The Smithsons and their approach
Alison and Peter Smithson were young radicals catapulted to architectural stardom upon winning a competition for Hunstanton School in Norfolk.
They were part of the Independent Group, an avant-garde collection of young artists, including Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton. They were also one of the few truly equal architectural couples in the history of architecture.
The Smithsons rejected key principles of Modernism, which looked to the past as a model of building. They espoused a more human approach to architecture, which embraced people and engaging with them, rather than dictating how they should live.
The Economist Plaza competition
In 1959 the Smithsons won the competition to design the home of the Economist. They proposed demolishing a tall building on St James’s Street and radically replacing it with stairs and a ramp leading to a plaza.
The proposal was for three separate buildings, the tallest tower for The Economist, a smaller tower to house the private member’s club Boodle’s and apartments, and the third for a bank.
The competition entry was a radical proposal by young architects, but the Economist was a radical client to choose this design, setting them apart from others during a boom period of office building.
The use of Portland stone references the surrounding traditional architecture of St James’s, while the material’s porous nature reflects the openness of the building.
The profusion of glass created a light-filled, transparent building, and enabled a connection between people inside and outside the building so that life was on show.
The interiors were as innovative as the exterior with bespoke designed spaces that utilised the latest technology for lifts and air conditioning.
The Plaza — a social space
The plaza had become a celebrated symbol of corporate grandeur in the 1960s. The Smithsons reinvented the American concept for London.
The Smithsons imagined that “the Plaza would be an enjoyable public space, as well as providing a setting for the Tower, inevitably becoming a rendezvous and tourist spot”. ¹
As deserving of a true modernist icon, in 1966, the plaza was featured in the 1966 cult movie ‘Blow Up’ by legendary filmmaker Michaelangelo Antonioni.
¹ Taken from Smithsons’ Report on the proposed Design of The Economist Building, Ryder Street. Extracted Minutes and Correspondence of the Royal Fine Arts Comission at the London Metropolitan Archives.
The Smithson legacy
The Smithsons were radicals and believed in change and flexibility. They themselves made changes to the building in 1984 in response to The Economist no longer being the sole tenant.
The buildings received a Grade II* listing in 1989.
The current works by DSDHA, a contemporary leading architect husband-and-wife team, respect the intellectual approach and spirit of the Smithsons’ original vision — restoring the key elements and aiming to bring back the social space and life to the building.
DSDHA won a completion run by building owner and developer, Tishman Speyer, which has an established track record in redeveloping and repositioning twentieth century landmark buildings, notably the Rockefeller Center and Chrysler Building in New York.