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.