Steve Parnell has kindly given us permission to add this to our website. It's an interesting take on Charles and Ray Eames and their early links to Brutalism and the UK.
(Originally published as “Charles & Ray Eames, the proto-Brutalists” in ed. C. Ince, “The World of Charles and Ray Eames”, London: Thames & Hudson, 2015, pp.98-103)
On 16 June 1958 the up-and-coming British architect Peter Smithson (pictured, above far left) wrote to Charles Eames,
Dear Charles Eames,
When we met for 60 seconds in London, I said I was coming your way (D.V.) this year. I arrive N.Y. on 6th Sept & depart 4th Oct. I want to go to Chicago mainly & am trying to find someone who will give me a lecture there. (I’ve written P. Johnson & D. Haskell)
You said you might be able to fix something at U.C.L.A. or Berkeley.
I need money to get around, you see, & would v. much like to visit you in your native habitat. [HOMO SAPIENS CALIFORNII VULGARIS [?]]
Charles agreed to help, and a lecture and visit were duly organized. Smithson followed up in September from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago with advance information about his lecture, and some brief biographical notes:
Practiced [sic] architecture since 1950 with wife ALISON.
Inventor of ‘New Brutalism’
Member of C.I.A.M. & destroyer of ditto.
Founder of ‘TEAM X’
Designer of Hunstanton School (pictured below) & ‘House of Future’ etc. etc.
Writer on Town-Building theory
Since 1957, 5th year Tutor at ARCHITECTURE [sic] ASSOCIATION SCHOOL LONDON.[ii]
Neither Peter nor Alison Smithson attempted to hide their admiration for the Eameses, and on discovering in the mid-1960s that their students at the Architectural Association were ignorant of the work of their Californian counterparts, the British husband-and-wife architects guest-edited an issue of Architectural Design magazine. Published in September 1966, the issue was called ‘An Eames Celebration’. (pictured below)
Only five years later, the architectural historian Reyner Banham wrote that ‘the Eames House has had a profound effect on many of the architects of my generation in Britain and Europe. It became the most frequently mentioned point of pilgrimage for intending visitors to Los Angeles among my friends, some of whom were later to edit a special issue of the English magazine Architectural Design devoted to Eames’s work, and to his house.’[iii] The house received much international press coverage after it was completed in December 1949,[iv] and it is impossible to imagine that the Smithsons did not see any of it early on, especially given the fact that they would meet at Banham’s house on Sundays to leaf through the latest architectural magazines,[v] and that magazines, particularly those from America, were soon to form a focus of the Independent Group, of which the Smithsons were key members.[vi] Although it is impossible to say exactly when the Smithsons first came across the Eames House,[vii] I wish to use this radically influential building and well-established influence of the Eameses on the Smithsons to argue the bigger, perhaps more surprising point that the American couple should in fact be considered proto-Brutalists.[viii] Accepting this, I believe, will help us understand what Brutalism – as a movement rather than a style, or as an ethic rather than an aesthetic – was then and has since become.
As an aesthetic, Brutalism continues to attract considerable debate. Not only is it, as a style, unpopular among the general public (being of a certain age, its buildings are commonly nominated for demolition), but also it represents a certain politics of resistance. It also helps that it photographs extremely well, especially in black and white. However, the movement that Peter Smithson claimed to have invented in his note to Charles Eames was quite different, and was founded on an architectural ‘ethic’ that Smithson recognized in the Eameses’ designs in general and the Eames House in particular.
The provenance of the ‘New Brutalism’, as it was originally known, has been well rehearsed: the Independent Group and its exhibitions, from Parallel of Life and Art (Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1953) to This is Tomorrow (Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1956); the term’s first usage by the Smithsons in the December 1953 issue of Architectural Design, in reference to their project for a house in Soho, London; the béton brut (raw concrete) of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, finished in 1952; the reception of the Smithsons’ Hunstanton School on its completion two years later; their New Brutalism manifesto in the January 1955 issue of Architectural Design; Banham’s article in that year’s December issue of the Architectural Review; and so on. For a comprehensive history of the New Brutalism as aesthetic, I refer the reader to Anthony Vidler’s extensive Banham-centric commentaries.[ix] It was Banham himself, however, who published the movement’s canonical history, The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? (1966), in which he concluded that, ‘For all its brave talk of “an ethic, not an aesthetic”, Brutalism never quite broke out of the aesthetic frame of reference.’[x] This summary is not surprising given that Banham, as an art historian and critic, was only ever really interested in what could be represented on the page – that is, in the aesthetics – as his book, replete with crisp, seductive photographs of raw concrete and exposed brick, amply demonstrates. Its enigmatic subtitle, Ethic or Aesthetic?, essentially asks whether Brutalism should be considered on the Smithsons’ terms or Banham’s. Indeed, the book could just as easily have been called The New Brutalism: Secundum Smithsons or Banham?[xi] Importantly, as Robin Middleton noted in his largely overlooked review of the book in Architectural Design, the Smithsons were not consulted in its writing. In his review, Middleton perceptively identifies the Smithsons’ debt to the Eameses: ‘The combination of the Mies aesthetic with the Eames concept of arrangement proved electrifying when interpreted by the Smithsons.’[xii] I shall return to this ‘concept of arrangement’ below.
Banham’s much-cited 1955 Architectural Review article on the New Brutalism starts by acknowledging that architectural historians had identified two main types of ‘ism’: ‘one, like Cubism, is a label, a recognition tag, applied by critics and historians to a body of work which appears to have certain consistent principles running through it … the other, like Futurism, is a banner, a slogan, a policy consciously adopted by a group of artists.’[xiii] There were always at least two flavours of Brutalism: Banham’s aesthetic flavour was the critic’s label, whereas the Smithsons’ ethical flavour was the architect’s banner. The aesthetic flavour was derived from Le Corbusier’s béton brut, but the ethical flavour was exemplified by the Eames House. Neither of these influences, of course, would subscribe to any ‘movement’ – they were, after all, the leaders, the originators, the source. The ethical aspect of Brutalism, which was always described by the Smithsons as the idea of ‘the simple life, well done’,[xiv] or ‘architecture as the direct result of a way of life’,[xv] has been almost entirely neglected or misunderstood in architectural historiography in favour of the aesthetic. This is not to say that the Eames House influenced the design of the Smithsons’ Hunstanton School, the first building in Banham’s Brutalist canon.[xvi] The chronology is impossible, and in any case that accolade goes to the Mies aesthetic manifested in his campus for the Illinois Institute of Technology (1938–58). However, on discovering the Eames House, the Smithsons immediately identified it as representing their Brutalist sensibility, or ‘ethic’.
The history of the Eames House is well documented,[xvii] and I shall not repeat it here other than to reiterate that it was conceived for, and published in, John Entenza’s Arts & Architecture magazine, appearing in its final, constructed form as Case Study House No. 8 in an article for the December 1949 issue.[xviii] In that article, Entenza himself notes that ‘it is as an attitude toward living that we wish to present [the house]’.[xix] This sentiment makes a striking reappearance in the Smithsons’ ‘architecture as the direct result of a way of life’ ethic of the ordinary, the ‘as found’, the everyday, and was reiterated by Charles Eames in an interview years later: ‘the rewarding experiences and aesthetic pleasures of our lives should not be dependent solely upon the classic fine arts, but should be, rather, a natural product of the business of life itself.’[xx] For her part, Ray took a similar view, the house no longer being as important as the life it enabled: ‘The structure long ago ceased to exist. I am not aware of it.’[xxi]
Besides this attitude to everyday life, there are several other characteristics of the Brutalist ethic evident in the work of the Eameses that the Smithsons discuss throughout their careers. One concerns the appropriate handling of materials, whatever they might be. The Dutch architectural historian Dirk van den Heuvel points out that ‘the idea of “doing”, finding form in the handling of materials and in the making process, is the second measurement of the Brutalist ethic, next to and closely linked to the first one … the correspondence between appearance and actual material construction.’[xxii] This statement echoes that of Michael Brawne, writing in ‘An Eames Celebration’: ‘This awareness and emphasis on the need to make objects on the basis of what is right in use rather than what is best in terms of production is already evident in the house.’[xxiii]
Another characteristic concerns associations: collections, fragments or ‘contrapuntal games’.[xxiv] This ‘conglomerate ordering’,[xxv] as the Smithsons later referred to it, is most obviously apparent early (probably unconsciously) and coincidentally in their exhibition Parallel of Life and Art and the interior of the Eames House. The exhibition aimed to submerse the visitor in images, by hanging them from every available surface. Watching the Eameses’ House: After Five Years of Living (1955), an 11-minute film consisting solely of hundreds of images of the inhabited house, we can see the interior in a similar way – as an exhibition or arrangement of objects and images, including some suspended from the ceiling, completely surrounding the occupants. According to Van den Heuvel, ‘To the Smithsons then, domestic order is not just about architecture as the built structure and its principles of ordering, it also concerns the order of things, in and around the house, and how this corresponds to a way of life. The house is a dynamic constellation made up by the very collection of things in and around the house and the house itself. As such it provides a framework for the routines and events of everyday life.’[xxvi] This quote could easily be applied to the Eames House, and resonates with the articles in ‘An Eames Celebration’ by Brawne and Peter Smithson himself.[xxvii] Crucially, this ‘dynamic constellation’ of the Eames House, which the Smithsons found so resonant with their own everyday sensibilities, is a constructed ‘system of images’,[xxviii] as opposed to Banham’s single ‘memorability as an image’, which Banham identified as the first of his three fundamental characteristics of Brutalism in his 1955 piece in the Architectural Review.[xxix]
There are other characteristics, such as Japanese-ness, that could be referenced as evidence of the hypothesis that the Eameses are the quintessential proto-Brutalists. But how is the Brutalist ethic of the Eames House evident in the work of the Smithsons? It is everywhere in their writing, most explicitly in the book Changing the Art of Inhabitation (1994),[xxx] which describes a genealogy of modern architects that starts with Mies and leads to the Smithsons via the Eameses. In particular, the commonalities between the houses of each architect – Mies’s Farnsworth House (1945–51), the Eames House (1945–9) and the Smithsons’ own Solar Pavilion at Upper Lawn, Wiltshire (1959–62) – are discussed several times.[xxxi] Each house is described as an idyllic pavilion, ‘as a place wherein to be restored to oneself; as a source of one’s energies. The pavilion is thus seen as a place made idyll; a dream of a stress-free way of life, a domain – often a greater garden – often in the pretend wild; that is, in nature.’[xxxii]
Returning to Peter Smithson’s request to visit the Eames House (designed for their own use) at the beginning of this essay, it is probably no coincidence that only a few months after Smithson’s return to England in October 1958, he and his wife finally bought the land on which they would construct their own weekend house, the Solar Pavilion. And it is here that Brutalism-as-ethic – the overlooked side of Brutalism’s duality – is most perfectly exemplified.