Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Utopia London

Utopia London documentary trailer from utopialondon on Vimeo.

Utopia London is a film by Tom Cordell, shown at the bfi Southbank last month, which laments the demise of post-war modernism in the capital and more particularly the social ideals which drove it to create new, large scale public housing projects. It’s an unashamedly partisan work, a heart on sleeve polemic which never attempts to disguise its partiality. As such, it falls into line with the whole genre of cinematic agit-prop documentaries which have found their way onto arthouse screens in recent years, to often mixed effect. There is always a certain sense that these pictures are preaching to the converted, affirming them in their beliefs, and there’s certainly an element of that sermonising here. It’s perhaps significant that in the list of buildings referred to in the film on the Utopia London website, Cordell still refers to Berthold Lubetkin’s Bevin Court under its original name, Lenin Court. Scenes use found footage to amusing but often rather crudely crowd-pleasing (assuming that the crowd is of a left-leaning tendency) effect. An old piece of comic cartoon propaganda depicting the progress of evolution, with a lumbering dinosaur trampling through the landscape, plays as the narrative describes the return of the Conservatives to power in 1951; A silent film clip depicting a corpulent banker puffing on an oversized cigar offers an absurdly obvious caricature; and footage of lab rats attacking one another in confined cages whilst Conservative experiments and studies into the psychological and social effect of high density living is emotionally manipulative, and seems to draw on the use of such associative imagery for darker purposes in the past. A film with a different agenda could easily have used these shots to illustrate the social engineering designed by some of the post-war modernist planners and architects, for whom the inhabitants of their new worlds were expected to conform to a particular notion of community. Cordell’s comments after the screening, in which he noted that his film was a way of saying ‘fuck you’ to those who rejected the egalitarian ideals which he unequivocally identifies with the large scale post war developments hardly suggests that cool objectivity was ever a major priority for him. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of passion though, and part of his motivation for making the film was to put the case for the preservation of the remaining public buildings of the post-war modernist period, before they are razed like the Pimlico school in Westminster. We see the bulldozers move in to level this building, as does its architect John Bancroft. Travelling past on the top of a double decker bus a few days after seeing the film, I can confirm that the site is now a flattened and cleared blank, the school itself replaced by a purpose built academy run by a trust headed by a venture capitalist and leading Tory donor, with new ideals fit to match.

Alexandra Road
If you accept that this is a personal film expressing a strongly felt viewpoint (and, indeed, if you share that viewpoint), then there is a great deal to enjoy here. In a way, this is the official version of post-war modernism in London as its architects would have us hear it. Several of them are on hand to revisit the buildings they designed and talk about the ideas behind them, and the extent to which they feel they were realised (and, crucially, maintained) in the real world. The film is valuable in giving a voice (and face) to architects whose identity was subsumed within the anonymous government structure of the LCC; people such as Oliver Cox, John Partridge and Peter Aldington. They all remain proud of their achievements, although in the case of Neave Brown, the architect behind the Alexander Road Estate, often seen as the terminal bookend of the monumental public housing schemes, his walkabout proves inadvertently hilarious. Noting a couple of surly and suspicious kids (probably wondering why a camera is being pointed at them) jumping up onto a concrete wall, he declares in a loud, plummy voice ‘oh look, they’re having fun’. His description of the hard, concrete slopes tilting down towards the pedestrian centre of the estate’s long avenue as making it like a large playground is a little far-fetched, It’s the kind of surface against which heads are cracked in old public information films. Brown does show a wryly humorous side, which is not often associated with the doctrinaire sternness of brutalist architects. Coming to the end of one of the elevated walkways, which projects slightly beyond the wall of the final stack of flats, he remembers one of the builders telling him ‘I know why you made it like that – so you can jump off it when you reach the end’. He does have the grace to conclude that he probably made the whole estate too long. It certainly has the feel of being a world unto itself, with the stepped terraces overlooking each other and allowing little sense of privacy, and it can appear like a labyrinth from which escape is difficult. It was used to ironic effect on the cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s Sunnyvista LP, and its rapid fall from favour and fashion meant that it was regularly used as a backdrop betokening ‘gritty’ urban deprivation on 70s and 80s TV. The building has won praise from architectural critics, but few plaudits from social commentators. Jonathan Glancey (who’s a bit of both) remarks in his book on 20th century architecture that it is ‘an extraordinarily powerful, if utterly terrifying, experience. The ideas behind the project seem rational, yet it all seems so inhumane’. With Brown as your affable guide and a bright sun in the sky, you could almost be convinced. But a change of the light and a solitary digression and the atmosphere could rapidly darken.

The Alton West estate
Residents of the buildings are also given a voice. One particularly resilient old lady in the Alton East flats shows around and, when she reaches the lobby by the lifts, talks with offhand matter of factness about how this was where you used to find the drug users, and how it used to reek of urine. Another couple of elderly residents in Alton East are interviewed sitting on their couch, with its doily head rests, in their neat and immaculately orderly flat. They provide a rather conveniently conservative perspective with which to contrast the Alton East and West estates, suggesting a class division between the brick built buildings of the early phase of post war modernism, inspired by Swedish examples, and the uncompromising concrete buildings of the second phase, who looked to le Corbusier as their guiding figure. Kate Macintosh, the architect of Dawson’s Heights in East Dulwich, meets some of the people living there as she wanders around. They’re friendly and open and seem happy and cheerful and in their home environment. The outline of Macintosh’s buildings rising in irregular ziggurat masses above the tree-lined slopes of Dulwich and Forest Hill is a thrilling and strangely ennobling sight, redolent of an age when the future was still a place to anticipate with excitement and an expectation of wonderful new worlds to come.

Kate Macintosh's Dawson's Heights
Cordell’s filming is very accomplished, making the picture an enjoyable visual experience. He captures both the detail and the wider aspect of the buildings featured with judiciously composed shots. There are also a series of speeded up, Koyaanisqaatsi style interludes which evoke the kinetic buzz of city life. These are accompanied by gentle ripples of ruminative marimba music, a refreshing alternative to the sort of Kraftwerk electronica with which modernist architectural images are generally paired, and an invitation to revise our preconceived notions about what we see. He clearly has a wide knowledge of film history, too, making good use of clips from a number of movies. These include Soviet films from the experimental silent period, including Dovzhenko, Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera, and the pupils’ declaration of revolt from Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite. Milling zombies from George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead are used to more ironic effect in relation to the Pimlico School and its attempt to provide a less conventional educational environment. The use of the Alton West estate by Francois Truffaut in Fahrenheit 451 is also shown (and I’ve about the use of brutalist architecture in 60s and 70s SF in a previous post), as is the film’s association of uniform new town housing with passive conformity and more traditional brick-built garden city housing with individualism and free thought. There are also quotes from the likes of Victorian socialist William Morris, Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, German communist martyr Rosa Luxembourg, Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh – and Margaret Thatcher! These give the film a more essayistic, literary feel, providing prefatory headings for the different ‘chapters’.

The Bevin Court staircase
The film finds its founding figure in Berthold Lubetkin, the pioneering architect of a new and fairer world. The Finsbury Health Centre is the starting point of the architectural story, with the Hampstead modernism of Lubetkin and Tecton’s le Corbusier influenced Highpoint flats airily dismissed as having being built for the wealthy. We get to gaze up at the floating seashell spiral of the stairwell suspended in the lobby of Bevin Court, with the striking 50s graphics of its mural by Peter Yates to the side. John Allan, who got to know Lubetkin having studied his work as an undergraduate, talks about his architecture as art, whilst still remaining practical. The tale is told of the renaming of the building from Lenin to Bevin Court in the wake of the revelations of Stalinist atrocities. The bust of Lenin which was to have adorned the entrance sign was buried by Lubetkin beneath the hall, a ritualistic offering which made it a symbolic part of the foundations. It’s reminiscent of the myth in which the Bran, the pagan king of Britain, instructs that his head be buried beneath the White Mount in London in order to ward off evil from across the sea. Lubetkin is positioned as the defiant socialist hero, with a convenient omission of his later building of the luxuriously appointed Highpoint 2 extension (complete with separate entrances to the flats for tradesmen), with his own self-designed penthouse perched on top. Heroic portrayals are intended to provide inspiration, but are inherently two dimensional, and must needs ignore the more contradictory (and therefore more interesting) complexities of human nature.

Patrick Abercrombie's 1943 County of London plan
The story takes us from the plans drawn up by Patrick Abercrombie in 1943 and 1944 for the rational reconstruction of post war London around zones of mixed, low density population and varied housing and amenities, to the popularising modernist showcase of the Festival of Britain in 1951, and shows how the ideas were realised and developed. The Alton East estate follows the Abercrombie ideal of the dispersal and decentralisation of the population, with a mixture of high rise buildings, and terraced house and maisonettes, all on the edge of leafy parkland. Its Alton West counterpoint, built a year later in 1959, is more monolithic and domineering, the separate blocks of parallel flats like great vessels moored at the edge of the park. There’s no denying that this kind of monumentalism became very unpopular, amongst inhabitants as well as conservative opponents of public housing. The degree to which this was the fault of the buildings themselves, or to the poor maintenance and inappropriate housing policies of local councils is still a matter of impassioned debate. The film doesn’t include Robin Hood Gardens or the Thamesmead Estate, neither of which has attracted a great deal of support in the face of the general consensus that they are social disaster zones (although Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers and other prominent architects favour its preservation), perhaps conceding that neither will do much for its case. As high rise buildings fell out of favour, due to the hasty and cheap construction methods exposed by the Ronan Point disaster as much as any inherent dislike, low rise high density estates came to be seen as an alternative solution. Which is where Alexander Road came in.

George Finch's future on a human scale
Perhaps the film’s greatest success comes not in winning any new converts to the cause, but in its portrayal of the architects themselves. This refutes the oft-held view of them as aloof and disdainful social engineers, dictating the way in which they believed the poor should live and shaping those lives through rigid and authoritarian structures. Such arrogance was reportedly a characteristic of the arch-brutalist husband and wife team of Peter and Alison Smithson, but it’s emphatically not a quality found in any of the architects we meet here. Particularly engaging is George Finch, a raffishly elegant figure in his pink shirt, white scarf and peaked cap. He guides us round his point positioned blocks of flats in Cotton Gardens and introduces himself to the receptionist at the Brixton Recreation Centre (recreation is a feature incorporated into all of his buildings, in line with the 60s anticipation of a leisure society) as the person who designed the building. His line drawings of his buildings, complete with charming figures of all ages mixing together and having fun, and with the odd aeroplane which looks like it’s been folded out of paper soaring overhead, sums up the bright and human future he envisaged better than any more precisely delineated architectural design ever could (and I'm sure Finch has included a hidden door which leads to adventure somewhere). It's like the bustling and happy world of Mr Benn's Festive Road transposed to the age of the high rise estate. All of these architects still cherish the ideals which they held, and mourn their loss from the world. Kate Macintosh was on hand for the Q&A session after the screening to affirm her own beliefs in the social value of architecture, and was joined by Cordell and Owen Hatherley. I would have liked to hear more of what Hatherley had to say; his blog Sit Down Man, You’re A Bloody Tragedy is always witty and engaged on the subject of modern architecture (and on other matters which occupy him, too). Unfortunately, as tends to be the case when lefties gather in any number, the session was taken over by a series of people in the audience who were more interested in delivering lengthy testimonies as to their own beliefs and the way in which they had put them into practice than with asking the panel any questions. I soon tired of this righteous exchange of mutual self-affirmation and quietly exited into the South Bank night.

The word utopia is a hard one to pin down. Deriving from the ancient Greek, it can, according to interpretation, mean the good place or no-place (or perhaps both). It’s an ideal plan or social thought experiment which tends to harden into oppressive forms as soon as it’s actually constructed or imposed. No matter how hard you try to wish it into being, Utopia can ultimately be found nowhere, least of all in London town. But the buildings which manifest the particular post-war moment of utopian dreaming in the capital deserve reassessment, whatever their flaws. Utopia London puts their case with conviction and a great deal of heart.

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