Alison & Peter Smithson’s Iconic Fifties House

Design: Alison & Peter Smithson

Photographer:  Ian Parry

Credit:  Ian Parry/EWAStock

Derek and Jean Sugden’s unassuming Hertfordshire house is actually a fine example of post-war architecture with a steady stream of architectural students coming to view the iconic 1950s design. The Sugdens were responsible for its creation and lived there for over fifty years.  They  originally commissioned Alison & Peter Smithson to design and build them a practical modern house.

A retired civil & structural engineer and acoustician Derek Sugden was working on a couple of projects with Peter Smithson in 1956.  Derek asked the great man if he could recommend a gifted young architect to produce a house for £2,500.  “I was a bit thrown,” he remembered “When the already quite famous Peter said he’d do it!” 

Alison Smithson produced the first set of designs, which had slit windows and a butterfly roof with a central gutter, which the Sugdens did not like. Using the same floor plans, but with bigger windows, Peter Smithson presented a second scheme which they loved and immediately accepted.   All did not go smoothly as planning permission was refused initially, eventually granted on appeal.  Then the builder went bankrupt which left Jean to manage the sub-contractors, no easy task with school age children.

The house was completed in January 1957 and has had only one or two changes since.  The original open-air back yard was changed into a conservatory, helping to insulate the house; the industrial-looking solid fuel boiler was replaced by a gas-fired version, which serves the original underfloor heating; a galleried bedroom overlooking the stairs was enclosed with panelling and the windows, (originally brown, green & and yellow) were painted white.  Otherwise it remains much the same as when it was first built.

A huge amount of thought and effort went into every aspect of this unique home.  For example the sitting room has dark and light zones to differentiate between summer & winter use.  The dark winter area with seating facing the fire and curtains drawn behind you;  in summer the sofa  is pulled in front of the empty fireplace to take full advantage of the fabulous views across the tree-filled garden. The house overlooks mature gardens on every side and the windows are placed so that the garden can be seen from every window.

“We’ve enjoyed the house enormously and we love it, as do our children and grandchildren,” said the Sugdens, “But we don’t think that any of them would want to live here.”  Derek lived on there for a number of years after Jean died but following his death the house in now for sale.  Perhaps waiting for a new family to enjoy this unique property.


BACKSTAGE @ PENINSULA PARIS by Helman van Heusden & Ivo Weyel/EWA Stock

We are here to photograph backstage at the luxury Peninsula Hotel in Paris.  600 enormously commited people are employed to look after guests.  Everyone knows your name, from the porter to the manager, which is common practice in all of the Peninsula hotels –  good old-fashioned politeness. Every morning, the names of new guests are revealed at the morning roll call. It takes some doing as the many Arabic and Russian names aren’t easily remembered – and then there’s the various titles. How do you address a Crown Prince from a deposed monarchy, officially his title has been stripped but he still continues to use it himself?  The head of hospitality conducts his research thoroughly to make sure the rules of etiquette are observed.

To transform the original Hotel Majestic in Paris took an enormous amount of work by experts. Its restoration took four years, specialist gold leaf restorers used 40,000 sheets of gold leaf and the four man-sized curtain tassels in the Lili restaurant involved 600 man-hours and 15 kilos of silk to create. Each of the 200 rooms needed two and a half kilometres of cabling to operate of the state of the art equipment (the distance between Amsterdam and Paris!) The lift is very entertaining, with a voice stating your level of arrival in several languages with appropriate accents.

The Hong Kong Kadoorie family, owners of the Peninsula chain of hotels which was established in 1928 saw the cost of acquiring and renovating the Hotel Majestic spiralling to the tune of 895 million euros.  With the most reasonable room costing close to €1000 a night, rising to anything up to € 25,000 for the most expensive suites its frequented by the rich and famous. In fact there is such demand in Paris that there are now three more hotels in the same price tier as the Peninsula:  Raffles, Mandarin Oriental and Shangri-La.  The Asian/Chinese travel market is worth something in the order of  300 million euros per year and as a result the  old-established & famous Parisian hotels such as The Ritz and George V  have been spending huge amounts of euros in an attempt to stay in the race to attract these high-end, well-heeled travellers.

So, what does a thousand euros get you?  Free internet (a normal feature in cheap hotels, but oddly enough a rare commodity in the more upmarket ones), a free mini-bar of soft drinks , an enormous crystal wall to slide to one side if you want to watch television, an electric nail dryer.  A mood button in the bathroom instantly dims the oval black marble space into a dusky shade of violet light, while a starry sky filled with dozens of LED lights appears in the ceiling accompanied by Richard Clayderman from the concealed speakers.  There is also a Boîte Valet incorporated in the wall: a kind of dumb waiter between the room and the corridor, so that you can take a room service delivery without being disturbed by the staff.

In 1973 the treaty that would bring an end to the Vietnam War was signed by Henry Kissinger among others in what is now the Kléber Bar; now home to the sound of the bar tender shaking and stirring cocktails for guests.  Julien Alvarez and his team of eleven staff are working frantically on the minute petits fours, decorated with gold leaf and devoured in a single bite.  Smoking is possible in the cigar lounge, an enclosed space filled with crystal and cherubs floating from the ceiling and a home telephone for the waiting staff.  Order coffee and sometime later the phone rings to tell you the coffee is waiting in the hatch.

Peninsula hotel

One’s identity is often scrutinised when you go for a meal in a exclusive restaurant, so its not surprising that the staff of the Chinese restaurant Lili are fully briefed by the Maître D’ before dinner:

“Table 3: Mr & Mrs xxxxxxx, retired lawyer and friend of the hotel manage. VIP treatment category 3. Madame does not drink champagne, so don’t offer her any.”                       

“Table 8: Rich Chinese people. Demanding. Wanted to eat in the private dining room but there wasn’t a room availble. Very good customers, show them extra attention, VIP treatment 1. Welcome aperitif on the house, along with apologies for the unavailability of the private room. Remember Sir does not like to be advised on the wine selection.”  

The large cleaning staff working at 6am scrubbing and vacuuming the outside patio area.   According to ancient Chinese custom the two huge Chinese lions on either side of the entrance protect all those within the building. However, in today’s world this old tradition can’t be relied on – the Peninsula employs a large team of security staff who listen attentively to their ear buds and watch their surroundings like hawks.  A rather scruffy woman arrives but is stopped by a courteous security man. After consulting with reception and very little fuss she is identified and not long afterwards is having her breakfast of a salmon omelette, homemade chocolate croissants and a glass of champagne.  The security guards learnt a useful lesson that appearances can be deceiving but handled the whole matter as experts.

In the catacombs of the hotel, the flowers arrive; fresh from the Netherlands every day. The  Peninsula rose is a soft pink with a darker heart.  Today the hotel florist feels that on inspection  the heart isn’t quite dark enough, she will have to talk to the supplier. Throughout the hotel everything must be 110% for the staff to be satisfied.

Xavier Thuizat, the chief sommelier, had the enviable job of stocking the new hotel’s wine cellar with an unlimited budget! Famous names like Pétrus, Romanée Conti,  Rothschilds, Meursault, Krug Grande Cuvée are all there.  At the moment he is selecting hundreds of  bottles of pink champagne for a charity dinner tonight: its for the breast cancer organisation  who have the colour pink as its main identifier. The hotel facade will be bathed in pink light tonight as a tribute.


Peninsula hotel

Head of Personnel for the Peninsula clearly has his work cut out and runs a successful and tight ship – managing a huge army of “personalities” with all their associated problems, keeping everyone, including guests and hotel management happy on a daily basis is quite an accomplishment.

Having finished our tour of this fine hotel we are shown out by a trio of doormen “au revoir, au revoir, à la prochaine, bon voyage”  the taxi is waiting, we just check our equipment and luggage is in the boot. “Yes, yes, it’s all there”, says the porter as he opens the boot with a flourish. Guess what, its empty!  So even in this superbly run hotel things can sometimes go wrong.

Having said that our bags and equipment were promptly located and we were off to catch our train!


Peninsula hotel

Next stop the Rambach Palace, Jaipur