Collage, more than any other medium, is reflective of both the content and the context of Alison and Peter Smithson’s 1953 Golden Lane Estate competition entry, and perhaps most importantly possesses the inherent expressive quality necessary to communicate its ideology. Alison and Peter Smithson were heavily preoccupied with a certain brand of reactive thought, born out of a culture that was beginning for the first time to experience mainstream civil and artistic disobedience. Their radical social vision for the Golden Lane Estate sought to introduce the modernist ‘streets of the sky’ concept into a post-war British vernacular, an endeavour in which they would succeed, though not by winning the competition. The magnetism of the Smithsons’ core ideas assured the project’s discoursive longevity, but the nuance with which these concepts were visualised is where it found its genius.
The collages in question are images of the imagined Golden Lane, constructed by the re-appropriation of found media. As such, the composition is littered with fragments of existent context and meaning, creating a system that fosters metaphor and reference, and how the Smithsons’ impart a conceptual context for the physical design. Without this context, the imagery would be sterile and cleansed of meaning. The line drawings within the composition can exist in autonomy, whereas the photographic elements require the context of the line-drawings to sustain them. It is not incidental that the line drawings are the only part of the composition concerned with the designed element of the scene. The photographic elements refer instead to its use, context or ideological inclinations. Read holistically the collage exists at its most basic expression. It is only in the analysis of each sign in isolation that recognition occurs and a re-contextualisation of the image’s meaning takes place. In a pleasing symmetry, this overlap of visual elements prompts an examination of a corresponding concept: that the overlapping media is symptomatic of the underlying ideology.
The medium itself carries its own connotative baggage; by the 1950s it had long held a place in the hearts and minds of the artistically subversive, originating within Dada, Surrealism and the early Modernist movement. In the collage’s dissident connotations the Smithsons are attempting to lend a seditious credibility to the socially progressive and reformist brand of liberalism their design personifies. In a curious paradox this same certainty imparted by the aesthetic is defied by the polysemic nature of the cultural reference. The Smithsons’ series of collages stop short of introducing any specific information, choosing instead to suggest a general physical form and abstract qualities by way of implicature. Often this may be at the expense of precision, but by the references they make within the collage they construct a context strong enough to specify meaning.
Additionally, the collages were a means of reaching the public, as well as their architectural contemporaries, and this is where their use of collage is truly inspired. The same basic principles read with corresponding complexity proportional to the cultural awareness of the viewer. In doing so they avoid provoking a negative, even philistinic, reaction from the social groups that made up Golden Lane’s intended tenants, describing a number of social values without falling into the common pitfall of condescending the working class they purport to benefit.
This is most apparent in their use of popular culture, a way of introducing the pervasive power of humour. By including Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio (Image 2) in a depiction of council housing there is a violation, or disruption, of an expected order; a fundamental component of most accepted theories of humour. The sheer incongruity of two wildly famous celebrities inhabiting a housing estate in Cripplegate is stark and their status as prominent cultural icons means that everyone is in on the joke, eliciting a kind of associative catharsis. In recognising the pair, anyone would at once understand the humour of the situational contrast. Even if their understanding falls short of actually finding it funny, the shared understanding of a reference establishes a rapport between the viewer and communicant, encouraging a sympathetic reception.
In Image 1 they include French actor Gerard Phillipe and the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. Both at the time were recognisable figures, though to a lesser extent than Monroe and DiMaggio. The inclusion of Nehru in particular is interesting; the choice to include him can be regarded as a little more indulgent than the use of actors and baseball players. Public recognition of Nehru is would not be guaranteed, but to those who might recognise him, the Smithsons are suggesting a kind of shared ideological comradery. Culturally, Nehru was representative of the Indian independence movement and his inclusion in the imagery may be regarded as an attempt to set a liberal, consciously egalitarian tone for the design. This representational choice manages to cut right to a fundamental part of the Smithsons’ Golden Lane Estate – defining a standard for social housing in post-war Britain and an approach to the design of high-density social housing. It is in the collage’s ability to make these explicit references, a quality usually restricted to prose, which elevates its expressive value over that of other visual media, and the immediacy of its pictorial nature supplies a universality that a written manifesto would not have the luxury of.
In understanding the relationship between concept, context, design, and representation the Smithsons’ Golden Lane is a masterclass in mimetic symbiosis. The use of the medium to convey both theoretical context and provide a contemporaneous, but not populistic, tone is significant in itself, and the creative dexterity of the Smithsons to recognise and then fulfil that potential gives cause to reassess the work as a moment of historical significance within architectural representation.