Director John Cordell (2010)
Utopia London opens with a statement:
‘Buildings leave the mark of past ideas on a city.’
You see a print of London in which St Paul’s Cathedral stands prominent, to show the power of God. Today, we see everywhere monuments to money. But this is an exploration of a period that fascinates me as much as it does Cordell, the early part of this century when for just a little while an alternative to both of those two visions unfolded as an ideal of constructing a society of equal citizens – this is the filmmaker’s journey through the city he grew up in ‘to map the life and death of London’s egalitarian dream’.
I still find it hard to write about film, particularly a documentary so packed full of actual information I want to master rather than just emotion or spectacle. This has some great shots of the city and the modernist spaces created there, alongside information from architects and historians that I am afraid is mostly paraphrased here as I took furious notes. I miss the clarity of the printed page, a misplaced nostalgia I know, when compared with the ability to experience space through this medium, hear and see these wonderful architects speaking about their buildings and the ideals behind them even as we experience the physical spaces they created in a way that books just can’t manage. Anyway, where I am sure of a quote I put marks around it, I just didn’t have time to transcribe more closely.
Drawn from the website, this is a part of Director Tom Cordell’s statement about the making of the film:
I grew up in the London of the 80s and 90s and it’s still my home.
I’ve always been drawn to the excitement of its post-war landscape; concrete and brick textures, unadorned clean lines, neon glow and dark shadows.
And most Londoners my age that I know feel the same – the modernist city is our landscape.
Yet all our lives we have been told that the same urban spaces are ugly – symbols of a failed, arrogant technocracy. While we’re comfortable celebrating 60s pop culture, many people still hate the buildings of that time.
Worryingly, while I had once thought that popular taste would catch up with the urban building of the 50s, 60s and 70s, it’s now under attack. Major symbols of that time are being destroyed – often with gruesome delight on the part of the wreckers. We urgently need to defend what is left before it is all gone.
I feel the same urgency, hopefully growing among an ever larger population and helped along after seeing much of the footage of the urban slums from the times when such housing was still a dream. I thus appreciated greatly the interspersing of quotations like the following, the filmmakers signposts to how to preserve these spaces:
‘Freedom for the pike is death to the minnows.’
The film looks at a series of modernist buildings in chronological order, I think perhaps I shall just share the notes of my main impressions for each, as much of this was still new to me and I am treating it as an introduction more than anything. I am so looking forward to revisiting and reading more about those who built them.
Finsbury Health Centre
Part of the birth of the NHS, and it could not have come too soon! The architect was from Russia, Berthold Lubetkin, and deeply influence by the Russian Revolution he believed in the linkage between radical art and social progress. He believed that a new architecture could reshape society, whereas our previous architecture had only served to reinforce the split between rich and poor.
This building showed what architecture could do, calling upon a new idiom that was ultra-modern, almost SF, in which to build a new future. The film has a wonderful picture of this building at night that I could not find, but the picture below (and read the article it’s from) shows just how extraordinary this building was in comparison with what had come before:
During WWII and the search for national strength and will to resist the bombing, Churchill’s mythologisation of a distant and heroic past was counterposed by a utopian dream of a better future, and this health centre providing free health care was one of the symbols of that as the poster below shows. The image is from a WWII era poster shown on the website of those who fought (and won) the saving of this wonderful building — and the dream that it represents. Of course, there is still more to do:
Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space
— Mies Van de Rohe
I never think of South Bank as utopian dream, this has forced me to it. This is the section where a little background on the County of London plan comes — and the footage presenting it is amazing. Patrick Abercrombie is standing there explaining that you plan a city just as you would plan a garden, you have to give shelter from the wet and cold, there needs to be room to grow, protection, no overcrowding. In 1943 they created a map of London envisioned as a series of interconnected villages, and saw their goal to be the bringing up the poorest to the level of richest. Makes my planner’s heart beat faster this does:
South Bank was to be ‘new symbolic heart’, a ‘counterbalance to symbols of money and power facing it across the Thames’. I shall never be able to see it as anything else now, though I didn’t before. In the face of gloom and despair over continued rationing and hardship after the war, the South Bank Centre was built in 1951 with a ‘technicolor launch party for the welfare state’, festival and fun, open air cafes and an attempt to fuse Churchill’s heroic past and dreams of future. This was an effort to show how modern architecture could rebuild public spaces. I have only ever loved it at night when it is beautiful glowing in the lights (so many modernist buildings are their best lit up in the darkness), and of course when it appears in Dr Who, but now I shall remember the hope it brought to a post-war society starved of light and colour and all the food and drink you could want.
One of the first modernist social housing schemes was also designed by Berthold Lubtekin, on the site where Lenin lived while in London hiding from czarist police. There was supposed to be a bust and monument to Lenin, but with the coming of the cold war, Lenin was buried under the central column of the wonderful central staircase.
My favourite story.
This was supposed to be ‘An El Dorado for the working class’. Amazing. His apartments were are all given equal weight in design, none better than others, everyone equal. Lubetkin’s slogan? ‘Nothing too good for ordinary people.’ He believed residents should live in a work of art, and that is what he tried to build for them.
I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few or freedom for a few.
— William Morris
‘We were trying to build heaven and earth, some of us’, said architect Oliver Cox, his utopian attitude in part based on his respect for Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement.He and his colleagues critiqued the then modern style as being a bit arid, they felt that something had been lost in the idea that people could be enriched by design. I love thinking about people are enriched by design.
The original plan was to build vast estates of council housing on edges of parks, and wealthy communities. Thus the tower block came into being, with layouts designed to preserve trees and give all of the tenants stunning views of a landscape once only enjoyed by the wealthy. They tried to pay as much attention as possible to detail, Cox is shown in the building’s stairwells which are beautifully tiled. They meant to show that quality and love had been put into an area that is normally unloved. A good quote from the film: ‘Architects building in the present for a future they can only imagine.’
This was designed by four other architectures in something of a rebellion against Alton East, yet whose inspiration was Le Corbusier (I find that surprising, but no mind). This western extension was more of a designed formal landscape dominated by massive slab blocks of concrete, a pattern of building ‘that would come to symbolise the welfare state’, but was never meant to. It was meant, again, to maximise views of Richmond Park and integrate the buildings into the landscape they were designed for.
By the time they were building Alton West, however, Labor had lost the 1951 election. The recent hardships ensured that the Tories continued with the welfare state, but they abandoned the idea of a ‘coordinated egalitarian society.’ The LCC was forced to drop plans for building in wealthy park areas like Hampstead, Greenwich and Blackheath and to hand over sites to private developers, building social housing instead on previous slum sites. Thus there was no ability to move beyond designs for Alton West that had been developed for park sites, and these plans were simply reproduced in poor areas. Stepney and Brixton’s Loughborough Estate are examples, and this kind of building began to symbolise the opposite of the original architects’ and planners’ intentions. Instead of the utopian dream of a classless society, they began to symbolise the class divide itself, with concrete a new signifier. Thus East and West Alton still remain separated, with a class barrier even here.
The Alton estate was also the site for much of the filming of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, its architecture used to symbolise the dystopian. But I’ll come back to that in a later post I think.
1964 – Lambeth Towers
I have always loved this building, and always think of it as that wonderful estate where my friend Rosanne lives — fighting a long battle against steadily rising rents.
Designed by architect George Finch, it contained doctor’s offices, a lunch club for pensioners, the registry office — this estate got the closest to what he wanted to do with his architecture, putting all things together into a block so it was interesting and lively and everything was close.
This was in some ways a renewal of the old left vision in struggle with the consumerism of 1950s and 1960s, an attempt to make labour relevant again. The 1960s also contained the promise of technology making possible the dream of less hours, more free time, putting human contentment within reach. This alongside Finch’s belief that everyone deserves this kind of wonderful space, that everyone’s work is important to a society. So he built this place, and man, the views are amazing.
He built eight more of these tower blocks to eliminate as much of the terrible slum housing as possible. In the paraphrased words of Elain Harwood, (architectural historian and author of forthcoming Space, Hope and Brutalism which I am definitely checking out) this showed Lambeth’s commitment to building housing in one of the worst slum housing areas. It represented Lambeth saying ‘look at us’, look at we can do. It makes you sick to see what they are doing now.
Finch built a set of tower blocks and tried to give them a sense of ‘dancing around’ rather than being staidly lined up. His humour and hope overflow, particularly in his sketches of space. He designed Brixton Rec as well, and put himself and his son in several of the wonderful pictures he drew to envision a lively, well-used and well-loved space:
The same Brixton Rec that is currently at the heart of a very different kind of development driven by a very different kind of council. One that has lost its conviction in the belief and social vision these buildings tried to make material: housing and public space as rights, not as assets.
I didn’t know this development at all and fell in love, totally and utterly. It was designed by Neave Brown for Camden as a large development that would address some of the problems of 1950s – 60s building.
It is a wonderful long terraced building, reminded me of pyramids with its splendid concrete and lots of greenery, or perhaps more of mountains. Everywhere has splendid views, and Neave says he was aiming to create a seamless building and ‘continuous public realm.’ I loved his notion of a ‘coherent seamless society’, one that doesn’t say that everyone is the same, but instead buildings are not simply the markers of status but in the reach of everyone and thus simply markers of difference and personal preference. They are just buildings you might or might not want to live in. What a wonderful world to aspire to.
The pictures don’t do it justice the way video does as it takes you through the space and the changing, unexpected views. There is great footage of a woman who grew up there, talking about how she saw it as a big playground, its stairs strange and magical, full of secret places you could find and be alone in. While interviewing Neave you see children running up one of the concrete slopes, and Neave is delighted saying he designed it like that just so they would do it. It is wonderful, even if, as Neave reflects, it is a little too big and he didn’t consult people as he should have.
Econmics are the method, the object is to change the soul
Just before the big change in everything ushered in by Thatcher, we come to Kate Mackintosh, and her vision of humanised modernism. She found London very claustrophobic coming from Edinburgh, so to design Dawson’s Heights on a hill — she realised how special this sight was. Wanted to create a scheme that had unity, that grew out of the hill. She notes that there was almost certainly a ‘Castle image lurking’, and designed something that was imposing from the outside, but protective of what was inside and underpinned by cooperative ideals. She designed Leigham Court as well, which is another wonderful building Lambeth Council is trying to sell.
So we come to Thatcher, there is footage from her celebration of the 12,000th council house sold. Local governments were required to sell council housing to tenants and unable to build new homes to replace them, rent controls were abolished, more rights to evict were given to landlords.
The 1980s meant collapse.
There’s footage also of Professor Alice Coleman — a geographer who worked for Thatcher, and who argued that these modernist physical designs of council estates encouraged crime and anti-social behaviour. Her words were quite vile in comparing the ethic of council housing to suburban homes, attacking the buildings as much as the dreams behind them.
The documentary ends with the loss of Pimlico School, an incredible modernist building also representative of the new visions for eduction. With funds long ago cut for its maintenance, the land was recently sold and the building destroyed to build a new academy. The architect John Bancroft was splendid in his rage at ideals betrayed.
This film is just one more effort not just to save buildings, but to save dreams of equality, a struggle for a better society, homes that are safe and secure. Things worth fighting for.