O.M. Ungers’ competition entry for Roosevelt Island housing (1975) reflects an attempt in the 70’s to address the crisis of the city, more specifically the failure of modern architecture (from CIAM through even Team X) to address the urban condition. Like others in the 70’s, Ungers resorts to a morphological strategy to reconnect the city to architecture. His proposal, like early OMA schemes, relies on a deliberately generic distillation of form based on typology. His chart of typologies reflects the tension between individual buildings and a unified plan, between a “city within a city” and a city connected morphologically to it’s place. The grid here serves both as a conceptual, euclidian base for the generation of building types, and of course a specific reference to the Manhattan grid. The rectilinear form and geometric layout serve typological abstraction made concrete, and writ large. (In many ways this is a precursor to the OMA projects of ‘bigness’ just as much as it is a subtle integration of urban form at the smaller scale of the street, block, and open space network.) These housing typologies emerged from his research of the site and its context, yet are abstracted, edited, recombined, reformulated and then distributed as part of the urban system.
In 1941, the modernist housing spirit of some of the east coast experiments reached a maturity in Los Angeles. Baldwin Hills Village (now called the Village Green) was designed by Clarence Stein, urban planner of Sunnyside Gardens in New York and Radburn, New Jersey.
The plan continued the idea of the “superblock” first experimented with in Sunnyside and then developed to a fuller extent at Radburn. The cars were kept to the perimeter, and the interior was a separate pedestrian environment. The 80 acre site contains 627 units of housing and some shared building program, with a prodigious amount of green space.
The open green space is divided into three main “greens”, the central one being the largest. Off of each green are a collection of smaller courtyards formed by the buildings- long siedlung style bars. The bar buildings are designed so that, while the ‘front’ face onto these courtyards and greens, the backs mask the parking court.
The result of the superblock, with total separation of pedestrian and car, is prodigious interior space that feels more like a college campus than an urban housing project.
The earliest experiments with the concept by Clarence Stein seemed more appropriately scaled, and more urban, such as in Sunnyside Gardens in New York (1924):
But Radburn, as brilliant as it was, pointed more to a suburban model and one that led to decades of anti-urban settlement patterns found particularly in the ex-urbs of America. Nevertheless, the search for appropriate forms of density continued and still remains today a relevant and unsolved urban and architectural problem.
Alison and Peter Smithson’s competition entry for the reconstruction of post-war ruins in The City of London was a bold, brash vision of new urban form. The plan intended to bring together high densities of people in a way that created “an infinitely richer and more satisfactory way of living in cities.” To achieve this, they proposed a series of “streets in the air” which connected clusters of flats accessible above and below each mid-air street. They believed that concentrating pedestrian circulation would create community and bring a kind of humanity back to some of the more bombastic and monumental CIAM modernist housing projects. Separating the pedestrian streets from the ground was also their response to the growing ubiquity of the automobile. Although the slab housing forms of the Golden Lane Project owed much to Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation and its internal street, the more radical part of the project was the de-emphasis of the building as a discreet unit of urbanization, and instead the creation of a network of continuous buildings arranged in a kind of cellular or synaptic pattern. Such a network would respond to local needs and topography, and would exist as another layer of urbanism upon the existing city fabric. This clustered and networked approach, a flexible system, was a rejection of the imposition of the a priori high modernist grid. The project was presented at CIAM IX. The Smithsons would, of course, become founders and influential members of Team X in the upcoming years.
Although the emphasis on community, flexibility, adaptability, and pedestrians is laudable, the decoupling of residential life from the streets ultimately has proven disastrous for cities. And even for the Smithsons: their Robin Hood Gardens project, essentially their built version of the Golden Lane Project twenty years later, is currently scheduled for demolition in London. Perhaps it is a matter of urban scale, as well as the dismissal of the urban block as the basic element of cities. The success of Michiel Brinckmann’s Spangenblok in Rotterdam (1920’s), for example, which also employed pedestrian streets in the air, by contrast linked buildings which had a clear disposition within the city block. That assemblage of buildings had a relationship to the traditional street, and created open, semi-private space within the perimeter block massing. The interior streets in the air were therefore secondary and supportive to the “real” streets of the city, and were visibly connected to the pedestrian spaces below within the block.