Whether it's Bodyguard or Fahrenheit 451, Brutalist architecture can provide a dramatic setting on screen. But too many depictions ignore the complex reality of Britain's housing estatesby Owen Hatherley / November 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
Oh look, there it is again. A street of concrete ziggurats. So atmospheric. A decayed estate with walkways for the tracking shots. Grey towers on a lake, towers in a park. So Kubrick.
Watch a lot of British TV over the last few years and you’ll have spotted all of these, whether you were watching a coming of age drama set in 1980s Nottingham or the Troubles in 70s Belfast. You might even know the originals of these exciting film sets. These, here, are Alexandra Road and Highgate New Town in the London Borough of Camden; Park Hill, in Sheffield; Thamesmead, on the edge of south-east London; and the Alton Estate, Roehampton, on the capital’s south-western edge. Brutalism can be the backdrop to almost anything—except a mundane, everyday life.
Of course, the camera has always loved to hate Brutalism. This dramatic and sometimes foreboding form of modern architecture was put on film to signify a frightening future from the mid-1960s onwards. Francois Truffaut once claimed that the British landscape, and British cities were inherently un-cinematic, but the Alton Estate evidently changed his mind—which is why Fahrenheit 451 centres on mass book burnings in the parkland between its concrete slab blocks.
In 1972, Thamesmead was fixed forever as a sinister and totalitarian nightmare in Stanley Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange; but you didn’t have to set your film in the future to make the same point, as in the depictions of Bracknell New Town and post-war Tyneside as hotbeds of corruption, cruelty and murder in Sidney Lumet’s The Offence and Mike Hodges’ Get Carter, respectively.
It took some of these places decades to recover from this depiction. When the best-designed part of Thamesmead was demolished a decade ago in favour of shonkier, smaller, uglier new flats, the South London Press’s triumphant headline was ‘No More Clockwork Orange!’
It’s this demonisation-by-camera that made residents of the Aylesbury estate, Walworth, with its appropriately long walkways and grey-on-grey concrete panels, attempt to ban filming. They saw the TV crews as part of the process by which their community became known as a ‘slum’ or a ‘ghetto’, and hence somewhere that needed urgent sweeping away, and its residents with it. At Park Hill, a botched privatisation project has intersected with the fact that the producer Warp Films is based literally around the corner, making its empty walkways and boarded-up flats probably the single most ubiquitous urban desolation set in British film and television. The fact that this desolation was created in the 2000s at the behest of a property developer remains invisible.
Brutalism on screen is nothing new: what is different now is that you can live the dream and/or nightmare. Walk into any art gallery gift shop in any big city in the country, and you’ll find a pile-up of coffee table books, mugs, maps, tea towels, tote bags and make-your-own-model-kits on the Brutalist architecture that our parents’ generation so loathed. This has been part of a process where Brutalism has, unexpectedly, become the Georgian of the 21st century: once hated and slummy, now extremely desirable— especially if it still has all its original features, and hasn’t been naffed up with some poor old resident’s net curtains, florid wallpaper and chunky furniture.
Council ownership makes this tricky, of course, but sell-offs are tempting. When this happened to Park Hill, the developers cleared out all of the original flats from one block, right down to the last brick. Right to Buy flats in many of these blocks are increasingly desirable, and sometimes, they get privatised outright—as with Keeling House in Bethnal Green—and marketed to the “creative class.”
It seems it is impossible for middle class people in Britain to become interested in a building without turning it into the object of property speculation. But there are ways to depict, and learn about, these buildings while remaining aware of their histories, their social aspirations, and conscious of the fact these are the homes of thousands of people living wholly non-exotic lives.
In 1996, the film Beautiful Thing finally treated Thamesmead as a normal place that happened to look extraordinary, and was all the more romantic because of it. Today, you’re only likely to find the same care in documentaries, such as Tom Cordell’s polemical Utopia London, or in the charming Rowley Way Speaks for Itself, in which residents in one of the most filmed estates tell their own story, on their own terms. These films, at least, show Brutalist housing for what it is. These are not sets. They’re good, affordable, publicly-owned homes, and we need many more of them.