Future cops guard the Hayward GalleryDuring a recent (and ongoing – we’re currently up to The Monster of Peladon) trawl through Jon Pertwee era Doctor Who, we saw Frontier in Space, and I was struck by its use of the architecture of the South Bank centre in London to depict an utopian Earth of the future. There is an inherent pleasure in watching fantastic scenarios played out in settings with which you are familiar, particularly when the obvious urban markers (Big Ben, the Washington monument etc) are avoided. Here we get the noble, voluminously caped lizard-like race of the Draconians and the prognathous and beetle-browed thugs for hire the Ogrons shooting it out from the concrete stairwells and walkways of the maze-like arts centre, with the Doctor and Jo shuttling back and forth between factions. Scenes were shot in the areas surrounding the Hayward Gallery and the Queen Elizabeth Hall, both of which are prime examples of the style which became prevalent in the 60s and 70s and was known as the New Brutalism, usually shortened to brutalism. It is often used as a readymade backdrop in film and television science fiction of this time, generally in order to connote oppressive, dystopian societies in which the individual is reduced to an undifferentiated unit. Imagined futures often reflect more on the look of the era in which they were created in retrospect. The shining art deco city of Things to Come is a prime example. The building of the city, accompanied by Arthur Bliss’ stirring score, was symbolic of the triumphant re-emergence of the human spirit after a descent into barbarism and tribal conflict, even if, in the end, the representatives of its new generation had to escape it and travel into space in order to further the human endeavour. The fact that brutalist buildings were used to conjure bleak and totalitarian future societies in which human individuality was ruthlessly curtailed indicates the widespread suspicion and resentment the social engineering which they embodied generated.
Ogrons late for a Chopin recital at the Queen Elizabeth HallThe architects who came up with the term ‘new brutalism’ (and it’s Alison and Peter Smithson who are generally cited as its progenitors) intended it as a riposte to the term ‘new humanism’, which referred to the post war vogue for re-incorporating traditional styles in deference to public taste. To the radical young architects of the day, this was a weak-willed dilution of the purity of modernism, a failure to carry out the sweeping away of the dead weight of tradition with the requisite ruthlessness. The moniker came to be deeply damaging, effectively providing a convenient term for voicing the disgust and outrage which the rush of inferior examples with (and in) which people were forced to live aroused. The fact that such a term could be adopted, with its intended meaning lost in obscure hermetic in-jokes (Peter Smithson was apparently sometimes known by the nickname Brutus, and there may also be a reference to the art brut movement which was in vogue at the time) suggests that the architects who used it weren’t overly concerned with the reception of their ideas by a wider public. The connotations of the word beyond this inner circle were suggestive of a bludgeoning coercion, a defiant anticipation of the antipathy this style would arouse and a contemptuous disregard for any objections. The label of Brutalism came to stand for the overbearing and bullying nature of the architecture itself, and by extension the architects themselves too. This may not have been the intention, but it’s representative of the way ideas which originate in privileged enclaves become transformed and subject to sceptical scrutiny once they enter the wider world in which they are to be implemented. And it wasn’t much of a joke, anyway.
The brutalists were intent on furthering the ideas of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, who insisted on a ‘purity’ and ruthless disavowal of decorative artifice. They talked of ‘honesty’ of materials and form, and the use of such language suggested that they believed that they were engaged in a high-minded moral endeavour. Most were indeed socialists with a desire to transform cities to conform with their ideals of what would constitute a brave new world. Such honesty of materials tended to result in an overwhelming prevalence of unadorned concrete, moving away from the white surfaces of pre-war modernist buildings in what was known as the ‘international style’. These ‘maisons blanches’ had always seemed more at home in the sunnier climes of the Mediterranean anyway, and grey concrete did fit in more aptly with the British climate. But it’s not a very welcome congruence. Who wants an architectural style which seems to earth the atmosphere of leaden, overcast skies? At best, it means that the British character gets to grumble about the buildings as well as the weather. This all-pervasive greyness of the 60s and 70s developments is one of the keys to their unpopularity. These buildings seem to embody a strain of English Puritanism, a deeply ingrained national tendency rooted in history and climate. You can’t help but think of the way in which the ornamentation of cathedrals and churches was smashed and defaced (literally in the case of many statues and reliefs) by the puritans of the 17th century, whose own buildings were stark and unadorned. The stripping back to basic functionalism which dictates the form of brutalist buildings lends them their uncompromising and imposing austerity and their air of stern morality. They certainly don’t convey any sense of playfulness or levity, and any trace of frivolity is certainly outlawed.
Brutalist gothic tower - The BarbicanThe functions which were allowed were those deemed necessary for the living of a modern life by the architects and planners. They were designing for life as they envisaged life was led – or for life as they felt it should be. Le Corbusier, the chief guru of the brutalists, is said to have declared ‘the design of cities…too important to be left to the citizens’. The impersonal rationalisation of his views of urban living, embodied in his famous phrase about houses being ‘machines for living in’, is furthered by the fact that no-one ever seems to call him by his actual name. Le Corbusier is a nickname which, roughly translated, means the crow-like man. He was born with the rather more human name of Charles-Eduard Jeanneret. Did anyone ever dare call him Charlie? This sounds rather akin to the forbiddingly modernist composer Milton Babbitt’s notorious article for High Fidelity magazine which seemed to reject the validity of what he saw as an uninformed audience’s critical reaction to the new music he and his contemporaries were producing, or indeed of any audience at all. The title ‘who cares if you listen?’ was deliberately provocative and not actually of his choosing; but at least an option was being provided. It’s rather easier to ignore an abstruse classical piece perhaps broadcast in the evening on radio 3 than a large high-rise and flyover development with, or in which one is obliged to live. As Babbitt saw listeners as an unnecessary adjunct to the abstract perfection of his music, so human inhabitants seemed to be something of an intrusive inconvenience to the architectural models which Le Corbusier and his acolytes designed. These attitudes are parodied in Monty Python’s architect sketch, in which the designer’s explanation of his model of a high-rise estate descends into a description of a human slaughterhouse, in which the tenants are carried along a conveyor belt ‘towards the rotating knives. The last twenty feet of the corridor are heavily soundproofed. The blood pours down these chutes and the mangled flesh slurps…’ The following model simply collapses and bursts into flame and is accepted on the basis of a Masonic handshake. This was about a year after the collapse of one side of the system-built Ronan Point high-rise block of flats in the East End on 16th May 1968. This date really marked the end of any public trust in the modernist high rise vision of the future.
Dreaming of the future. Bruno Taut - Alpine Architecture 1919The utopianism of post-war planners, the design from scratch of a plan for living expressed through structures which will shape it is what makes this architecture so perfect for SF. The grand plans of early 20th century architectural dreamers are often barely distinguishable from the covers of pulp SF magazines. The buildings on the South Bank which were part of the 1951 Festival of Britain were a late-coming reflection of such dreams, and the Skylon, the Dome of Discovery and even the Festival Hall did indeed make it onto the cover of a science fiction magazine; the Autumn 1951 issue of New Worlds. Visions of cities like crystalline alpine deposits and towering glass cathedrals were clearly only ever going to be constructed in the imagination. Le Corbusier’s Voisin Plan for the rebuilding of Paris along the lines of his rationalised ideal of ‘la ville radieuse’, or the radiant city, was perhaps always meant to remain an ideal. Certainly only a degree of power bordering on totalitarianism would have allowed him to sweep away the necessary swathes of the pre-existing Paris, of whose irrational tangle of streets many were rather fond. The radiant city into which Le Corbusier wished to transform Paris was based around urban motorways which would allow citizens (all of whom would have their own private transport) to glide between the clearly delineated zones. Such clear delineation would, by extension, apply to the functional roles carried out by the citizens themselves.
Festival of Britain - 1951 Futurism
A fine day in the Radiant CityIt all betokens a world view in which all life is neatly filed and assigned, kept within pre-determined limits. Such limits are as much an indication of the narrow boundaries of the imagination, which in science fiction (generally of the lazier sort, unless a point is deliberately being made) tends to manifest itself in inhabitants of the future wearing identical clothing according to their role within society (and the story) and shuttling about between different ‘zones’ which exist in complete separation one from the other. All Le Corbusier’s illustrations of his radiant city needs to turn it into a pulp SF cover are a few air cars, people floating about in anti-grav belts and a space port on the horizon with a rocket blasting off to the stars, where more planets are ripe for development. Indeed, there is a strangely shaped plane buzzing over the ranked high-rises, its proximity to their cruciform roofs presumably designed to illustrate their skyscraping elevation. In its lack of any evident aerodynamic qualities of design, it seems no more likely to rise to the skies than the buildings which Le Corbusier has dreamed up. These pre-war visions of the future city foreshadow the brutalists’ taste for monumental forms. The high-rise was the signature shape of things to come, a symbolically aspirant reaching for the heavens. Pyramidal or ziggurat forms also proved popular, indicating either an attempt to recreate an spirit of epic endeavour, a sense of a future filled with wonder waiting to be constructed, or an inadvertent exposure of the underlying megalomania of the architect’s ego, depending on your point of view.
The concrete balustrades, walkways, spiral stairways and bunker-like buildings of the South Bank don’t necessarily connote a dystopian future in Frontier In Space. The tensions between Earth and its rival Draconian Empire are being inflamed and manipulated by an external force, and it comes as no surprise in this era of Who when this turns out to be the Master. The resultant unrest across the globe, seen via unrolling newscasts (complete with textual commentaries scrolling along the bottom of the screen!) reveals the tensions which underlie the World Government, but these hostilities are directed against outsiders, the alien Draconians, with whom an uneasy state of peace had recently been negotiated. The Draconians are even given their own racist epithet, dragons, an appellation which the Doctor explains to Jo with evident distaste. Once the Master’s meddling has been exposed, along with the identity of the third party for whom he is acting as agent (clue – they tend to shout a lot) there is a sense that the government can act as a uniting force, it’s president having acted with reason and restraint throughout. This strong female leader even manages to win the terse and belligerent military commander over to a more considered outlook. Having said that, there is a penal colony on the moon, from which there is no return, for political prisoners from the Peace Party; The ‘concentration moon’ which Frank Zappa envisaged on We’re Only In It For The Money’. Its existence is evidence of an authoritarian security state operating alongside the supposed democracy, created as a response to the artificially maintained climate of fear and paranoia. Having been sent here himself, the Doctor does manage to elicit a promised from the president that with the fear of subterfuge and war removed, these prisoners will be returned to Earth to play an active role in its society.
Buckminster Fuller's dome over Manhattan - why?Terence Dicks, in the extras to the dvd of Doctor Who and the Silurians, reveals that Frontier in Space writer Malcolm Hulke was at one time broadly communist in his political views, and had indeed worked with theatre groups in East Germany. He had mellowed a little over the years, but the production team shared with him an essentially left wing view of the world. The socially progressive agenda of modern urban planning, the desire to sweep away the divisions of the past and create the world anew, was an outlook which they viewed in a sympathetic light. Hulke also manages to hint at other aspects typical of science fiction utopias and future cities. A newscaster reports on the progress of the Arctic reclamation schemes, a big science project. People who move their to the enclosed cities of New Montreal and New Glasgow are told that the Bureau of Population Control will have their family allowance raised to two people. The human race is still expanding, and has now established an empire in space. The reference to New Montreal may well be a nod to Buckminster Fuller, one of whose domes was displayed in the 1967 Expo which took place there. The idea of covered cities, whether that be in the form of domes or pyramids, was very much in vogue in the 60s and 70s, and had been a staple of science fiction for ages. Buckminster Fuller was the chief designer and proponent of the geodesic dome, many of which were realised. But he did allow himself to indulge in more extravagant fancies. These included floating tetrahedron cities and a glass dome which would cover half of Manhattan. These were late entries in the tradition of the sketches and vague plans of grandiose new Xanadus made by the romantic dreamers of the early twentieth century, and they were never remotely likely to make it into the real world. They certainly stirred the imagination, though.
Earth government buildingsThere is an insert shot, when we are first introduced to the President of Earth and her general, of the saucer-like forms of Oscar Niemeyer’s national congress buildings from the central administrative plaza of the Brasilian capital city of Brasilia, which stand in for the administrative centre of this world government of the future. The South Bank Centre provides the fine detail, the background for the action scenes. The merging of the two geographical locales (and you can’t see the join) from opposite ends of the Earth, demonstrates that concrete modernism is essentially the same the world over. Brasilia was purpose built in the central region in 1960 as a centre for the government and its administration, and the population which it was assumed would cluster around it. This was perhaps the closest anyone came to designing Le Corbusier’s ideal city of the future. Robert Hughes revisited the city some twenty years after its construction in the course of his series on modern art The Shock of the New. For him, Brasilia is emblematic of what happens when the ideal plan of utopia collides with the reality of life as it is actually lived, and indeed with physical reality itself. As he puts it, ‘it is a vast example of what happens when people design for an imagined Future, rather than for a real world’. It had ‘ceased to be the City of Tomorrow and turned into yesterday’s science fiction’. The tropical climate has caused the concrete to crack, and there is a sense that it may not be long before the jungle re-establishes dominion. Brasilia will become another lost site awaiting future archaeological explorers to unearth its remains, like the Khmer city of Angkor in Cambodia, or the Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala. Utopias are always best left to the pages of the architect’s drawing book or the covers of SF magazines. It’s worth remembering that the literal translation of utopia is no-place, or nowhere.
Firestarters on the Alton West EstateThe Alton West Estate, built on the edge of Richmond Park in 1959, establishes a more straightforwardly dystopian mood in the opening scenes of Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. The inhabitants of this residential block, modelled on Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles, stand outside in an impotent huddle to watch as the books (mainly Penguin paperbacks of the time), which have been gathered by the firefighters turned secret police in a surprise raid, are burned in a pyre which has been set up with professional haste. The fire station itself is approached via encompassing brutalist walls, with their characteristic rough surface taken from the patterning of the wood grain of the shutters between which the concrete had been poured. The bright red paint of the station’s façade betrays the brutalist aesthetic of transparency of material. It is a statement of an authority which wishes to stand out from its uniform surroundings, drawing attention to itself in order to make clear the all pervasive and inescapable nature of its power.
Profile on concrete background - Julie Christie in Fahrenheit 451Alton West’s situation at the edge of Richmond Park is a realisation of the idea that building upward would allow for a greater expanse of open space at ground level. It is also an example of the way in which modernity and the traditional rural and pastoral vistas of England came to abut against one another. Big science bestrode the countryside, erecting its cooling towers, pylons and satellite dishes amongst the fields, its motorways ploughing through hillsides. Alton West appears like the edge of an urban drift, a debris-strewn high water line marking a boundary between geographical and psychological zones which threatens to push further with the next rush of the tide. The open grasslands of the Royal Park, with its grazing deer providing a reminder of its former status as a hunting ground for the nobility, is met in a blank face-off by this aggressively monumental frontage of high density urbanity. The green spaces obediently incorporated by the descendants of Le Corbusier into their versions of his radiant city are here appropriated from pre-existant land and absorbed into the plan. Only the radial motorway flyovers with their steady streams of personal traffic glinting in the sun are needed to make the dream complete. The gravity of the massive structure of the building, perched improbably on its spindly concrete pillars, warps the nature of this park space around it. It also blocks out the view of London beyond, making this grey container ship of a place feel like it could be isolated and at anchor out in the middle of the countryside.
Monorail commutersThe fireman who is the troubled protagonist of Fahrenheit 451, played by Jules et Jim’s Jules Oskar Werner, lives in the suburbs, in a close of detached houses far from the communal blocks of the Alton West buildings. To reach this, he travels on the monorail, a real relic of futures past, whose concrete embedded suspended rail is cradled by bow-legged iron girders, whose repetitive forms create a receding perspective marking out distance across the countryside. This is a strange mixture of the rural and technological reminiscent of the tramway which runs from country to city in FW Murnau’s Sunrise (or Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality for that matter). The monorail scenes were filmed in Chateauneuf-sur-Loire in Loiret, France. The widespread use of public transport puts the world of Fahrenheit 451 at something of a variance from the norm of utopias which follow the blueprint of the Le Corbusier cityscape, with its universal use of the car or its technological antecedents. Perhaps this reflects the age in which the source novel was written (it was published in 1953), or perhaps merely the fact that it was made by a Frenchman. Roads carried on flyovers and beneath underpasses were a feature of attempts to realise aspects of the radiant city in the real world, and provided a fertile imaginative landscape within which JG Ballard moved his depersonalised characters in novels such as Concrete Island and Crash. The real brutalist manifestation of such car centred planning was the multi-storey car park, a feature which seems strangely absent from Le Corbusier’s plans. This structure became an almost archetypal focal point for violence and dread, its grim spirit captured in Mike Hodges’ Get Carter, Michael Caine tipping one of the victims of his campaign of revenge over the barrier of the spiralling entrance ramp on the top storey.
Thamesmead nocturnePerhaps the most infamous use of brutalist architecture to depict a brutalised future is in A Clockwork Orange, which makes effective use of the Thamesmead Estate, a purpose built complex whose flaws, both in terms of material and social design, became apparent soon after its completion. Thamesmead seems designed for a post-collapse world, its lakes and flower beds destined to be immediately filled with a scummy drift of cans and plastic bags; the estate as litter bin and general dumping ground. Kubrick’s litter, which he no doubt spent many days scattering about the estate, looks strangely well-ordered, much of it seemingly consisting of rather large packing boxes. This is a grand plan which has subsequently been abandoned and left to fall apart, to develop its own social microcosm in isolation. The heroic mural in the entrance lobby (to the side of the non-functional lift) with its Greek figures heralding a return to classical order and balance, has been covered with graffitied genitalia and obscenities. The estate and its surroundings becomes the arena in which Alex and his gang of droogs conduct their territorial wars and internal power struggles. For all his violence and anti-social behaviour, Alex is at heart a conformist. In murdering the tramp at the beginning of the film, he is carrying out his won form of social hygiene, cleansing the architectural body of contamination by undesirable human forms. When he goes to prison, he merely exchanges one uniform for another, one drab cell block for another. His fierce, pitiless (save for self-pitying) intelligence is co-opted by the government, and he accepts their overtures with a self-interestedly calculating enthusiasm. He thus gains access to the inner sanctum of the authoritarian bunker.
The Ludovico CentreThe Ludovico Medical Facility where Alex undergoes his aversion therapy was in fact the lecture centre of Brunel University in Uxbridge, one of the new university campuses which was created to accommodate the expansion of further education in the 60s. The Ludovico treatment is a more directly coercive form of the kind of behavioural control which architects and planners aimed to induce with their new developments. The brutalist blocks of this building really do feel like they’re a huge granitic mass waiting to crush Alex and the other guinea pigs, just as the demonstrator of the technique presses his shoe down on Alex’s face in a literal demonstration of George Orwell’s description of the totalitarian government of 1984 as being like ‘a boot stamping on a human face – forever’.
The figures of authority or with elevated social status in these three stories tend to live some distance away from the communal settlements to which the mass of citizenry is assigned. The modernism of which they partake is of a more discretely detached and luxurious design. It is more in accord with the private residences for wealthy clients built by Le Corbusier with the white box of the Villa Savoye, and Mies van der Rohe with the glass box of the Farnsworth house. In Fahrenheit 451, fireman/secret policeman Oskar Werner goes home to his detached close of 60s bungalows. The Draconian ambassador to Earth in Frontier in Space relaxes in the secluded setting of a modern house with an expansive garden in Fitzroy Park in Highgate. In A Clockwork Orange, the modern country house in which the writer and his wife (Patrick Magee and Adrienne Corri) live, with its neon sign generically marking it as ‘home’, was located in Radlett, in an area of Hertfordshire just beyond the sprawl of London (near the film centre of Borehamwood, in fact, where some interiors for the film were shot) and was known at the time as Skybreak. It would have been interesting if Magee’s character had been an architect. Alex and his gang’s attack on his home would then have taken on the aspect of a symbolic revenge. The misshapen products of his social engineering come back to shake him from his detachment.
Luxury modernism - escape from HighgateThe failure of brutalist architecture and post-war modernist urban planning in general to meet basic social and human needs can be further seen in the way in which concrete environments became synonymous with alienation and anomie in the cinema. In Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, David Hemmings’ character drives through a city which is being rebuilt to high rise level all around him before ending up at the park whose hushed tree-lined upper enclosure will become the locus of the film’s mystery. The reconfiguration of the city can be seen lowering at the park’s edge, the illuminated sign on the scaffolding an all-seeing eye which oversees the events observed by his own detached and uncomprehending camera eye. The flats which were built can be seen there now, on the far side of Maryon Wilson Park, near Woolwich, and are quite low-rise by the standards of the time. In The Passenger, Antonioni places Jack Nicholson against the purpose built complex of the Brunswick Centre, with its stepped ziggurat of flats and attached shopping and cultural centre. This was built in 1972 from a design by architect Patrick Hodgkinson and was recently granted grade 2 listed status. Nicholson’s character has just arrived in London, and with his assumed identity impulsively adopted from a dead man, he really has no idea who he is. The building, with its at the time jarring modernity, serves to reflect his existential crisis of identity; this is a very different kind of Bloomsbury in which he finds himself. The late-period Hammer film Straight On Til’ Morning (which, like many Hammer films of this vintage can be considered an interesting failure) finds us back at the South Bank Centre, where lost souls Shane Bryant and Rita Tushingham fail to meet with one another as they wander through the night along disconnected walkways. The Barbican Centre still waits to be used, a perfect ready made set on which to stage an adaptation of Kafka’s The Castle. The overbearing structures of brutalist architecture provided the perfect visual embodiment at the time for the dehumanising nature of a world of rapidly developing technology and mechanization. These were massive forms whose weight could crush the soul.
The old and the new on the edge of Maryon Wilson Park from Blow Up - the flats are still there, the teashop isn'tThe examples of brutalist buildings which still remain from the 60s and 70s now seem like relics of a bygone era, somehow appearing more ancient than they really are, so alien is the world view which guided their construction. The best of them have a solid and rather grave grandeur. I still strain to gain a glimpse of the brontosaurus-headed behemoth of Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower from the window as the train approaches Paddington Station. We had a tour of this high-rise block during one of the London open house days, and now that it is properly maintained and overseen (possibly as a result of its grade 2 listing) it seems like a grand place to live, with truly amazing views over the city. The buildings of the South Bank and the National Theatre add an interesting variety to the Thames cityscape. The starkness of their grey planar surfaces now tend to be illuminated at night with purple and pink lights, just as the Hayward Gallery was decorated for many years with a prominently positioned, multi-coloured neon sculpture atop its roof (whose skylights were also apparently a compromise of the original design, which called for an interior lit entirely artificially). I passed by the Brunswick Centre the other week, and it looked fine, the flats now painted cream as per the original intention. I felt no particular sense of alienation or existential angst (no more than usual, anyway) in the face of a cold and depersonalised modernity. The interior has been transformed into a blandly generic shopping mall, which has no room for the Cartoon Museum which used to be found there, but the underground Renoir cinema is still in existence, and buried underneath you can also find the well-stocked shelves of the Skoob second-hand bookshop. Just over the road is Russell Square tube station, which I feel compelled to mention as it is the key location in the 1973 film Death Line, in which a rather pitiful cannibal scavenger prowls its tunnels. Sadly, the station announcements no longer warn you to ‘mind the doors’. Less positive reactions than mine to Brunswick and Trellick greeted the news that Robin Hood Gardens, the estate near the Blackwall Tunnel, built by Alison and Peter Smithson in 1972 as something of a last hurrah, was being proposed for listing. The proposals were eventually rejected in May 2009, after massive opposition from the people who actually had to live in the place.
Erno Goldfinger's Trellick TowerIt’s true to say that had the plans of the brutalist architects and planners been realised to their full extent, the results would have been disastrous. But the examples we see now appear in isolation, their solid, block-like forms and grey, rocky prominences giving them a curious congruence with ancient megalithic sites. Like the stone circles and long barrows which are scattered across the country, monuments to the beliefs of a former age, these buildings have become an emblematic part of the British landscape, shapes with reflect an aspect of the national psyche. The protection which some of them have been awarded through listing has proved controversial, but indicates that they have become firmly as part of the cultural past. If nothing else, they serve as reminders of an era when there was still an expectation that the future would be a place which would be excitingly different from the present, and in which the dead weight of the past would be left behind. The steady onward progress of technology would produce a world full of wonder. The Trellick Towers, Centre Points and South Bank Centres, along with other buildings of their ilk, together form a disconnected necropolis for these utopian ideals; monuments and mausoleums beneath which the era’s visions of the future lie buried.