1952 Golden Lane Housing competition.
London, Great Britain.
With the project submitted for the competition for the reconstruction of a bombed area of the City of London, A+PS set out to demonstrate that a high density (500 inhabitants) and right restrictions on budget need not result in a low standard of living, and that “an infinitely richer and more satisfactory way of living in cities is possible here and now”. The brief called for the construction of the greatest possible number of apartments in terms of a variety of different sizes of unit, for two, three or four people. “To do this we proposed three levels of ‘streets-in-the-air’; each level we called a ‘deck;”. Each “Deck” was to be occupied by a sufficient number of people -90 families- in such a way that it would constitute a social entity. The “streets-in-the-air” would thus become places with their own identity. “Two women with prams can stop and talk without blocking the flow, and [these streets] are safe for small children, as the only wheeled vehicles allowed are the trades-men’s hand- and electrically-propelled trolleys”. Social activity was to be concentrated in the intervals between the decks. “These crossing are triple-height, contrasting with the single-height decks, inviting one to linger and pass the time of day.” “All dwellings have their front doors on deck elvel and their main accommodation above or below deck”. “The majority, but not all, dwelling have back yard/gardens. These yard/gardens, which can be seen from the deck, bring the out-of-doors life of a normal house—gardening, bicycle cleaning, joinery, pigeons, children’s play, etc., on to the deck, identifying the families with thei “house” on their deck”. “The total penetration of the yard-gardens dissolves the dead-wall effect of the conventional slab block, and produces ever-changing vignettes of life and sky; the individual dwelling clearly being the measure and reason of the whole. People are its predestined ornament’”. The structure, with beams and walls of in situ reinforced concrete, manifests the economy and simplicity of the construction scheme. The project, developed as an urban residential model, was presented at CIAM IX in Aix-en-Province in 1953, together with the theoretical text “Urban Re-identification”.
–Vidotto, Marco. Alison + Peter Smithson. p34. Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, 1997.
Architectural Solutions for Urban Housing”
Webster, Helena. Modernism Without Rhetoric: Essays on the work of Alison and Peter Smithson. Maryland: Academy Editions. 1997.
Golden Lane Housing Competition
A significant shift in the Smithsons’ work was evident as early as 1952, with their Golden Lane Housing competition entry (1951-1952), which proposed a radical solution to the urgent need for mass housing. The forms of the blocks owed much to Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation in form and tectonics. However, in the Smithson’s design the rue interieur was replaced by ‘streets in the air’-the Smithson’s own sociologically-based reinterpretation of the East End By-law street. The Smithsons’ contract with the Hendersons, who were carrying out sociological studies in the East End of London at the time, steered their reading of the city towards a form which reflected the structure of human association. It seemed rational to the Smithsons’ that new methods of production, new forms of transportation, and new ways of life demanded new forms of habitation, and that in turn cities would have to be transformed. Theo Crosby argued the Smithsons’ case in the journal Uppercase 3(1961); ‘the street has been invalidated by the motor car, rising standards of living and changing values’. Thus the Smithsons’ famous perspective is reflecting ‘the expressive graphism of tachiste and art brut traditions while carrying the symbolic burden as an objective pattern of human activities’.
What was so radical about the Golden Lane proposal was not so much the block forms themselves, but the suggestion that the streets and housing blocks might multiply to form a network overlaid on the existing city. The Smithsons’ used a ‘random’ or ‘scatter’, aesthetic drawn from science, molecular geometry, and art brut to distribute housing blocks linked by pedestrian walkways as a new layer over the existing bomb-damaged, ‘ruined’ city. What dictated the disposition of the blocks was no longer the predetermined geometrical grid of early Modernist planning theory, but the topography of the specific site or ‘context’.
Peter Smithson provocatively presented Nigel Henderson’s photographic collage of East End life as a panel at CIAM 9 (1953). Central to his presentation was the idea of ‘patterns of association’. Thus, he proclaimed in an accompanying statement, a community: ‘should be built up of a hierarchy of associational elements…(THE HOUSE, THE STREET, THE DISTRICT, THE CITY)’, one of many aspects of real life which the Smithsons considered had fallen ‘through the mesh of the four functions [housing, work, recreation and traffic].’ Their Golden Lane housing scheme competition drawings were presented in parallel as a suggestion of a solution which offered a more precise relationship between physical form and socio-psychological needs of the community than the previously accepted norm-International Style neo-Platonic grid Planning.
The urban siting and the complex brief entailing accommodation for The Economist and the Economist Intelligence Unit; a residential unit for Boodles Club; and retail units on ground floor of St. James Street, gave the Smithsons the opportunity to apply some of the theories which had been formulated since Hunstanton. The lineage of ideas about the ‘open city’ and the themes of ‘cluster’, ‘growth’, ‘change’, and ‘mobility’, which started with Golden Lane(1952)….
Through their aim to create original and relevant architecture-a contemporary vernacular-in the early fifties the Smithsons became fathers of the ‘New Brutalism’, and were probably the greatest influence on the Modern Movement in Britain after the Second World War. For them, Brutalism was not just about honesty in the use and construction of ‘as found’ materials, which they inherited from Mies and Le Corbusier, but was based on a social programme committed to creating economically, environmentally, and culturally releveant architecture. Their method was based on marrying the careful analysis and overvation of historic fabrics with brave imagination. Their 1952 entry for the Golden Lane housing competition exemplifies these concerns.
Huevel, Dirk van den. Alison and Peter Smithson-from the House of the Future to a house of today. Rotterdam. 2004.
During the 1950s, traces of the Second World War bombing of London were still omnipresent, especially in the East End, a fine-meshed conglomerate of work-class neighborhoods. The London City Corporation organized a competition for the redevelopment of the blitzed corner of Golden Lane and Fann Street.
Though not among the winners, Alison and Peter Smithson’s entry won laurels for coming up with the idea of ‘street-in-the-air’: a spacious gallery giving access to the dwelling underneath and above. The idea of designing a gallery as if it were a street is born of the wish to integrate the residential building into the city’s socio-cultural fabric. Instead of remaining an isolated fragment, the residential building and the East End’s busy local life were to intertwine. This was the Smithsons’ main reason for rejecting high-rise tower blocks. In their view, such housing was too private and did nothing to enhance or inspire coexisting among people sharing a building or neighborhood.
Michiel Brinckman’s 1920 Rotterdam-Spangenblok, representing the successful realization of the idea of a ‘street-in-the-air’, served as a valuable positive example. Its wide gallery extended the homes, offering residents room to site outside, children a safe place to play and roundsmen and barrow boys the opportunity to make their calls. Le Corbusier’s ‘Mareille Unite d’Habitation’, nearly finished at the time of the Golden Lane competition, was another example to the SMithsons. The main difference was that Le Corbusier’s dwellings were accessible through a central gallery, the ‘rue interieure’. The Smithsons moved this central gallery to the exterior, to the façade.
The Smithson project is positioned at an angle on the indicated site. This gross breach with the age-long tradition of having buildings align with the street makes it possible to introduce, quite naturally, wide open spaces adjoining the existing street. This aspect also creates two spacious courtyards at the back of the new residential building. One of these includes a modest community centre and a playground. The block is eleven stories high, nine of them accessible by three ‘streets-in-the-air’, the lower two stories immediately accessible from ground level. Its construction is ambiguous; essentially it is either two wings at right angles to a rectangular block, or a central building flanked by four wings. Two main facilities for ascent in the centre plus four more at the far ends give access to the block of 313 flats. An unusual feature of the building is the so-called ’yard-garden’, a sort of yard in the form of an extra large balcony. Adjoining the gallery, this outdoor space links the public domain to the private home. The extra space also allows residents to add one or two extra bedrooms to their dwelling.
The Smithson’s Golden Lane design only entered the public eye on year later, at its presentation at the ninth CIAM Congress held at Aix-en-Provence in 1953.
There the residential building had been redeveloped into a building unit, to be plugged into a superstructure covering the entire city.
Photographic perspectives rigged by Peter Smithson, show movie starts Gerard Phillippe and Marilyn Monroe, the Indian leader Nehru and Central School of Arts and Crafts students such as Terence Conran walking along ‘streets-in-the-air’. At the CIAM presentation these montages were aligned in a grille beside photographs of East End children playing in the streets of Bethnal Green, taken by the Smithsons’ close friend Nigel Henderson.
It took years before the Smithsons were finally able to realize at least part of their ideas- in the 1966-1972 project Robin Hood Lane.
Smithson, Peter. The Charged Void: Architecture. London: The Monacelli Press. 2001.
Intellectually indicative graphics might be said to have been invented by Paul Klee: extended as a teaching graphic to convey the ability of shapes to work together—as if in the manner of the rasping legs of a grasshopper—conveying a message that a new ordering of image-making, as a comprehensible language, was possible.
Klee invented the forms he disposed…and by judging their appropriate/necessary fields of magnetism, so ordered their disposal; their disposal taking possession of a void and thereby charging it with a potency responding to the new spirit of invention. Once the idea has entered the mind of an indicative graphics, which recognizes patterns of association, of use, of identity, and of movement, it is possible to extend this to an idea that a building’s ordering can be sufficiently comprehensible so as to indicate possible creative use and that it is open to change.
In our work of the early 1950s on the image of a new city—its clusters, its districts—one of the first is a diagram of city elements with an angular pedestrian linkage as ‘streets-in-the-air’ that built towards the association of dwellings at high densities in the cities, allowing sweeter, more agreeably differentiated patterns of vehicle and leisure movement on the freed ground. Linkage built towards a new identity of districts, and these towards a new ordering of densities, acknowledged a differentiated place-quality for the parts of the city. These links, as comprehensible images of a new ordering—indicative of and based on pedestrian movement—were the first offering of places where the pedestrian could walk in safety and feel him or herself in calm surroundings.
Golden Lane is a piece of connective urban form of sufficient size to match in scale those last pieces of urban-form invention, the railway stations that followed directly on from Stephenson’s invention of the railway engine. The immediate post-Stephenson-era building still visible in our cities indicates that the art of urbanism can be reenergized: urban nerve can be transmitted or created by the existence in a community of other forms of confidence.
Stemming from Golden Lane, we have invented a family of connectively inclined buildings in which it is possible to make neighborly contact in calm safety: outside the dwelling-Robin Hood Gardens, park/walk/shop/sit in café-Barlin Hauptstadt, walk-in-the-dry-Mehringplatz, park a vehicle/walk unseen/visit a patient-the hospital at Doha, connect easily/work in ‘islands of calm’-Sheffield Pahlavi, walk/pause/walk-Magdalen College, park in the shade/walk in the shade/ascend easily/visit-Kuwait
In the first note-text written at the time of designing, PS wrote: “Our aim is to create a true street-in-the-air, each ‘street’ having a large number of people dependent on it for access, and in addition some streets are to be thoroughfares—that is, leading to places—so that they will each acquire a special characteristics—be identified in fact. Each part of each street-in-the-air will have sufficient people accessed from it for it to become a social entity and be within reach of a much larger number at the same level.
Streets will be places and not corridors or balconies.
Where a street is purely residential, the individual house and garden will provide the same lively pattern as a true street or square—nothing is lost and elevation is gained.
Thoroughfares can house small shops, post-boxes, telephone kiosks, etc.—the flat block disappears and vertical living becomes a reality. The refuse chute takes the place of the village pump.
In this text, repeatedly, the word ‘street’ has been altered to ‘deck’ and back again. The first ideograms are attached to this note-text, and these include the roof, evidence of our determination both to give a ‘hat’ to the building and to make poetry out of the services.
We continued: “The yard-gardens, being contiguous with the street, bring the extramural life of the home—gardening—bicycle cleaning—joinery—pigeon fancying—children’s play—etc.—into the street, identifying man with his house and his street. Houses being ’detached’, ‘semi-detached’, or ‘terrace’ (each deck differs) achieve the cottage scale in keeping with the scale of the accommodation and areas required. The passing stranger’s view is enriched by glimpses through the open yard-gardens of the city and the River Thames.
The streets are safe play-spaces, for the only wheeled vehicles are the tradesmen’s hand-and electrically propelled trolleys.”
As always, our concern with buildability shows in the competition report: “The structural ‘rack’ is a reinforced-concrete-box-frame with seven-inch bearing walls and six-inch floors. The site has been planned to use a mobile tower-crane to best advantage. The walls will be cast in large-panel, timber-faced, light steel-framed shutters which can be lifted vertically… erection finally taking place at all levels in a pyramidal fashion. Floors are lifted to the next level through the slot left for the pre-cast stairs.
Into this ‘rack’ are built the dwelling; standardized factory-fabricated, with the minimum of site work.
As there are no totally exposed end-walls it has been possible to leave all the concrete unfaced, with a designed shuttering pattern. The remainder of the external walls is self-cleansing materials—glass and vitreous-enameled steel-sheeting.
Parapets are perforated pre-cast concrete panels; also pre-cast are the mullions and transoms.
All windows are in softwood, stained with wood preservative and unpainted.
In retrospect, we can see that in Golden Lane the screening layers are the parapet to the deck and rear wall of deck; then on the other faced the parapet of the yard-garden and penetrable façade of French windows. In many of the drawings there is the obvious and acknowledged debt to Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles, which was being designed and built from 1946 onwards.
Smithson, Peter. The Charged Void: Urbanism. London: The Monacelli Press. 2005.
This study is concerned with the problem of identity in a mobile society. It proposed that a community should be built up from a hierarchy of associational elements and tries to express the various levels of association-the house, the street, the district, the city. It is important to realize that the terms used—house, streets, etc.—are not to be taken as the reality but as the idea and that it is our task to find new equivalents for these forms of association for our non-demonstrative society. The traditional street, considered as an area, is changed by the presence of motor vehicles.
In the old tradition, the street outside the house is the first point of contact where children learn for the first time of the world outside. Here are carried on those adult activities which are essential to everyday life (shopping, car cleaning, scooter repairs, letter posting, etc.)—THE STREET.
Re-identifying man with his environment cannot be achieved by using historical forms of house groupings (streets, squares, greens, etc), as the social reality they represent no longer exists. The Golden Lane idea, a multilevel city with residential streets-in-the-air, is an attempt at another house grouping.
From the multilevel street, people are in direct contact with the larger range of activities which give identity to their community—THE DISTRICT.
Even in a small town compactness is essential. Quarters, each associated with a certain sort of work (banking, docks, etc.), vary in height and density to suit their needs.
Districts in association generate the need for a richer scale of activities which in turn give identity to the ultimate community—THE CITY.
Golden Lane (1952)
Some understanding of the life of the streets which had evolved through the English Byelaw Streets guided this first attempt at an escape point blocks, isolated buildings, towards dwellings more suited to present activities. The branching, twig-like forms speak of connection and choice.