Alison and Peter Smithson ,1964The Economist Buildings
|Borough||City of Westminster|
|Materials||portland stone, roach|
The Economist Buildings are widely recognised as one of the great triumphs of 1960s architecture. The modest development based on the tower and plaza format, achieves rare elegance and structural logic, while showing great consideration for its sensitive location amongst the 18th Century streets of London’s St James. Despite the radical proposals for building put forward by its architects throughout the post-war era, it is this rather conservative building that is their greatest legacy in the city. In 1988 it received Grade II listed status and is an enduring monument to its architects’ rigorous and determined style.
Alison and Peter Smithson were leadings figures of the new avant-garde of the 1950’s. They were part of the Independent Group whose multi-media artistic activities centred on the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London. The group also included architectural critic Reyner Banham, writer Theo Crosby, the artist Eduardo Paolozzi and photographer Nigel Henderson. While showing great admiration for modern masters, such as Le Corbusier and Mies Van der Rohe, the emphasis of the group was to demand a re-reading of the established doctrines of the Pre-war Modern Movement and the broader cultural scene. They believed in a new form of art and architecture, one that would respond to the expressions of the ‘Second Machine Age’ and a new post-war society.
In the early 1950s the Independent Group established themselves at CIAM conferences, criticizing the logic of accepted Modernist town planning goals of widely spaced towers, but also through a series of debates, talks and exhibitions. The most notable of these responses were the Parallel of Art and Life at the ICA and This Is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, both were highly influential in the development of the British pop art movement. Both exhibitions challenged conventional aesthetic value and showcased images depicting aspects of the new society of mass consumption. They aimed to define or rather suggest the new aesthetics of a mass culture, where advertising and television, could inform common value. The Smithsons believed that architecture ought also to respond to this new society and be a direct expression of a way of life.
In 1955, writing in the Architectural Review, Reyner Banham introduced a wider public to ‘New Brutalism.’ New Brutalism challenged the accepted wisdom of the dominant post-war architectural responses showcased in the UK by the Festival of Britain in 1951. These styles variously named ‘New Humanism’ and ‘New Monumentalism’ were characterised by their interpretation of the picturesque and apparent misuse of traditional building materials. The term ‘New Brutalism’ was coined by the Smithsons to describe the approach to building favoured by the Independent Group and its members. It was expressed, most notably, by the Smithsons’ Hunstanton School in 1954. The building was the first interpretation of the their ideals. It demonstrated a directness in its organization, the materials employed and its straightforward construction and expression of mass produced building elements. The steel frame sections of the building are exposed both externally and internally with yellow gault brick making up the panels between them and the large areas of glazing. When completed it was greeted with enthusiasm in the architectural press as ‘not only radical but good Mies Van der Rohe…’ It launched the Smithsons as one of the most important architectural partnerships of the post-war era and set a seal on their functional approach to building.
The Economist Buildings continue the tradition of the Smithsons’ structural honesty and bold approach with great simplicity. Through their work of the 1950s, they made numerous recommendations for the dramatic reorganization of the city, using pedestrian decks and aerial walkways as part of vast superstructures. In 1961, such plans were to prove hugely influential in the development of Sheffiled Park Hill Estate. At the Economist, the team showed great restraint in order to produce a sensitive arrangement in scale with the area that resisted the urge to aggressive commercial monumentalism elsewhere. It is one of the few 1960s developments where the spaces between the buildings are of equal importance to the buildings themselves.
The development consists of three components grouped around an intimate raised pedestrian plaza: a four storey irregular polygon block on St James’ Street, a main tower of 15-storeys and at the rear of this an eight storey residential block. The grouping shows great deference to the historic context. The plaza is reached by integrated stairs or a gentle ramp from street level, the underground car park entrance is barely noticeable - set in behind the lower level bock and tower, while the tower itself is placed away from the street line at the far east of the site. Each of the concrete framed buildings are articulated with bold uprights running from the very top of the buildings to meet the floor, with the ground level recessed occasionally and canted at the corners. This simple act has the effect of encouraging light into the complex, while providing structural openness and softening the impact of any sharp edges. The buildings have a light facing of a type of fossil rich Portland stone known as roach. This porous material with its indentations creates texture and demonstrates further acknowledgment of the traditions of building at its site.
The Smithsons were never quite able to repeat the success of the Economist Buildings. In 1972 they were finally able to realize their earlier recommendations for streets in the sky with the Robin Hood Lane Estate in East London. The project proved to be a social disaster and faced huge criticism. The people it was built for never took to the giant blocks and open spaces and it suffered heavily from vandalism and neglect as soon as it was completed. The professional reputation of the couple never quite recovered.
In 1990, the Bury Street stairs to the east were refurbished by Skidmore Owings and Meryll with the lobby of the tower and in 1992 a water sculpture added to the plaza by Angela Conner.
The Economist Buildings are in the great tradition of the Smithsons’ New Brutalism. This is not to be confused with the harsher approach favoured in the late 1960s of concrete shape making, but by a considered and rigorous application of form, materials and structure
- Building the Post-War World; Modern Architecture and Reconstruction in Britain, , London, (2002) , p110
- The New Brutalism, , Architectural Design, 02/1955, (1955) , p1
- Building the Post-War World; Modern Architecture and Reconstruction in Britain, , London, (2002) , p96
- London 6: Westminster, , The Buildings of England, London, (2005) , p637