Utopia London – Tom Cordell

August 13th, 2011

Composite image of architects featured in the film

“There was a time when London united around the vision of a better future. A group of young idealists were fusing science and art to build an egalitarian city. This documentary is their story.”

So runs the tag line from the trailer page of the website and this motivation comes across from the film as a whole.

Last year I watched Utopia London by Tom Cordell at the Gallery in Cowcross St, Farringdon, in a full house attended by some of the architects featured in the film.

The opening line of a film or book can stand forever as a marker point,  one has only to think of The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley

“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”

Or perhaps the better known Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”

Tom Cordell’s film is no exception.

“Scattered across the city these buildings are the relics of a forgotten belief, the idea of constructing a society of equal citizens. This film is my journey through the city I grew up in, decoding its buildings to map the birth and death of London’s egalitarian dream”.

Towards the end of the film, the retired architect Kate Macintosh is shown standing on the top floor of Dawsons Heights in Southwark, looking towards the City of London.

“When you look at the landmarks around us in London today, ones that have gone up since this was erected, very largely they are banks, share dealing houses, perhaps a few flats for the very rich, and that symbolism of where the wealth and the power is vested, is a very accurate reflection of the way society has changed”.

So it is that these two points of view, similar in nature, bracket and form the central message of the film, that money and the aquisition of money, are now more important than the well being of the whole of the population, and indeed given the history of the UK since 1979 there is indeed a very clear dividing line in Government policy since the end of the war that cleaves social policy in two, across the fracture of the 1979 General Election.

Finsbury Health Centre

(Pine Street, nearest tube Farringdon) by Berthold Lubetkin is the first building featured. The film goes on to describe the left wing associations of Modernism using the nationality of the architect as a starting point.  Dickon Robinson, an architectural consultant expands on this and how this association never found favour with the more right wing political elements.

Neave Brown (architect of Alexandra Road and others) makes an interesting point along the same lines, referring to its effect on the climate of the time.

“Incipient in it was the idea of a social program.  Just to think of it as a health centre is the wrong way to understand Lubetkin, or the social ideas of the people he was working with.  Which was that it would become a bigger social exemplar than just a health centre.”

It is significant to my mind that it was conceived and built before the Second World War.  One thinks so often of the golden years being 1945 – 1979 and yet radical left wing thinking was in place in the 1930s and being acted upon.

It becomes quite clear in the passage that follows that Modernism was far more than simply an architectural idea.  It was linked to a political movement.  That post war rebuilding of slums and bomb damaged housing was carried out to a great extent in the Modernist style is seen to be no coincidence but rather a marriage of motive and method.

South Bank

Neave Brown again speaking this time about the Abercrombie plan for London.

“This was the most implicitly radical program, certainly as radical as the health program and the education program.  The fundamental proposition was that everyone is entitled to an equal benefit from a co-ordinated society”.

Tom Cordell’s comment just before the section on the Festival of Britain…

“Abercrombie’s cultural hub for London was brought forward and expanded to lift the gloom of a nation starved of technicolour”

. . . is bang on.

My own Father, when asked what he thought about the Festival of Britain said more or less

“It was wonderful to see colour again.  Through the war everything had been so drab, with the blackout, austerity, dust covering everything, austerity determining the clothes people wore, rationing.  Suddenly here was a an opportunity to have fun, to see colour again to lift us out of the gloom”.

I’ve had to paraphrase that because I don’t have a direct quote but that’s the sort of thing he used to say.  He also said that it seemed to rain for most of the Festival but we don’t need to dwell on that . . .

Lenin Court (later Bevin Court) (Access from Kings Cross or the Angel tube)

 

A ‘Y’ shaped block built on a site where Lenin once lived, and renamed Bevin Court after Stalin gained power at a time when the former attraction of the Soviet system was fading somewhat.  A statue of Lenin once outside the building now lies buried beneath the central supporting pillar of the staircase.

 

Lenin, later Bevin Court

 

Alton East

Oliver Cox talks about his part in the design of the Alton East at Roehampton in South West London (Barnes Station).

We were trying to build heaven on earth (laughter) – some of us – we felt that those of us who had this slightly Utopian attitude, it was based upon a great respect for William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement” [my emphasis – Ed.]

They kept all the trees, that had formed part of the landscape when it was populated by Victorian houses, in order to preserve the rural view, for the tenants of the tower blocks.  Oliver Cox visits one of the tenants in her flat, high up in one of the tower blocks.  In this touching scene, the tenant doesn’t hide any of the grim realities that intrude upon this modern scene of domesticity.

 “Having quite a cluster of tall blocks gave the opportunity of a lot of people enjoying these lovely views, but after this time, unfortunately, the point blocks got building higher with wind swept areas between them in places that didn’t have a nice view.  They were just using it because you could get a large number of families in a small space”.

“But here we were very consciously putting them in a place where we knew the views would be enjoyed by the people who lived here.  It’s a question looking at it, trying to look at it, from the point of view of the people who are going to live in the place” – Oliver Cox

 

Alton West

John Partridge talks about his part in the design of Alton West at Roehampton in South West London (Barnes station).

 “We assumed that everybody wanted to build a better Britain,  we wanted to break out of the time of rationing, and that everyone was entitled to a good house to live in, or a good dwelling to live in, and that they would be better.  Better dwellings than they had ever been, and that everybody would be looked after in that sort of way”.

In contradiction to the Arts and Crafts inspired Alton East, Alton West paid homage to Le Corbusier and the Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles by building  a series of massive slab blocks standing in a line across a gently sloping site.

Separation of rich and poor

Tom Cordell – “In October 1954 the Tory Government ordered the LCC to drop its plans to build vast council estates in wealthy Hampstead, Highgate, Greenwich and Blackheath, and hand the sites over to private developers. Instead, Government told the LCC to build new estates for the poor on the sites of London’s existing slums. Spatial segregation of rich and poor in the city, would continue”.

[. . .]

“and so as the architecture pioneered in Alton West was rolled out across the inner city it came to symbolise the reverse of its designers’ intentions, instead of being the aesthetic of a new classless society, the big estate became the symbol of Britain’s class divide”.

Lambeth – Lambeth Towers  – George Finch

“I designed for everybody, you know, this is the sort of house or flat I would like to live in. Everybody’s important.  Ok, they may be lower paid, but they’re the people that collect the rubbish, serve in the shops, behind the counter in the group practice and admin area, all these people are very important to society.”

“This idea now of building social housing, which discriminates a certain group of people who are not up to the standard of being able to buy their own house I’m very uncomfortable with, it’s a very bad way of going about it” –  [Hear, hear – Ed.]

Alexandra Road – Neave Brown

“The architectural performance in England since after the war was, (pause) pretty feeble. Now is that because the architectural performance was feeble or is it because of (pause) Modernism? I don’t think it was because of Modernism, I think we just didn’t do it very well.”

I’ve struggled with this remark (above) since hearing it said in the film.  In order to put this in context I had an exchange of emails with the Director Tom Cordell a short summation of which would be that the Modernist architects’ views of how Modernism should be implemented changed during the post war period, leading to a less brutal and more integrated approach to new buildings in their environment as time went on.

Here’s Neave Brown speaking in High Rise Dreams, about Le Corbusier and about Alexandra Road.

“Le Corbusier’s ideas were dominated by the idea of producing a new society as a tabula rasa a sort of erasing of an old society including the erasing of an old environment the streets and so forth creating a new kind of landscape on which you put isolated new sorts of buildings for a totally new lifestyle.”

“In the end that did what I suppose was predictable but nobody quite predicted it, it produced an alien kind of life pattern, not one that fitted.”

“Now we wanted to maintain all that dedication to a new kind of society and to a Modernity in all its respects but instead of actually doing it as a visionary new world imposed on an old one, we wanted to look for continuity with an existing culture which meant continuity in all sorts of ways including the physical way.”

He continues with his view of streets in the sky . . .

“They had tried to restore the street idea that had been banished by, devalued, or not even recognised as an important idea by many of the people who were designing much of the post war housing.  So they tried to integrate the street idea into the body of buildings which are actually alien to it.  They did everything to reintroduce the street except reintroduce the street.  What we did was to reintroduce the street.”

 

Dawsons Heights

Of all the people interviewed for the film and whose buildings are featured, Kate Macintosh is for me both the most engaging and her building the most interesting.  There are many reasons.  It stands on a hill of which more later.  She was young when she won the competition to build it, and was inventive both in so doing and in overcoming the political objections of the time such as having to surmount the obstacles put in place by the then Labour Housing Minister Richard Crossman who dictated that council tenants were not to have balconies.  (Little has changed, read my piece on Woods House).

Kate Macintosh got round this restriction by making them fire escape access to the adjoining flat.  She ensured that most of the estate had good light by carefull arrangement of the levels, hence the “ziggurat” design and most tellingly of all had to overcome difficult ground conditions by building on a hill that was made of clay, and sinking.  As a result the building stands on piles around which the ground moves, not unlike the Sacré Cour in Paris.

I have met her on a walking tour with the C20th. She is both a warm and likeable person and an engaging and informative speaker.  I like buildings with views and Dawsons Heights does not disappoint.

Showing a walkway since removed under the Alice Coleman initiatives of the 1980s

In the film, Tom Cordell interviews her and she explains the problems that she had to surmount.  One fortuitous event was the collapse of Ronan Point which although in every other respect a disaster came at just the right time to prevent more system built blocks and enabled her to build using more conventional methods thus securing the longevity of the building.

While we walked and talked on the C20th tour she explained that the Heygate and Aylesbury Estates had been built using tower cranes on rails which was why they both consisted of long seemingly endless blocks, and that she did not want to build Dawsons Heights in that way, hence the fortuitous Ronan Point timing.

 

Margaret Thatcher

Much as it pains me to have to use that woman’s name as a heading in this article the film goes on to consider her legacy and I want to start off by quoting Linda Bellos who pretty much sums up the whole Thatcher ethos in one breath.

TC: “What did Margaret Thatcher try and do to society?”

LB: “Make the rich richer, and the poor poorer.  That’s what I think”

TC: “Here was the counter revolution against the welfare state.  Like Nye Bevan 30 years before, Mrs Thatcher understood that housing held the key to changing society, and so the Government ordered local authorities to sell council housing to their tenants, at massive discount. At the same time the Government refused to let councils use the money to replace the housing they had sold. This Mrs Thatcher believed, would create a new housing market in place of state intervention.”

Here’s Ken Livingstone on right to buy:-

“Right to buy has been an absolute disaster because if you’d given people the right to buy and said that where there’s still a housing shortage each one sold has to be replaced that would’ve been fine.”

“But to give the right to buy while you stop building just meant that you ended up with what wasn’t bought ended up with the poorest people.  That’s the disaster, you get social division and ghettoisation.”

Alice Coleman

TC: “Aren’t there other social factors that influence peoples behaviour? Poverty, the impact of mass [unclear]”

AC: “Nobody could have been brought up in greater poverty than me and I can tell you that poverty per se does not have that effect.  My family was extremely ethical, honest, hard-working, and so on. I had to grow up definitely in poverty and know what it is and know that this business about people being poor is not the answer. It’s not a good thing to be.  But if you’ve got people who are properly brought up they survive.”

I don’t think Alice Coleman was wrong, in her own terms, anymore than the architects were, in their own terms.  I think that if you set out, as Mrs Thatcher did, to sell council housing to those who can afford to buy it, and combine this with a needs based allocations policy that the Labour Government did from 1977 onwards, such that the remaining (not bought under right to buy) property is then inhabited by those families with the greatest social problems, you are going to have one hell of a problem on the estates, and this is by and large what happened.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/aug/29/social-housing-council-powers-immigration

I can only conclude that Alice Coleman was in effect “used” by Margaret Thatcher as an apologist for her policies while blaming architects for the mess so created.  This is grossly unfair to Alice Coleman who I think did a perfectly worthwhile job and incidentally in the process uncovered some important principles in this country first discovered by Oscar Newman in the States.

I don’t think there is a clear answer to the question of whether the architects were wholly to blame (I don’t think they were), or that Alice Coleman was entirely right in her analysis (I don’t think she was).  The Barbican in the City of London (Chamberlin, Powell & Bon) includes all the features derided by Alice Coleman as contributing to anti-social behaviour and yet has none of them but then the residents are middle class and well off.  How else would one afford to live there?

Long overhead walkways, tall buildings, many people crammed together, many dwelling per entrance, which of these do not feature in Utopia on Trial?  Yet the Barbican is not a sink estate so clearly wealth and employment play their part.

Dickon Robinson – Director of Planning and Development Peabody 1988-2004

“The thing about the Post War social housing estates and their sheer scale is they’re unavoidable.  They dominate the centres of our cities; and they are a kind of continuous reminder that there are poor people.”

“Large numbers of poor people in our society – and I do think to some extent part of the desire to tear them down is a kind of ‘I don’t want to be reminded of either, maybe if we get rid of the buildings, we get rid of the problem or we can pretend the problem doesn’t actually exist.'”

This is going on as we speak.  The Ferrier estate in Kidbrooke.  The existential threat to Wornington Green, an entire street demolished and replaced with inferior buildings. Heygate and Aylesbury.  If you remove the buildings you remove the poor that inhabit them.  Do you?

Linda Bellos

“The Thatcher revolution seems to me kind of codified, the way that the wealthy and aspiring working class people were ok, they’re the ones that could buy their own homes and did.  I’m not criticising them.  But it created, and it was inevitable that it would create, effectively an underclass.”

“The legacy of commodity, the commodity of the home,  the price of home, the levels of homelessness, the hidden homelessness, not just people sleeping on the streets but the families who are sharing accommodation with friends and neighbours in order not to be on the street, in order not to be separated, that’s still going on.”

Kate Macintosh

At this point we’re back to where I came in, “the symbolism of architecture is very direct”.  Kate Macintosh standing on Dawsons Heights looking towards the city.  This entire film is framed so to speak by the way in which a love of money has taken over from the sweeping values of the postwar settlement and the Government consensus to look after all the people.

“The symbolism of architecture is very direct and easily read, and that is certainly an expression of where the power and the money are vested now. When you look at the landmarks around us in London today, ones that have gone up since this was erected, very largely they are banks, share dealing houses, perhaps a few flats for the very rich, and that symbolism of where the wealth and the power is vested, is a very accurate reflection of the way society has changed”.

Pimlico School

The last section of the film covers Pimlico School designed by John Bancroft (d.2011) and in so far as it is one more representative Modernist building then fair enough but I do feel that in terms of structure the film would have done better to end with the Kate Macintosh quote, thus embracing and sealing its message that money is the new God.

Nevertheless that is a personal point of view and the film does go on to film John Bancroft talking about his school, since demolished.

Ken Livingstone

“Blair and Brown had bought into too much of the Thatcher ideology.  Part of the problem was that Tony Blair had never really met poor people or ordinary people, I mean, he grew up in a very cossetted environment, public school, Oxford, the bar, into Parliament, and then bizarrely he ended up in perhaps the most atypical working class constituency in Britain, only one person in 200 isn’t white, respectable little mining communities, respectable working class, and so on.  I think he had an idealised view and I think he probably broadly felt like Mrs Thatcher that public services could sort of undermine your will and independence.”

Tom Cordell – Epilogue

“Today, the ideas written into these buildings, look almost as alien as they did 70 years ago.  Where are the optimists now, working to create a society of equal citizens?  But the surviving buildings remain in the city, beacons from the past, reminding us that it is still possible to believe in building a better future.”

=========================================================

Opinion

It is interesting to compare Tom’s film with High Rise Dreams from 2004 (and Homes for Heroes from 2005) which cover the same period. That film plays it straight (no time-lapse, borders or quotes) and also features interviews with Oliver Cox talking about the LCC architects department and their ambitious plans of the time. Both films impart the sense of responsibility felt by the architects involved and their sense of purpose in rehousing those dispossessed by bombing and poor housing quality.

I was delighted to see Alice Coleman interviewed. Her views and her work on anti-social behaviour have been well documented in her book Utopia on trial and it was wonderful to see her espouse these views in person. For this and other reasons my admiration for the work Tom Cordell and his team have done in putting this film together is considerable.

As others have said the most enjoyable parts of the film are the interviews with the architects themselves. Without exception they all come over as warm and interesting people, from whom I would personally like to hear more. Perhaps there is a series of films yet to be made, of the working lives of each of them. Don’t leave it too long.

I think Tom Cordell has done a wonderful job in both identifying the need for a re-appraisal of the ambitions, successes and failures of the Modernists, and in carrying through an enlightening documentary featuring so many interviews with significant contributors of the period.

Leave a Reply