Robin Hood Gardens (1972), the London housing estate that realized the urban principles of Peter and Alison Smithson, is now in the process of being literally and figuratively deconstructed. As would suit a pair of architects whose professional careers began with musings over the “as found” rubble of postwar London, the Victoria and Albert Museum has stepped in to salvage a three-story section of the structure from the demolition site. The segment, despite the curatorial conservation of its fittings and cabinetry, is no arbitrarily, or even programmatically, determined fragment: it represents a full iteration of the repeated graphic sequence that once formed the building's façade. This pattern of prefabricated parts preserves the centrality of the representational method that was as fundamental to the Smithsons' practice as were off-the-shelf materials.
The graphology of this reliquary also encapsulates the spirit of the disproportionate quantity of historical research into the Smithsons and their work that has been conducted over the past few decades. Much has been made of the Smithsons' commentary on the compilation of advertisements, as well as their affection for raw industrial materiality. Scholars, myself included, have deployed interactions of the couple with the politics of the discipline at home and abroad to preserve a portrait of an era that is both peculiarly British and central to the devolution of mainstream modernism. The universality of the particular was a strong theoretical suit of the Smithsons and perhaps the source of their current intellectual appeal. They described the thresholds crossed in the journey from home and neighborhood to the collective enterprise of the city as an ascending scale of interactions that grew increasingly conceptual in nature. Associational philosophy, furthermore, did not confine the Smithsons to a stylistic mold. It could generate the starkness on display in the Hunstanton School (1954) as well as the contextual urbanism of the Economist Building (London, 1964). The Economist's courtyard was thus the perfect stage for the opening sequence (clowns included) of director Michelangelo Antonioni's first English production, Blow-Up (1966), a film that investigated the forensic conditions of image culture while capturing the singularity of London in the sixties. In much the same way, the Smithsons moved fluidly from somber declarations on “habitat” (1954) and the future of modern architecture at CIAM to ironic visions for the imminent future, such as the one presented in their House of the Future for the Daily Mail–sponsored Ideal Home Exhibition of 1956. In the Smithsons' world, images of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe could populate the same CIAM grille as pictures of working-class children at play.
Following the precedent set by the subjects, much of the scholarship on the Smithsons has prioritized their fixation with imagery. M. Christine Boyer studiously avoids this lead, as well as much of the secondary literature, in her recent contribution to this research area with Not Quite Architecture: Writing around Alison and Peter Smithson. This elision makes for a baffling read at times, especially when the work of others bolsters Boyer's own sentiments. The alibi for this lacuna in what is an otherwise comprehensive text is, perhaps, that the focus here is on something different—that is, the extensive corpus of the writing authored by and around the Smithsons. Boyer has indeed burrowed deep into the archives and produced a painstaking work that brings a trove of unpublished material to light. This archival specificity provides a useful counterbalance to the body of more speculative work that has been done on the postwar period. The outcome of Not Quite Architecture, however, its oppositional pose notwithstanding, does not serve for the most part to redirect the interpretive work of others. Rather, it contributes to and elaborates on our understanding of the Smithsons.
Boyer deftly weaves together strands that until now have had to be assembled piecemeal from a variety of sources on British postwar modernism into a coherent narrative that will be particularly useful to a reader looking to situate the practice of Alison and Peter Smithson in its larger ideological context. First, she outlines the milieu that informed the Smithsons' thinking in terms of the polemics of the period, especially as they were expressed on the pages of the Architectural Review and Architectural Design. She presents a close reading of the debate over the New Brutalism, in which Reyner Banham (standing in perhaps for all other critics of his ilk) appears in what will be a recurring and ill-suited role as villain. Another anticipated theme, that of Americanisme, frames the interaction of the Smithsons with the Independent Group and its related activities. Excursions to the subjects of fashion and the automobile quickly deliver the reader back to the solid footing of the agitational role that the Smithsons played at CIAM.
In the last set of chapters, Boyer makes the most of the assertion that appears early on in Not Quite Architecture: “I will make the case that Alison and Peter Smithson were in fact eminently English architects, always susceptible to the English Picturesque and to consideration of the landscape and site (place) and how it operates as a locus of memory” (33–34). That the Smithsons were in many ways, including by their own admission, quintessential products of their English environment is an eminently defensible claim that holds far beyond the scope of aesthetic theory, right from their long journey south to embark on their shared career. The picturesque is certainly the most English of architectural theories. But Boyer's contention that the picturesque “operates as a locus of memory” goes against the grain of the traditional understanding of the picturesque as a highly representational mode of knowledge. Her unique stance guides the reading of the Smithsons' output from the 1970s and 1980s, the period during which there is little in the way of built work, in interesting and unexpected ways. It is in these chapters, full of thought-provoking and colorful material, that the work most expands our understanding of this prolific couple.
Not Quite Architecture, then, has appeared at a critical moment in the reassessment of the Smithsons' oeuvre. It provides an overview of an extensive array of documents in a manner that is useful for anyone interested in the theoretical landscape of postwar modernism and the sensibility of the British context. It brings unpublished material to light and is driven by a lucid, if contestable, conjecture about Englishness. The book is also eminently accessible, a fact that serves to highlight its lack of intuition regarding the nature of representation, which was so central to the Smithsons' concerns. There is a sense that battle lines are being drawn here, although it is not clear from the book what is at stake. Not Quite Architecture, for example, does not propose any particular approach to writing or reading architecture in its bifurcation of the field into image and text. One's own prose is by necessity also a part of a discourse with the writing of others. It is to the advantage of this work and the field that these lines be eliminated.