Featured Plan: Smithsons’ Golden Lane Project (1952)

Sketch of Golden Lane network


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.

Smithsons’ Golden Lane project, 1952- network of housing and streets in the air

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.

“Street in the air” of the Smithsons’ Golden Lane project (1952)

Collage view of Smithsons’ Golden Lane project

Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens, with ‘streets in the air’ first developed in their Golden Lane project. The building is currently scheduled for demolition after a fierce preservation debate.


M. Brinkmann’s Spagen Housing, Rotterdam, 1920’s







Facebook and Apple’s New Headquarters

A campus has traditionally always been buildings around open space. Facebook's new campus relegates landscape to the roof as well as to a perimeter buffer.

The Apple has landed.


Announcements this year that two of the largest, most (in)famous technology companies of a generation, Facebook and Apple, are building new headquarters is a chance to get a snapshot of the current role of architecture in creating bricks-and-mortar brands for high-tech digital companies fanatically concerned about their image, as well as to understand what it means now to create a “campus.” Unfortunately, on all accounts, this snapshot is a dismal revelation of how irrelevant architecture has become, how urbanism fails to enter into any present-day architectural consideration, and how the proud and storied history in America of creating campuses through hierarchical scales of interconnected buildings and landscapes, is finally extinct and merely rhetorical. Perhaps most disturbing is the absolute neglect, to the point of aggressive dismissal, of any concern for the neighborhood and surrounding city. Since it could be argued it is not a corporation’s responsibility to create value for anything other than itself, perhaps a better way of restating this rejection of urban context is that these companies are unable to see any value in an open, urban campus to the function of their company or the welfare of their employees. Nor do they see any value in contributing to their home city through the creation of a strategically placed headquarters that would have a positive catalytic effect on the area. (I remember similar arguments when the Getty chose their castle-on-a-hill site over a more urban site like the former Ambassador Hotel property in Mid-Wilshire.)

Facebook's existing campus: typically isolated "office park". Sublime islands in sprawl.

Both new headquarters are insulated, isolated, inward-looking fortresses. Both projects accept the recent trend of mistaking big buildings for urbanism, and of single massive spaces with fragmented floor plans for campuses. No matter how many bean-bagged ‘informal’ areas or ‘cafes’ are scattered throughout Facebook’s hyper-inflated space, it is not a campus, not a mixed-use place, but designed to seal off any intrusion from the outside world, or even the outside environment. Allison Arieff touches on this in her NY Times Opinionator blog, stating that in contrast to the simulated urbanism of the new isolated Facebook headquarters (which for some reason she calls New Urban-ish), Silicon Valley employees’ “most meaningful encounters occur not at work but while waiting on city streets for the now-ubiquitous corporate shuttles from San Francisco that take them south to Silicon Valley.”

Gehry’s scheme, from the few model photos recently released, creates the pretense of messy urbanism by playfully slicing and dicing a giant “warehouse”, and gratuitously altering the perimeter shape and materials to make the singular and monumental appear fragmented and contiguous. There of course is nothing wrong with doing this, and it is an architectural strategy employed through the ages (including by Gehry himself elegantly in the eighties). Yet what is hypocritical is the building’s pretense to be something that Facebook clearly doesn’t really want: an actual campus. Facebook itself, in the little it has released publicly about this project, alternates between calling the building a campus and a warehouse. Yet the two are opposite; one being a collection of buildings distributed strategically in a large space, and the other a large space enclosed in a single building. Now there are certainly interesting and provocative ways to explore a breakdown in this opposition, and what a 21st-century campus might be, but this, unfortunately, is not one of them. The idea of ‘landscape,’ one of the most important, central, and occupiable elements of a campus (whether academic or corporate) has in Gehry’s proposal been relegated to the roof as well as a careless perimeter buffer from the surrounding city.

"The largest open floor plan in the world." Is this something to brag about?

Facebook’s claims of creating a sustainable and contextual campus ring hollow on all accounts- and the building compensates by rhetorically communicating these false premises. The slicing and dicing and massing fragmentation are merely signs representing “messy and variable urban conditions”. Similarly, the roof garden I suspect is merely a sign of “sustainability;” any true sustainability, especially in terms of ventilation and daylighting, are virtually impossible to obtain in such a massive, deep, continuous single floor-plate building.

Are we lost yet? Clearly a map only a Situationist could love.

Apple’s headquarters, despite similar urban deficiencies as Facebook’s building, at least represents exactly what I imagine Apple must thinks of itself. There doesn’t seem to be any architectural hypocrisy here. The building (and company) exude a powerful, insular, technologically advanced, secretive, almost oracular aura.


It is no surprise that Apple’s headquarters resembles the ultra-secretive GCHQ headquarters in Britain, or a smoothed-out Pentagon in Washington. Still, a campus it is not. It is a massive, isolated building, geometrically so pure that is is hard to understand how this “campus” can evolve and grow; it lacks the inherent flexibility of a typical campus. It’s as if the company is freezing itself in time, in some present-perfect state, fortifying itself against not just the city, but the inevitable future forces of corporate and market transformation.



Will St.Peter greet you at the door?

And change, transformation, and evolution are what cities and campuses can accommodate best. Ultimately a campus, and a city, or any place for that matter, is not a singular ‘project,’ but a collection of buildings and spaces. Facebook and Apple can’t be faulted for attempting to control their massive undertakings as a single conceptually unified ‘project’, but it points to the current lack of value today of seeing one’s project as part of a larger fabric of making a place, and the intellectually lazy method of creating urbanism by simply creating hyper-inflated buildings. This is project-based urbanism, contained and wrapped up in a neat package, with clear boundaries and fortified envelopes. Both headquarters in their own way indicate the current fascination with controlled monolithic entities (corporate and architectural) over the often messy, subtle, complex, and heterogeneous places that may exist outside their secure perimeters.


The New Los Angeles Greenway

In accepting the growing obsolescence of freeways- the clear failure of them to perform as promised, the inevitable ruins they will become (like many other historic urban infrastructures), and the social and environmental problems they have created- I am posting a conceptual (alas) project to convert Los Angeles freeways to greenways.

For the full PDF of the booklet select here: The New Los Angeles Greenway

Below is a brief manifesto and some images from the project:


A Greenway Manifesto: Slow Move Nation

 Los Angeles freeways promised speed and connectivity but delivered congestion and separation.  They are at their tipping point- dysfunctional and on the verge of obsolescence. Like many great cities that have reclaimed the ruins of their infrastructure it is time for Los Angeles to reclaim it’s inevitable and future ruins.

We must turn these concrete rivers of frustration and pollution into something good for everyone in the city.

 We propose to end this senseless preoccupation with speed, which has delivered anything but. We propose a Slow Move Nation, like the Slow Food Nation.  Freeways can be the source of transit and connectivity, as well as parks and valuable green space for an inexorably gray city.  Pedestrians, bikes, and light rail will now move along the old freeway routes instead of cars. Furthering the movement toward local community (and reducing the egregious transportation miles required by the global agri-industry), we are reintroducing agriculture to Los Angeles through the construction of vertical farms along the freeway.   Community gardens would also be created, and new public squares would be both transit hubs as well as farmers markets.

 We would ideally like to see the end of the reliance on private car ownership, and the increased use of shared car services (like Zip cars), and particularly transit. We envision all major boulevards and avenues having street cars that connect to the new greenways and their light-rail system. Streets of Los Angeles can be filled with the sounds of children playing and the whoosh of bicycles rather than the cacaphony of car traffic. 

We propose:

• Limit private car ownership citywide (decrease lanes, emphasize

            car sharing and taxis, reduce available parking, gas tax)

• Provide light rail and other transit on all major streets citywide.

• Trasform all streets to include bike paths and beautiful pedestrian sidewalks

• Develop freeway rights-of-way into GREENWAYS with no cars that contain:

Light Rail | Vertical Farms | Community Gardens | Bike Paths | Walking promenades | Parks | New Public Squares


Much like the Slow Food movement's resistance to the industrialization of food, and the failed premise that all food should be available to all people at any time, so too might there be a "Slow Move" movement. The desire to move people as quickly as possible to anywhere they want to go, the "industrialization" of transportation into the instantaneous global travel has caused similar problems of the globalization of food. Indeed a return to emphasis on the local, on balanced resources, on the affects of industrialization on community are very similar.


Plan showing bike access to the new GreenwaysPlan showing 1/4 mile walking radii (in orange) indicating that street cars on major boulevards are all accessible within walking distance. The street cars would connect to the new Greenway with light rail. The dashed red circle is a typical bike radius.View of Santa Monica Greenway (former 10 freeway) at Arlingtonlegend of proposed Greenway componentsView of proposed Greenway toward new light rail station

Diagram showing 1/4 mile walking radii. Street cars on major avenues are all accessible by foot. These streetcars connect to the light rail system on the new Greenways.


Components of proposed LA Greenway

View of proposed LA Greenway toward new transit plaza.

View of the new LA Greenway (former Santa Monica 10 Freeway)