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Brutalists’ love affair with Bath

Eleanor Young

The Smithson's photographs and writings, brought to life in two shows, explore their relationship not only with the university, to which they contributed, but with the city itself

Bath's Georgian architecture stepping athletically down the hill.
Bath's Georgian architecture stepping athletically down the hill. Credit: Smithson Family Collection

For those who studied at Bath the association of Alison and Peter Smithson with the architecture school and university is well known. The influence of the city of Bath on the Smithsons is harder to disentangle.

Some light is shed on the interrelationship by two new exhibitions and the upcoming reissue of Bath: Walks within the Walls, Peter Smithson’s 1969 book on the city. The exhibitions, Past, Present and Future: Bath and the Smithsons, at the Museum of Bath Architecture and Smithson Snapshots at the Edge arts hub, delve into the Smithsons’ archive with some unexpected results.

In Walks within the Walls Peter Smithson looped around the Georgian buildings, enlivened by the extrapolated topography. He enthused about the way the Royal Crescent held the ground with its geometric ‘field of force’ and the city wandered off along canal greenways (‘canals are to Bath what aqueducts are to Rome’).

Alison and Peter Smithson’s second arts building at the University of Bath.
Alison and Peter Smithson’s second arts building at the University of Bath. Credit: Lance Knobel, Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections

He picked up on the Georgian architecture that was being destroyed, well before Adam Fergusson’s The Sack of Bath (1973) which is credited with changing attitudes. Curator Amy Frost, who is behind both exhibitions and the book’s reissue, sees Smithson’s Walks within the Walls as an unacknowledged, earlier call to arms. Peter Smithson took many shots of the threatened St Mary’s Buildings and waxed lyrical about the elegant, crafted way they dealt with the descending street. ‘Architectural gymnastics,’ is how he described the way the string courses and cornices accommodated the level changes.

Peter Smithson’s shot of 6 East in which the architecture school was based until recently (1988).
Peter Smithson’s shot of 6 East in which the architecture school was based until recently (1988). Credit: Smithson Family Collection

You can, perhaps, see elements of this as well as the better known Italian influences in the Smithsons’ work in Bath – not in the city but up on the hill at the university where their architecture school (known as 6 East) plays with levels and their articulation has echoes of what Peter Smithson so admired in St Mary’s Buildings, including the deft cornices. Of 6 East the Smithsons wrote: ‘It has walls, ceilings and floors that bend and creak and go up and down and curve and impact one upon another in ways rich in difference.’

Until recently the architecture school operated primarily out of the building designed by the Smithsons. It was one of five around the edge of super rational diagram of a campus that RMJM set up; the Smithsons wrote of them as the weaving into the edges, as a fringed mat – each one extending the campus in one direction or another. This was a significant body of work in the latter part of the Smithsons’ professional life and ran alongside Peter Smithson’s work as a visiting professor at the school. The reissue of Walks within the Walls will go out to all the first year architecture students and continue the story of the Smithsons’ influence – at one remove – from the city. The exhibitions, and the RIBA’s Brutalist Playground (now on its Bath run, which adds a foam edition of the Smithsons’ well known jeep), are a reminder that new brutalism was not just a reaction to modernism but a complex drawing together of ideas and influences, new and old.

Exhibition – Past, Present, Future: Bath and the Smithsons,  to November 26. The Museum of Bath Architecture, Countess of Huntingdon's Chapel, The Paragon.

Smithson Snapshots, to 9th September. The Edge, University of Bath.