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Charles and Ray Eames, the Proto-Brutalists | Steve Parnell

Posted by Brad Yendle on

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.
Can you?
I need money to get around, you see, & would v. much like to visit you in your native habitat. [HOMO SAPIENS CALIFORNII VULGARIS [?]]
Peter Smithson[i]

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: 

Born 1923.
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.


[i] II:23, The Papers of Charles and Ray Eames, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington DC. Philip Johnson was one of America’s most prominent, longest practising and best-connected architects of the twentieth century. In 1932, as the first director of the Department of Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he co-curated the influential exhibition Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, thereby giving rise to the term ‘International Style’. He was also an early acolyte of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Douglas Haskell was an American architecture critic, an early proponent of modern architecture in the United States and editor of Architectural Forum from 1949 until 1964.
[ii] Ibid. The CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne), active between 1928 and 1959, was an organization composed of the most prominent architects of the interwar years that promoted the use of modern architecture internationally. Team X (or Team 10) was a group of modern architects, unofficially headed by Alison and Peter Smithson, that got together during the 9th CIAM congress and was charged with organizing the 10th in 1956 (hence the name). The group subsequently disbanded CIAM and continued as a more informal outfit from 1960 until around 1981.
[iii] Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (London: Allen Lane, 1971), p. 223.
[iv] See, for example, ‘Life in a Chinese Kite: Standard Industrial Products Assembled in a Spacious Wonderland’, Architectural Forum, September 1950; John Entenza and Charles Eames, ‘Case Study House for 1949’, Arts & Architecture, December 1949; ‘A Designer’s Home of His Own’, Life, 11 September 1950; ‘House at Santa Monica California’, Architectural Review, October 1951; Frank Newby, ‘The Work of Charles Eames’, Architectural Design, February 1954. The architect and teacher Michael Brawne, for instance, said that he first came across the house in the September 1950 issue of Architectural Forum. Michael Brawne, ‘The Wit of Technology’, Architectural Design, September 1966, p. 449.
[v] Mark Girouard, Big Jim: The Life and Work of James Stirling (London: Pimlico, 2000), pp. 51–2.
[vi] Anne Massey, The Independent Group: Modernism and Mass Culture in Britain 1945–59 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), p. 84. Active in the 1950s, the Independent Group was a small and informal group of artists, writers and architects who met at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and sought to challenge what they perceived to be the dominant and elitist modernist culture of the period.
[vii] According to Peter Smithson, ‘As far as I can remember, we heard about it in the 1950s.’ Peter Smithson and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Smithson Time: A Dialogue/Ein Gespräch (Cologne: König, 2005), p. 8.
[viii] On the influence of the Eames House, see Beatriz Colomina, ‘Couplings’, OASE, June 1999; Francisco González de Canales, Experiments with Life Itself (Barcelona: Actar, 2013); Peter Smithson, ‘Just a Few Chairs and a House: An Essay on the Eames-Aesthetic’, Architectural Design, September 1966; Dirk van den Heuvel and Max Risselada, ‘“Just a Few Houses …”’, in Dirk van den Heuvel and Max Risselada, eds, Alison and Peter Smithson: From the House of the Future to a House of Today (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2004), pp. 9–11.
[ix] Anthony Vidler, ‘Troubles in Theory V: The Brutalist Moment(s)’, Architectural Review, February 2014; Anthony Vidler, ‘Re-writing the History of the Recent Present: From the New Empiricism to the New Brutalism’, lecture, AA PhD Open Seminar Series, Architectural Association, London, 26 November 2012, available to view online at www.aaschool.ac.uk/VIDEO/lecture.php?ID=2017 (accessed 9 July 2015); Anthony Vidler, ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, October, no. 136, Spring 2011, pp. 105–32; Anthony Vidler, ‘Brutalism, Ethic or Aesthetic?’, in Kyle May, ed., CLOG: Brutalism (Brooklyn: CLOG, 2013).
[x] Reyner Banham, The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? (London: Architectural Press, 1966), p. 134.
[xi] ‘Secundum’ translates as ‘according to’. Banham was cloyingly rather fond of his Latin phrases.
[xii] Robin Middleton, ‘The New Brutalism or a Clean, Well-Lighted Place’, Architectural Design, January 1967, p. 7. This is in fact an alternative provenance of the New Brutalism, as compared to Banham’s rather one-sided version.
[xiii] Reyner Banham, ‘The New Brutalism’, Architectural Review, December 1955, p. 355.
[xiv] Alison Smithson, ‘Beatrix Potter’s Places’, Architectural Design, December 1967, p. 573. See also Dirk van den Heuvel, ‘Alison and Peter Smithson: A Brutalist Story, Involving the House, the City and the Everyday (plus a Couple of Other Things)’, PhD dissertation, Delft University of Technology, 2013, pp. 57–103.
[xv] Alison Smithson and Peter Smithson, ‘The New Brutalism’, Architectural Design, January 1955, p. 1.
[xvi] Incidentally, the Smithsons credit Alvar Aalto’s Baker Dormitory at MIT (1947–8) as being the first Brutalist building, and, in their scathing review of Banham’s book, blast him for missing it. See Alison Smithson and Peter Smithson, ‘Banham’s Bumper Book on Brutalism’, Architects’ Journal, 28 December 1966, p. 1591.
[xvii] See, for example, Pat Kirkham, ‘Architecture’, in Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), pp. 97–141; Elizabeth A. T. Smith, Case Study Houses: The Complete CSH Program 1945–1966 (Cologne: Taschen, 2009); Elizabeth A. T. Smith, ed., Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999); Barbara Goldstein, ed., Arts & Architecture: The Entenza Years (Santa Monica, CA: Hennessey & Ingalls, 1998); Ethel Buisson, ‘In the Shade of the Eucalyptus’, in Ethel Buisson and Thomas Billard, The Presence of the Case Study Houses (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2004), pp. 58–69.
[xviii] Entenza and Eames, ‘Case Study House for 1949’.
[xix] Ibid., p. 27.
[xx] Cited in Beatriz Colomina, ‘The Gift: Reflections on the Eames House’, in Pamela Matthews and David McWhirter, eds, Aesthetic Subjects (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), pp. 347–65.
[xxi] Ray Eames, quoted in Esther McCoy, Case Study Houses 1945–1962 (Santa Monica: Hennessey & Ingalls, 1977), p. 54.
[xxii] Van den Heuvel, ‘Alison and Peter Smithson: A Brutalist Story’, p. 178.
[xxiii] Brawne, ‘The Wit of Technology’, p. 453.
[xxiv] Alison + Peter Smithson: The Shift, Architectural Monographs 7 (London: Academy Editions, 1982), p. 14.
[xxv] Dirk van den Heuvel, ‘“Picking Up, Turning Over and Putting With …”’, in Van den Heuvel and Risselada, Alison and Peter Smithson, pp. 12–28; Van den Heuvel, ‘Alison and Peter Smithson: A Brutalist Story’, pp. 185–7.
[xxvi] Van den Heuvel, ‘Alison and Peter Smithson: A Brutalist Story’, p. 319.
[xxvii] Brawne, ‘The Wit of Technology’; Smithson, ‘Just a Few Chairs and a House’.
[xxviii] Van den Heuvel, ‘Alison and Peter Smithson: A Brutalist Story’, pp. 182, 237.
[xxix] Banham, ‘The New Brutalism’, p. 361. The other two were ‘clear exhibition of structure’ and ‘valuation of materials “as found”’.
[xxx] Alison Smithson and Peter Smithson, Changing the Art of Inhabitation (London: Ellipsis, 1994).
[xxxi] Ibid., pp. 33–7, 141–3.
[xxxii] Ibid., p. 141.

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