Alison Smithson

Reflecting the elusive, off-beat character of her architectural work, Alison Smithson (1928-2003) wrote one of AT’s most memorable ‘My Towns’ in May 1980


Words Alison Smithson


The pleasure of cities is a compound – the inherited built fabric; things thought or written about certain places; how the previous generations used cities and moved about them. To reflect this rich mix and our appreciation of the layering we both see and bring to places, this contribution is in the ‘novel’ form of excerpts….

1917 end of Mai Berlin: The tram rolled and rocked nearer, cut its noise to coasting down on the stop, its front at the position where perspective would come rapidly into play – its bow front seemingly turned, progressively disappearing in passing – the side elevation gliding past. The tram turned right off Tauroggenerstrasse into Kaiserian Augusta Allee.

The tram now grinding round after the front car, to the left, further away from the city; then around to the right. The two women standing, arms folded across their waists – the inevitable large shopping hold-alls looped on forearms – were staring to their left, the way the tram was going. The tram changed tune, wound down to a stop again.

Now passing sparsely built-up areas, between odd three- and four-storey buildings; allotments, flags on poles over the huts and all those black birds hanging quiescent in the folds looking furious at not flapping hard. Now passing factories; left again; the blocks of apartments great cliffs. A beaver hat shop the glass glinting on the shadowed side of the street, gold-lettering arching over, repeated behind the arched wood access doors to the window case. The beige part of the tram livery – only the shine of the dark green noticeable as the tram stated up –momentarily reflected in glass: sun tram sides masquerading as if hot sun, passing shop windows in shadow.

The view out of the other side of the tram was of pale, terracotta-trimmed giant terraces with their running, trilling, three and four tiers of cast iron lace balconies, windows open a little to the sun. Five grand storeys rose to huge round windows beneath monster cornice. These facades thundered and rumbled like Beethoven: pom pom pom pom pom.

Partial use of city. Everyone only used prices, which if mapped would be small jagged areas joined by tramlines. The tram was going further from central Berlin into unknown streets; abducting her… but it could not leave the rails.

She was next conscious of the tram pulling in gently to the island before Bahnhof Alexanderplatz. This being the place where many trams came, there was a soup kitchen for the conductresses and a few stood with their tin basins at the round metal canister set down in the unpoetic sort of sitting-place left by the city streets; an exposed place despite the bushes; so unmedieval in being unresponsive, unadaptable to need.

The tram, rocking along, sang the song of the overhead wires and iron wheels on rails in the street: the Grosse Berliner Strassenbahn Aktiengesellschaft.

Berlin was an ideal city to be in; on sandy turf, amid pines and lakes; a joyous city built for the nation to have its heart”

1917 Dezember Berlin: The night air smelled cold, dry. Only alternative standards illuminated their large lamp glasses: these – plum-pointed, hanging from slender, droplet decorated swan necks – placed out the curve ahead of her. On the road underneath each sparkled a pool, small because only one out of three mantles candescent. Each white frost gained pool could be anticipated while her shadow swung clockwise round her feet – six o’clock behind, short nine o’clock, long twelve before; disappearing in darkness while walked over.

1918 Dezember Berlin: Off the terrassen onto trodden soil onto which dead leaves were stuck… no wind, a lovely morning: the mists of autumn/early December put aside by dry cold; the weak sun promising to clear away the dusky-mauve that typified the Berlin winter horizon. The bright sky meant that withered browns and leafy golds showed to advantage. Trees in parkland, widely spaced in the Englische style, planted perhaps forty years before in place of indigenous pines. Berlin was an ideal city to be in; on sandy turf, amid pines and lakes; a joyous city built for their nation to have its heart in.

The path went with the sloping ground; you could feel it doing so underfoot because its surface greasy-damp. Water lay ahead and on their right, but wild thickets with rank undergrowth prevented access to the shore.

1920 Oktober Berlin: She got off the tram in Tauroggenerstrasse and walked a little way and turned left. The 54 tram would turn after a little while, to whine its bit further to its terminus. She heard it going on, making its tram noise, until the electric noise became drowned in the general residential street sounds: children, her own footsteps, wind stripping the trees of leaves, sailing them about while she moved nearer the house.

The starting noise and gathering speed of the tram – the 54 articulated now – created another noise turning corners: how could it be adequately described? With a musical notation? Mechanical sound notation? Was someone working on transcribing, about to make it possible for others to write a symphony for laundry vans and trams? Wheels on rails laid between granite blocks, the man moving the controls making little noises with the brass handle, whirring it round; sounds under the ribbed wood floor with its lift-up panels and flush-sunk brass lifting-rings; the old song of the pantograph she could remember from visits to her mother’s mother; the skimming along under the wires; the conductor’s ticket-punch percussion dropping little coloured discs: a new world of transporting noises signalling to each other, machine-talking-about-us?