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…