climate where ball games are promoted as a way of engaging community, preventing crime or minimising obesity – rather than as merely enjoyable activities in their own right – attempting to prevent ball games in the large expanse of space available between the flats seems, to modern eyes, to be tantamount to blasphemy.
Actually, for all the gruff interviews and dated style of programme-making, I found myself agreeing with some of the Smithsons’ ambitions for housing. It makes sense that the more that the individual is responsible for, the better that space – potentially – will be kept. However, even though people often take pride in their possessions, the history of social housing in Britain tells a slightly different story: one of state neglect leading to residents’ despair. In many instances of the more famous social housing failures, the best intentions of occupiers were often of completely secondary importance to their financial and employment situation and the poor management and maintenance of their estates. Individual pride staves off decline for only so long.
If you are planning to watch the documentary be prepared because it is not particularly engaging. Although the content is arguably challenging, the way it is presented is anything but. You need to be serious when you watch this. It is filmed as if by someone who doesn’t quite know how to use the zoom, the colours are faded, and the Smithsons’ monotonous mumbles of an idealistic future water down the potential for inspiration.
Rosalind Alexander is an undergraduate student at the University of Dundee