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Streets in the sky

I went out this morning to grab coffee from around the corner and, on my way back home, I ran into two people in the elevator that, from what I could glean, had hit the same button in the elevator and then struck up a conversation. He asked if she had just recently moved into the building. She responded with no, and that she usually doesn’t see anyone else on their floor. He was surprised by this response and said that he knows everybody on the floor.

Nearly a hundred years ago, architect Le Corbusier, as well as others, had the idea of creating “streets in the sky.” Perhaps the most famous example of this concept is his Unité d’Habitation in Marseille (pictured above). Now a UNESCO World Heritage building because of its role in the development of modernist architecture, the building houses five “streets”, two of which were intended to be fully-fledged shopping streets. These streets house(d) things like shops, restaurants, galleries, and even a hotel.

Le Corbusier was famous for his desire to create machines for living in. And these streets in the sky were part of this philosophy. The idea was that by having all of the things you needed under one roof, you would then be able to live an efficient, productive, and enjoyable life. Architecture and design could do that for you.

Of course, the other reason for this thinking was that we needed to get people away from cars. As the car became more commonplace in cities, conflicts arose. And architects began to grapple with how best to separate people and cars. One obvious solution was to simply lift people up and off the ground so that the street could be freed up for cars to do their thing. This was going to be the future.

The pitfalls of this line of thinking have since then been widely documented. And today, I think it’s pretty clear that most cities are in fact taking the opposite approach. Instead of removing people, they are removing cars through pedestrianization projects. Some of these projects are temporary, but many are also permanent. This happening almost everywhere from Toronto to Sao Paulo.

The other problem is that it’s extremely challenging to make retail uses work way up in the sky. And that’s why even second floor retail spaces often struggle compared to those on the ground floor. As I understand it, the non-residential tenancies in Marseille’s Unité d’Habitation have naturally evolved from being retail-centric to being more office-like. Supposedly you’ll now find architects and medical offices, which is not at all surprising.

But that doesn’t mean that Le Corbusier’s instincts weren’t directionally right. We now have lots of examples of tall buildings housing an intense mix of uses and public functions. And in the case of multi-family buildings, the corridors do often serve as a kind of street. I happen to live off of one that houses our building’s amenities. And so in addition to just running into neighbors, I’ll often run into the odd birthday party or Sunday afternoon sumo-suit party. True story!

It may not be the Champs-Élysées, but it is a kind of street for living.

Photo by Bernd Dittrich on Unsplash

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