Lions After Slumber #2 – Owen Hatherlay

8 October 2014

Owen Hatherlay: the second contribution for the talk series Lions After Slumber (you can find the first one here). Born in Southampton in 1981, Owen Hatherlay is a British writer and journalist based in London. His first book Militant Modernism was published by Zero Books in 2009. He writes regularly for the New Statesman and The Wire, writing about music, film, art, politics, architecture and urbanism. 

Here he writes about his film choices, in order to set the mood for the conversation:

Three Films about Modern Architecture in Britain

Get Carter (Mike Hodges, 1971)

The Offence (Sidney Lumet, 1973)

Utopia London (Tom Cordell, 2012)

In the 1960s and early 1970s, several prominent film directors from Europe and the United States came to the United Kingdom to make films. Francois Truffaut, who had claimed, in his book of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, that England was inherently uncinematic, made Fahrenheit 451, and set it partly in the Alton Estate. This very large council estate was built on land expropriated from the gardens of the aristocracy by the Labour-controlled London County Council, and was divided into two halves, one inspired by the new suburbs of 1940s Sweden, the other by Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse; in both cases, it is a place of towers set in densely tree-covered parkland. Only a few years before the film was made, the American critic G.E Kidder-Smith had called it ‘the finest low-cost housing development in Europe’, in his mass-market paperback The New Architecture of Europe. Truffaut used it as a menacing set for the burning of books. Following on from this, Michaelangelo Antonioni used New Brutalist offices and housing estates to more subtle effect. First, in Blow-Up, ‘swinging’ Londoners frolic around the Economist Building by Alison and Peter Smithson, and the photographer who the film centres around lives next to the stark, system-built Morris Walk estate, another London County Council project. Later, in The Passenger, Antonioni sites a pivotal meeting between his two leads, Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider, in the Brunswick Centre, a London estate based on the Futurist drawings of Antonio Sant’Elia, during some very un-English hot weather. But the most notorious, and the one that fixed an association between British modernism, totalitarianism and casual violence in the public imagination, was Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, where a range of Brutalist structures – but mainly, the L.C.C’s biggest estate, Thamesmead – provided the chic and shocking ultra-modern landscape. When part of the estate was demolished recently, a local paper had the headline ‘NO MORE CLOCKWORK ORANGE’.

 

The three films in these screenings all deal with this legacy in one way or another, making connections between architecture, urban space, politics and a certain menacing reputation. The first is probably the most architectural of all British films, Mike Hodges’ Get Carter (1971). Adapted from a pulp novel, this follows a London gangster’s return home to the large northern industrial city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, to avenge the murder of his brother. Michael Caine’s performance is as cold, inhuman and instantly, iconically memorable as the architecture he passes through. Hodges’ vision of Newcastle is of a chaotic, grim, dramatic industrial city which has attempted to reform itself. Terraces of tiny houses give way to tower blocks in open space. A gangster’s moll lives in a cubic house along concrete walkways. The vertiginous iron bridges that span the river Tyne are as impressive as the Brooklyn Bridge in any American crime film. These spaces can often be traced to the building programme of T Dan Smith, the head of the city council in the 1960s, who variously proclaimed his intention to make Newcastle the ‘Brasilia of the North’, or the ‘Milan of the North’ – an ultramodern, egalitarian, futurist capital, of high-tech industry, arts and education. Smith fell in a corruption scandal around the time Get Carter was made, having taken bribes from the architect John Poulson. Get Carter‘s climactic scenes take place in the Trinity Centre, a shopping complex designed by Owen Luder, with an impressive, sculptural brutalist multistorey car park, whose rooftop restaurant wouldn’t be used for much more than the scenes in this film, where the architects, realising they’re working with gangsters, mutter to each other ‘I have a feeling we won’t be getting our fees on this one’. The dreams of the 1960s have gone here to die.

Something very similar has happened in the American director Sidney Lumet’s The Offence, from a year later. This is set in a New Town. These were, again, a cause celebre at the time – built to relieve the pressure on big cities such as London, Liverpool, Birmingham and Glasgow, the New Towns were initially popular, although were soon fingered as the culprit for a ‘new town blues’, where these new communities began to feel isolating, desolate, empty. If the industrial city had lacked open air, these had a creepy abundance of space, with no street complete without a grass verge, and no shopping centre complete without a large, often empty square, with no mix of uses between the two, few corner shops or neighbourhood pubs. The Offence is set in the southern English new town of Bracknell, and follows a policeman, played by Sean Connery, as he has a nervous breakdown in pursuit of a paedophile. All the spaces in the film are modern – the housing estate recreational grounds where the bodies are uncovered, the police station with its concrete corridors and breezeblock walls, and most of all, the tower block where the policeman and his wife live, a lone high-rise in a park, with an elegant modernist interior which the couple smash up in one of their marital arguments. The attempt to reform life has, again, ended up only producing a chic setting for marital and mental breakdown, a landscape pervaded with misogyny and violence.

You could follow this into the later revival of this aesthetic, in something like the recent Red Riding Trilogy, or its questioning in a film like Beautiful Thing – but it’s more interesting to watch them in the context of Utopia London, an engaged, revisionist documentary by Tom Cordell. At this distance, after thirty years of neoliberalism, social democratic housing no longer looks so obviously like a failure, but more like a rather brave attempt to take these things out of the hands of the free market that has failed Londoners so disastrously in recent years. Cordell’s film, made up of archive footage and interviews with residents and architects, takes some delight in upending the cinematic cliché of the bleak, monolithic concrete monstrosity. What Francois Truffaut saw in the Alton Estate certainly wasn’t what the residents interviewed here thought, who evidently found it much closer to heaven than to hell. The open spaces that seemed so menacing when filmed by Sidney Lumet here look generous, not desolate. The architects re-arranging their ties, ruffled by the carnage going on around them in Get Carter, don’t at all resemble those in Utopia London, ageing communists who know the tenants of buildings they designed over 50 years ago on first-name terms. Suddenly, on watching Utopia London, all those thrillingly sinister concrete surfaces shown on ’70s films are seen anew as they were when first built – as a bright, humane, and socialist landscape.

(Owen Hatherlay)