The Team 10 architect’s plan to reinvent the city may sound far-fetched, but his human-centred approach to design still holds lessons for us, says Debika Ray
Those unfamiliar with his ideas would be forgiven for seeing Oskar Hansen’s Linear Continuous System [LCS] simply as a gargantuan socialist megaproject. Developed in the 1960s and 70s, the Polish architect’s plan was an attempt not just to rethink but to overhaul the entire concept of the city, replacing traditional, concentric development with vast, parallel belts that would snake across the length of his country, from the Tatra mountains in the south to the Baltic sea in the north. Distributed along these would be housing, services, industry, public space and high-speed transportation.
This was not a theoretical exercise, but a genuine proposal for Poland’s future, responding to a growing urban population and the associated sprawl of cities. Hansen estimated that 12 million residents could be housed across a 400km stretch of the LCS. The ambition was to level out inequalities between urban and rural areas, centre and periphery, challenging social segregation entrenched by unequal access to services, jobs, welfare, cultural amenities and public spaces.
Oskar Hansen in Wroclaw (1975)
It’s true that a socialist state – with its control over land use, planning, funding and construction – was crucial to the realisation of such an ambitious plan, but Hansen had a more nuanced view of the state-citizen relationship than many of his contemporaries. A member of Team 10 – a group formed in 1960 in opposition to the modernist orthodoxy represented by Le Corbusier – his most significant contribution to architectural thinking was the theory of ‘open form’, which argued that design should be derived from and flexible to human activity, rather than imposed by architects.
With the LCS, he translated this to an urban scale. While the basic plan – ‘shelves’ for dwellings, transport and infrastructure – would be standardised, many individual homes and clusters would be created, designed or customised by residents. User participation and social engagement were paramount: the freedom to form their living space would mean residents felt engaged and in control, while public space for relaxation, play and social interaction would result in a ‘new type of feeling … different from that of capitalism’.
Hansen’s attention to individual agency in shaping the environment eschewed the traditional split between individualistic and collectivist conceptions of society. He believed the state would flourish by harnessing human creative potential – and that the LCS would be a physical manifestation of the egalitarian principles of socialism.
Model of Masovia Belt, near Warsaw (1968)
The Polish authorities were receptive, giving Hansen financial support and considering the LCS proposals as part of its infrastructure plans. You could speculate that there were strategic reasons for its appeal: the flexible, decentralised structure would make it relatively resilient to attack, while its geographic span would enable the spread of a unified Polish identity. Ultimately, economic and social realities meant it was never realised. Hansen and his wife Zofia tested some of its ideas on housing projects, building linear blocks with equal access to public space and lifts. These received mixed reviews, owing both to poor construction and failure to implement its basic principles (in one scheme, flats were assigned randomly, with no regard to the couple’s consultations with residents).
Hansen died in 2005. Although he remains little known outside architecture circles, in recent years his profile has grown, thanks to a series of exhibitions organised by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw – most recently at the Yale School of Architecture. Meanwhile, the idea that a liveable urban realm relies on a combination of active planning policy and in-depth community participation has become mainstream, championed by such high-profile architects as Pritzker-winner Alejandro Aravena.
Much further east, the pressures of urbanisation and population growth have given rise to a new era of large-scale linear conurbations: China, India and Pakistan have all striven to formalise haphazard settlements into urban corridors up to 1,500km long. But in these plans, it is commerce and industry that are the priorities, and there is scant mention of social values. Perhaps it’s time to look again at Hansen’s vision.
This article first appeared in Icon 163
Above: Model of residential terraces, Western Belt, near Lublin (1976)
Images: Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts Museum; Copyright Oskar Hansen Archive, courtesy Igor Hansen