Between a Jewel and a Manifesto

written by Karin Šerman
architects Alison and Peter Smithson
project The Economist Building, London, UK



The occasion may seem a bit sentimental: this summer, after the long period of 52 years, a distinguished British financial weekly The Economist will move from its long-term home, a charismatic tower located at St. James’s Street 25, to a new address. The move in itself may not have been so dramatic if it did not include the abandoning of an anthological architectural and urbanistic complex, which was named after the magazine that initiated it – The Economist Complex, a well-known realisation of Alison and Peter Smithson (1959–1964). The magazine here branded architecture, just like architecture provided the paper with an iconic status and an attractive late-modern pop aura. It was a happy and mutually beneficial marriage and it is hard to say who profited more from their long embrace. The end of their relationship is thus awaited with reasonable nostalgia and sentiment. Time will tell if the widely accepted name of the famous complex will keep on living and so keep the memory of its past client and owner, but their historical farewell definitely calls for a review of the key moments of their fruitful cohabitation. 




The whole architecturally important story started with the troubles of the financial weekly with space. As a consequence of war bombing of London in 1941, the distinguished weekly lost its original building located close to Fleet Street, the old heart of London journalism. In the next twenty years the paper used various adapted spaces – from 1947 the building on Ryder Street in London district St. James, prestigious historical neighbourhood in the western centre of the city, just south of Piccadilly Circus. After a long period of tenancy and improvisations with space, the management of the paper decided to address the needs that resulted from the increased business activities by achieving optimum spatial conditions, while staying in the same exclusive city district, thus assuming the role of a building investor and entrepreneur. They bought the site plot in the principal traffic road of the district, historical St. James’s Street, and embarked on their exciting architectural and construction adventure. 


Fortunately, around that time, in 1956, the principal local government body, London County Council, made the decision that allowed the construction of towers in the centre of London, of course under special circumstances and in a carefully controlled distance among them. This type of construction was until then largely forbidden and again banned some eight years later. This provided the paper with a unique opportunity to construct a new tower as a new urban landmark, which they would skilfully use. The allowed plot-area ratio of 5:1, however, was not particularly generous, meaning that for every square metre of land, one could build five square meters of new offices and flats. Since the idea was to construct as much new office space as possible, and gain as much possible height, it was essential to accordingly grasp maximum possible free ground. In this sense, the financial paper acted quite resourcefully by freeing the acquired plot from the series of existing objects, thus increasing the total ground area while accepting the obligation of housing the dislocated users and contents in the future new complex. Only a valuable neoclassical building of the prestigious London Boodle’s gentlemen's club from the 18th century was kept on the site.


And, for this overall architectural adventure to successfully commence, the paper decided, quite boldly and audaciously, after only a limited architectural competition, to engage appropriately ambitious architects for their ambitious constructing and business task – a young architectural couple who had only two previous realisations, but plenty of intriguing spatial theories – the confident, resolute and suggestive Smithsons.


Theoretical tools


Considering the novelty and relevance of Alison and Peter Smithson’s architectural and urbanistic ideas, it is useful to analyse their London complex precisely through the network of their formative theoretical concepts, just as through the lenses of some of their already realised projects. In that sense, their recently completed school in Norfolk, the Hunstanton Secondary Modern School (1950–1954), was especially important and indicative. In that project the Smithsons creatively explored Mies’s poetics and his formal and spatial instruments. A creative response to the legendary Mies’s IIT campus and its central Crown Hall, as the epitome of precision, meticulousness and perfection of spatial relations and proportions, the Hunstanton School was its more ordinary, daily variant, a quotidian iteration of Mies’s transcendent Schinkelesque spatial disposition and discipline, an unpolished reiteration of the sublime classical tradition. A steel column without its Miesian dematerializing chrome membrane, steel frames without their expressive representation, walls of exposed brick without Miesian hidden abstraction – the project represented, in Peter Smithson’s words: Mies without mannerism, poetics without rhetoric. Refined, but natural; classical, but authentic. The school thus launched a new formal and spatial paradigm: the one of directness and authenticity, immediateness and veracity, both in materials and structures, and in its spatial effects and experiences – the idea of pure and factual, strong and direct truth. This is all summarised in the term then launched by the Smithsons – the anthological New Brutalism. Brutalism meant as art brut, béton brut, as exposed unmediated truth, as the immediacy and sincerity of children’s drawing, creation without premeditation and plan; brutalism thus meant less as a new aesthetics and more as a new creative ethics. Peter Smithson, moreover, decisively emphasises:  Brutalism to us meant 'direct': to others it came to be a synonym for rough, crude, oversized, and using beams three times thicker than necessary. Brutalism was opposite, necessary to suit the new situation, like Kahn's work at Yale. That wasn't rough or crude or oversized.


Understood in this specific sense and quite particular, paradoxical elegance, brutalism of the Smithsons, as their new creative philosophy, had yet an additional meaning and quality, deriving from the range of their powerful urban theories. This impressive theoretical corpus that systematically developed and ramified throughout their fruitful activity may be best  summarised in the term urban re-identification, as the Smithsons coined it back in 1952 and officially introduced in 1953, at the crucial 9th CIAM congress held in Aix-en-Provence. According to them, modern urbanism with its functional zoning had spectacularly failed, completely neglected to grasp the true sense of life and the city. Four functional zones, treated as four mechanical abstractions, completely missed the real issues, dynamics and complexity of the current urban life. Instead of their reductive artificiality, what needed to be perceived and addressed was the pulsating complexity, vitality and real urban heterogeneity of the city. So, the outer mechanistic, geometrical order was to be replaced with an inner, organic organisation. New categories for observing the city could thus no longer be those of functional zones, but those of free and flexible relations and bonds.  Addressed must finally be those vital issues such as the sense of belonging and urban re-identification, identity and the need of human association and human interactions, the same as the issues of mobility, growth and change. Four new operating categories, as the Smithsons proposed in their famous Identity Grid from 1953, could therefore be: house – street – district – city, as a continuous, uninterrupted and organically connected urban hierarchy, where the focus was not on architectural and urbanistic forms themselves, but on the relations of those forms with their users, on the ability of those forms to produce certain desired effects and to encourage certain ways of human behaviour, in accordance with the logic of their specific spatial frames. The form was thus not any more viewed and evaluated in itself, according to its autonomous formal value, but only as a vector for the encouragement of desired modalities of use, for enticing certain experiences and feelings of its users.


Conceptual projects – paradigmatic megastructures


Once defined, the Smithsons then systematically tested their new urban concepts and categories in their own design projects. They so inaugurated their famous streets in the air in their crucial conceptual project Golden Lane from 1952. Streets, as historically confirmed forms of vibrant urban life, were vertically multiplied in a flexible megastructure which in itself united a residential unit, pedestrian communication, the whole district and the entire urban grid. In their potentially infinite ramification, the idea of flexibility, growth and change was suitably entailed. The Smithsons further equipped their streets in the air with specific spatial qualities: they were designed with greater width, with lateral setting opened to the light and the surrounding, and were supposed to meander from one side of the residential slab to the other, depending on the attractions on the surrounding terrain. At the junctions of their ramification and meandering, the Smithsons envisioned squares in the air, of three storeys in height, as historically confirmed forms of gathering, associating and developing intense social interactions.


Convinced that the modern city is characterised chiefly by soft, dynamic social groups and the imperative of their fast and efficient connection, they suggested, further on, in their next important project for Berlin-Haupstadt from 1957, two completely separate urban levels: an orthogonal network of fast roads on the ground and an attractive irregular elevated pedestrian megastructure, which offered a slower pace of movement and use, and was in itself suspended on towers with diagonally cut, chamfered corners as recognizable urban accents and landmarks.  



The new complex


Many of these central theoretical and design concepts would be fruitfully applied and incorporated in the case of The Economist Complex, with the provision that the previously defined megastructures would here need to be effectively adjusted to meet the highly delicate and sensitive urban context. The London case namely involved the interpolation into an especially delicate and valuable historical urban fabric and thus demanded a drastically different dimension of formal and contextual approach and sensibility.


That the Smithsons possessed the necessary design refinement even for such a unique and delicate task can be seen in their statement that: Our intention was to shift architecture towards particularity; its forms to arise from attention to persons and place...  With their intention so clearly expressed, they started solving an extremely demanding and heterogeneous programme, challenging both in terms of the content and the spatial capacity, on the square site plot surrounded by three city streets – dominant St. James's Street in front, and Bury Street and Ryder Street in the background. Instead of merely following the then popular and widely exploited model for such hybrid urban tasks – concept of podium and tower: a continuous low horizontal base and an accentuated vertical steeple of the skyscraper, launched by SOM architects in 1952 with their Lever House on the New York Park Avenue, with which they could have maximised the valuable street façade – the Smithsons decided to solve their comprehensive task in a radically different and innovative manner, somewhat closer to the other legendary New York case – again the lesson of Mies and his famous Seagram Building from 1958.


The Smithsons divided the demanded programme into three separate and independent vertical volumes, with basically similar square plans yet with demonstratively different heights, depending on their specific contents and different urban positions. So the lowest, four-storey object, was situated in the most representative part of the site, right at the front of St. James's Street, next to its revered neoclassical neighbour, to which it adjusted with its similar height and with the overall solemn and conventional square format of the façade. In this way the new object simulated and respected not only its immediate neoclassical neighbour but also the entire scale and ambience of the valuable historical street. It, further on, suitably accommodated the most representative contents – the bank and luxury stores. The taller, eight-storey object is pulled back from St. James’s Street, and moved to the back of the plot, aligned with Bury Street in the background, so that its height would not compromise the harmonised fine scale and consistent rhythm of the main historical urban artery. Its content was exclusively residential, with apartments and housing facilities provided for the needs of the preserved historical gentlemen's club. The tallest volume was the fourteen-storey business tower, the headquarters of The Economist, also pulled back to the depth of the plot, placed in the very corner, between the lateral and the back street. All three objects, despite obvious differences in their height and contents, basically followed the same spatial principle – with roughly square plans, they were all organised around the central communication and service core, with a ring of main spaces around it.




All three objects, as can be seen, are demonstratively placed on the outermost brinks of the plot, right on the lines of the bordering streets, so that in the centre of the plot, among the buildings, there remains a big open space– a platform for public social life and daily urban dynamics. In order to protect this valuable platform from the busy rhythm of the surrounding streets and to provide it with a specific status and character, the Smithsons slightly raised the surface of the platform from the the surrounding city levels and so created a separate, calmer and more ceremonial pedestrian zone. Beneath the platform, they placed an underground level with parking facilities, with access from the side street. Pedestrians, on the other hand, accessing the platform from St. James's Street, ascend a short staircase and or else adjacent mild ramp and access the solemn, sanctified and somewhat mystical world of the Economist Plaza.


Mystical – because the spirit of this plaza radiates with a specific mood and atmosphere. Consisting of an unusual plan, heavily asymmetrical and irregular, it is actually only a remnant of the built volumes around it, a specific leftover, a peculiar interstitial spatial fissure. Relatively narrow and squeezed, in order to make itself more spacious and open, it establishes with the built parts of the complex a whole set of balanced exchanges and concessions. The four-storey volume of the bank thus concedes to it a considerable portion of space by diagonally cutting a large part of its corner, allowing the plaza the possibility of forming a main central space, as well as soft transitions to its narrow spatial branches. The slanted angle thereby also becomes a recognizable spatial and formal feature and specific leitmotif of the entire complex, repeating itself in a smaller scale and in different manifestations on all three objects, right down to the level of detail.


Thanks to the similar formal and spatial principles, the three separate volumes acted as the members of the same architectural family. In that way, the Smithsons promoted the concept of the cluster, as a group of connected volumes, associated in idea and form, and with controlled mutual spatial relations. And further, in order to visually accept in this peculiar architectural family the remaining fourth object on the plot, the existing valuable neoclassical building, they added to the historical building, on the side towards the plaza, a specific, decorative spatial addition – a small transparent bay-window with slanted angles, as a legible formal signature by which the new volumes accept their historical cousin into a consistent and recognizable architectural structure.


Yet in order to secure in this compact and harmonious structure an appropriate presence for the plaza itself, the process proceeds with even more concessions. The public space of the open plaza protrudes even under the volumes of the towers by way of elegant porches, which offer comfortable covered parts of the public area. And to still further improve the impression of openness and spaciousness, the stone pavement of the plaza extends behind the transparent glass walls of the towers and proceeds further into their interiors, all the way to the central service cores, thus visually connecting the entire public ground floor zone in a unique experience of cohesion and spatial overlapping. The whole ground floor zone, either exterior or interior, thus becomes a continuous public and active social surface.  Its attractiveness is enhanced by the beauty of the pavement – the noble light travertine, arranged in an effective dynamic pattern, which compellingly opens up the effect of the plaza and improves the experience of cohesion of the whole complex. Pulsating crystalline beauty of this surreally airy and transparent ground-floor zone thus reaches almost inconceivable dimensions.


The paradox of brutalism


These ethereal qualities of the plaza so far do not seem to disclose the expected traits of brutalism. This specific attribute, which undeniably defines and distinguishes this complex, resides instead in the shaping and detailing of the very buildings, although even then in its distilled and refined expression. The basic skeleton of the three objects is rendered in raw and exposed concrete and thus openly reveals its spatial and structural truth. Since the exposed construction frame is closed only with wide transparent glass surfaces, it simultaneously becomes an exposed frame of human activities that it houses and accommodates. Although in its idea and appearance this skeleton remains the same in all three volumes and is equally loyal to its modular precision and discipline, it also develops minute and controlled variations in three different objects resulting from their different functional and symbolic needs. So the module of the representative four-storey bank building is the widest – 3.20 m horizontally, while the height of the floors varies, culminating in a lavish mezzanine storey that houses the main banking hall. The horizontal module of the 14-storey business tower is also 3.20 m in ground floor and divided in half in the upper office floors. The residential tower has a smaller module throughout – 1.60 m, from the ground floor to the eighth floor, all of equal height.  


The controlled complexity of this fine modular game and skilful manipulation with proportions has confirmed the already proven design skills of the Smithsons, developed already in the phase of the Hunstanton School, only this time rendered in more present, stronger and more tactile manifestation of the raw concrete nature, instead of fragile dimensions and appearances of steel. Had the original wish of the Smithsons been obeyed, this raw concrete appearance would have been directly seen also on the exterior of the complex. The clients, however, wanted to clad the concrete skeleton in Portland stone, the traditional representative material of London, as a symbol of an honourable status and tradition, used, among other places, on St. Paul's Cathedral and Buckingham Palace. Loyal to the authenticity and vitality of brutalism, the Smithsons did not give up and they eventually agreed on a compromise solution, acceptable for both sides: a specific, messy, rough and less valued variant of the Portland stone, the so-called Portland roach, stone dug from the surface layer of the deep limestone beds. It is grainier, more plastic and uneven, with rough but lively texture, mottled with small holes made by shells, traces of oysters and marine fossils – the material that possesses almost geological attractiveness and significance. This lively, shelly stone in its light creamy colour was used for cladding the outer concrete skeleton of all the three buildings. 


The stone is attached to the concrete skeleton over aluminium rain-runoff jointing elements, which visibly detach the stone cladding from concrete elements. Stone slabs on the plaza level are, furthermore, also slightly elevated from the floor surface, which openly reveals the actual structural truth of the objects and the fact that the stone here has no load bearing capacity. Stone slabs are additionally decked with already presented motifs, recognizable chamfered edges, which are consistently present in all scales all to the level of tiniest details and dimensions.  Slabs of bright Portland limestone, flaunting this familiar fine detail, appear as perfectly cut gemstones and provide the whole complex, especially in the combination of the floor travertine and transparent glass enclosures of the concrete skeletons, with the impression of a precious and unique crystal. Meticulously composed joints of the slabs and their precise geometrical grid reinforce this effect, as does the subtle plasticity of the stone slabs on the pillars with their graded vertical indentation, which gives the whole construction elegance and the effect of almost Gothic finesse and profiling. Without losing the strength and vitality of brutalism, here is attained the perfection of a peculiar architectural jewel.


Embodied theory


By way of almost goldsmith’s techniques, accomplished is thus a perfect urban insertion.  In the prospect along St. James’s Street astounds almost incredible mimicry; a resolute modern intervention is seamlessly incorporated in the historical image of the street front. The height and proportions of the front building, the density, rhythm and elegance of its profiling, affirm the bank building of the new complex as an equal member of the grand urban strip and a rightful modern counterpart of its immediate neoclassical neighbour. Behind this new, elegant and timeless building, however, hides a whole variety of modern spatial surprises.


In the discreet secrecy evolves a public space of rarely rich impression and atmosphere. Despite all its spatial constriction and narrowness, the unpredictability of this space and its unique formal effects irresistibly call for walking, investigating, and discovering of all possible pedestrian trajectories of the closely interwoven urban complex. Next to the ceremonial routes and daily passages, the layers of its beauty invite the visitors to stop, linger, meet with other people, interact, and spend some time in its timeless ambience, what is implicitly suggested by a strategically positioned long and elementary stone bench placed along the blind brick wall of the historical neoclassical edifice.


With all its ethereal qualities, plaza of the Economist embodies in a unique way the key aspects of the Smithsons’ urban designs and theories. It is simultaneously a wide meandering street in the air of their renowned Golden Lane, created for meetings and interactions, just like its peaceful and formal elevated square, ideal for lingering and socializing. It also represents a conceptual relative of the irregular pedestrian megastructure of the Berlin-Haupstadt project, elevated and separated from the underlying traffic level and stretched among the towers with chamfered corners treated as verticals of urban landmarks. It is, further on, also a built representative of the advocated idea of the continuity house – street – district – city, this time rendered in the form of a cluster, as one of its possible embodiments, as well as a true generator of the feeling of urban re-identification, identity and belonging as a desired lost emotional and psychological urban dimension. And, finally, it is a unique manifestation of the poetics of brutalism, achieved, paradoxically, by most elegant means. Just as Peter Smithson announced, brutalism here was realised as that ...necessary to suit the new situation, like Kahn's work at Yale. (…) that wasn't rough or crude or oversized. And indeed, in its sublime appearance, The Economist Complex really does achieve touching qualities of brutalist subtleness of Kahn’s Art Gallery at Yale, or the effect of timelessness of the plaza of Kahn’s Salk Institute in La Jolla, at the same time assuming something of the universal classical qualities of the Schinkel’s Berlin projects.


It is no wonder then that in the sedimented quietness of the space of the Economist plaza some of the anthological photographs were taken that evoke mysterious misty London spleen, with impeccably dressed businessmen with black bowler hats who walk on the bright surface of the square. Even the celebrated film director Michelangelo Antonioni chose exactly this charged atmosphere for the introductory scenes of his famous movie Blow-up from 1966. Whether as a demonstration of the contemporary yet atemporal London or as a backdrop for a pop metropolis from the rebellious swinging 1960s, its charged quality offered the necessary depth and potency for both.  




If it is such a significant urban space, indirectly influenced by The Economist itself, the question is raised why this famous paper is about to abandon its widely recognized urban aura and frame. 


Among other reasons, the paper is leaving due to the difficulty of the existing office space to allow for the organization of the changed working processes. In the office spaces of the paper, located on the 11th to the 14th floor of the Economist tower, the Smithsons set the spatial frame that encourages certain precise ways of organization and use – a series of offices for two journalists arranged around the central communication and service core. Such organization undoubtedly responded to the demands and logic of working processes and habits of the journalists at the time, as their users and clients. Moreover, such arrangement undoubtedly reflected also social ideas and ambitions of their architects; their egalitarian efforts to provide all employees, editors or assistants and beginners alike, with an equally good working conditions, giving all of them equally spectacular views from the Olympic heights of the towers to the surrounding attractive parts of London. They so determined the work modalities and outlines of working relations and processes that it resulted in difficulties with establishing other possible arrangements, such as, for instance, open-plan offices, just as it caused problems with the more expedient and faster connection of various business segments located on different floors. In accordance with the demands and complexities of new social networks and new multimedia products, information techniques and communication modalities of this global weekly, and the necessary accompanying equipment, the possibility of the intense cooperation of quite different character that includes a larger number of participants is now required.


So this summer, The Economist is moving. It will move to the refurbished Adelphi building, located behind the Strand, in the immediate vicinity of the paper’s original headquarters in the very centre of London. In terms of the location, the paper is returning to its roots. But just as the complex in St. James’s Street undeniably shaped the habits of its users and helped the paper to develop into a modern global magazine, some of its cultivated spatial and communication culture will surely continue to live in the new working conditions. St. James’s Street will, on the other hand, also surely keep the memory of the audacity of The Economist, which, together with young architects, embarked on an exciting architectural and urbanistic adventure.


The most important thing is that the spell of the Economist plaza is kept even with the new owner, and that it remains a powerful spatial frame as instigator of productive urban processes and interactions. In that way, a fundamental architectural, urban and social testament of the Smithsons will survive, today even more, needed and acute– the imperative that people meet in architecture.