The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Architecture: an Inspiration

Ivor Smith (Matador, 224pp, £24.95)

Reviewed by Alan Powers

For non-architects, it is always instructive to listen to architects talking about why they like particular buildings. Ivor Smith, who is best known as one of the pair (with Jack Lynn) who designed Park Hill, Sheffield, has written a book that gives us insights into his thinking, in the form of a ‘greatest hits’ list of buildings. About 80 per cent of these are fairly predictable subjects, but it is the other 20 per cent that are the most interesting, including some of his own relatively modest projects that came after Park Hill, during decades in which he was mostly occupied with teaching.

This could be described as a ‘Cambridge’ book, not only because that is where Ivor Smith now lives, but because of the values it conveys. This means that it is sensitive, tolerant, pragmatic and perhaps apt to take its assumptions for granted. What Colin St John Wilson called ‘The Other Tradition’ in modernism is at the core, with Alvar Aalto and Louis Kahn both scoring high – not necessarily the position that one would guess from the grand and sublime scale of Park Hill, although the focus there on the experience of the residents, expressed in the ‘streets in the air’, coupled with the use of an irregular configuration, might explain the connection.

The structure of the chapters breaks down the conditions of design and building under various headings, and then runs through examples, rather like a slide lecture. The images follow the text in a wide margin, which means that although they are always handy, the plans, in particular, have been reproduced at a scale that makes many of them hard to read. It is valuable, however, to have this almost unconscious presentation of attitudes developed over many years recorded in print, as it makes a permanent record of a generation’s taste boundaries and ways of thinking. Even more interesting, perhaps, would have been a corresponding list of dislikes, with explanations to go with them.