City of Towers is a two hour documentary made by Christopher Booker for the BBC, first broadcast in 1979 and a master class in the history of Modernism that covers its birth from ideas first put forward by Antonio Sant’Elia, Auguste Perret and Le Corbusier in the early part of the Twentieth Century . . .

. . . to its fall from grace in the latter part of the same century when its supposed beneficiaries, the people who had to live in the concrete blocks that followed the Modernist model, rebelled, and it came to be seen for what it truly was, a failed philosophy.

Christopher Booker himself is never seen but narrates superbly with a crisp, well modulated, brisk and enthusiastic delivery in a documentary that covers over 100 years of human development from the slums of the Industrial Revolution, by way of the garden cities and the new towns, to the failed high rise blocks of the 1960s and beyond, to the late 1970s.

On housing

His thesis is that Modernism attempted to tackle the problems of housing large numbers of people in cities, in a sanitary and practical way but foundered on the rocks of greed, over ambition, corruption and ultimately stupidity for which you need look no further than the fact that

“it was officially admitted that in the four years between 1967 and 1971 nearly 100,000 houses had been demolished in London alone and that well over half of these houses had been in good or fair condition.  In fact it was discovered that far from having helped to solve Britain’s housing problem the great demolition program of the sixties had played a major part in creating a new kind of housing crisis”.

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“A study of the largest local authority housing program in London showed that for every one of the families moved into the new blocks off the waiting list between 1967 and 1974, two families, amounting to 10,000 people or more had simply been evicted so that their homes could be demolished”.

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“Hundreds of thousands of houses, many owned by local authorities, still stood empty, awaiting demolition, and it was hardly surprising that a new army of squatters moved in. Mostly young people who could not find housing any other way”.

and later

“amid the wreckage of abandoned housing estates and abandoned dreams perhaps the most shocking and remarkable fact of all was that by the mid seventies Britain had more homeless families than at any time in history.  Was this what all the proud boasts of the politicians, the architects and the planners had really been about? Or should we now recognise that the great comprehensive redevelopment program of the sixties and early seventies was the greatest social disaster of post war Britain?”

On  comprehensive redevelopment (about 52 minutes in)

“If you had actually gone round the provincial cities of Britain in 1960, cities like Birmingham and Glasgow, Newcastle and Bradford, you would have found that apart from areas damaged in the war, they didn’t look all that different than the way they would have looked 60 years before, at the beginning of the century”.

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This is a profound moment in the documentary, when you can begin to feel the anger that Booker feels.  This is one of the points at which the film changes gear; as he develops his thesis that it was the coupling from hell between the planners (created by the 1947 act), and the property developers (enabled by abolition of the 100% development tax), that produced the bastard child that was comprehensive redevelopment.

Here’s Owen Hatherley writing about the film:-

Re City of Towers, I agree with him about the often (if not exclusively) dire effects of 60s speculation, and *to a degree* that some housing and areas and communities that I think should have merely been renovated and rebuilt at the edges (rather than left alone entirely, which seems to be the argument) were needlessly demolished. Also Booker being a conservative Christian doesn’t make the more stupid arguments against modernism made by neoliberals – he seems to think society is a good idea, which is nice.

My problem with Booker is that I think he wildly overstates the ideological influence of modernism – towers never even at the peak in the 60s made up the majority of public housing, and he has nothing to say much about the equally mixed results of traditionalist rebuilding (ie, is Becontree really a better place than the Elephant and Castle or Thamesmead?). Modernism and modernist ideology, and the desire for a ‘brave new world’, etc, were always a secondary question. I also think he equally massively understates just how awful much of the housing that was being cleared actually was.

But the footage and the arguments are patient and very very well-illustrated. Except for the bit where he starts talking about Albert Speer, as if that has anything to do with Le Corbusier whatsoever, which is just bonkers. Might as well have used images of New Delhi. Except, Booker, knowing his politics, would not have made that particular connection.

Here’s a response from Kate Mellor:-

Re: Hatherley’s review – What does Booker actually say about Albert Speer? The only copy of City of Towers I have watched is the version on youtube which misses the start, misses bits and is perhaps edited.

[No it isn’t edited to my knowledge. How do you know it misses bits? Do you have another copy? If so please get in touch. – Ed.]

In this version Booker notes that Le Corbusier’s planning ideas were based on a collection of previous concepts that emerged from modernist movements (zoning from Tony Garnier and whole new cities from Futurism).

Booker regards Le Corbusier’s dream of a “city of towers” (LCs own words) as totalitarian adding that he must have been a most frustrated planner because his ideas were not used at that time.

The film then cuts to Adolf Hitler as another frustrated planner but also the implication is one who had totalitarian ideas. There is a drawing of neo-classicist building by Speer but no mention of the architect. Booker then says Hitler ironically provided the conditions that would allow architects to build according to new planning schemes that were influenced by Le Corbusier. I understand this to mean the cities needed rebuilding after bombing in World War II although this is not stated. Now I’m interested to know what Booker said about Speer.

Modernism was hugely influential and in some ways still is. Although Booker appears to be talking purely about architecture wider modernist discourses inform his view. It would be difficult to overstate modernism’s influence. Its imperative of the radically new facilitated by technology, the machine, underpins much Western theoretical perspective during the 20c even though here it appears just to inform 1960′s politician’s rhetoric!

Booker’s programme now seems like it must have been dynamite at the time but in fact it took place amid widespread debate and disillusionment with comprehensive housing schemes. Much post-war architecture of the type Booker is talking about has been demolished. Hulme was desperate 10 years before Booker’s programme but it is to be regretted that Spence’s tower blocks in Glasgow went in the 1990s. Kept for another 10 years they could be the des-reses of today – sad.

Here’s a second response from Kate Mellor:-

Unfortunately I don’t have another copy of City of Towers but am trying to get another through the BBC archive.

I think it is also in the Open University Image and Sound archive and although this is supposed to be available through JISC Mediahub I can’t find a trace.

The copy is missing a couple of bits – at the start and it jumps a bit later. I thought it might be edited because like Hatherley I find the juxtaposition of Le Corbusier and Albert Speer very strange. Booker doesn’t fully explain why he is making a link either. It leaves an odd gap which could indicate editing. On the other hand someone watching in 1979 might be able to fill in this line of thinking.

Many had regarded Le Corbusier-inspired planning as social engineering, notably the Situationists, (Debord goes into a vitriolic lather about Le Corbusier), so I guess Booker’s adopting that kind of stance but it doesn’t seem very well expounded.


In other news:-

3 Responses to “City of Towers – Christopher Booker – BBC 1979”

  1. Kate Mellor Says:

    Re: Hatherley’s review – What does Booker actually say about Albert Speer? The only copy of City of Towers I have watched is the version on youtube which misses the start, misses bits and is perhaps edited.
    In this version Booker notes that Le Corbusier’s planning ideas were based on a collection of previous concepts that emerged from modernist movements (zoning from Tony Garnier and whole new cities from Futurism). Booker regards Le Corbusier’s dream of a “city of towers” (LCs own words) as totalitarian adding that he must have been a most frustrated planner because his ideas were not used at that time.
    The film then cuts to Adolf Hitler as another frustrated planner but also the implication is one who had totalitarian ideas. There is a drawing of neo-classicist building by Speer but no mention of the architect. Booker then says Hitler ironically provided the conditions that would allow architects to build according to new planning schemes that were influenced by Le Corbusier. I understand this to mean the cities needed rebuilding after bombing in World War II although this is not stated. Now I’m interested to know what Booker said about Speer.
    Modernism was hugely influential and in some ways still is. Although Booker appears to be talking purely about architecture wider modernist discourses inform his view. It would be difficult to overstate modernism’s influence. Its imperative of the radically new facilitated by technology, the machine, underpins much Western theoretical perspective during the 20c even though here it appears just to inform 1960’s politician’s rhetoric! Booker’s programme now seems like it must have been dynamite at the time but in fact it took place amid widespread debate and disillusionment with comprehensive housing schemes. Much post-war architecture of the type Booker is talking about has been demolished. Hulme was desperate 10 years before Booker’s programme but it is to be regretted that Spence’s tower blocks in Glasgow went in the 1990s. Kept for another 10 years they could be the des-reses of today – sad.

  2. Single Aspect Says:

    Thank you for writing to the blog. I have forwarded your comment to Owen Hatherley should he wish to reply in kind. I tried your email address but it didn’t work.

  3. Kate Mellor Says:

    Unfortunately I don’t have another copy of City of Towers but am trying to get another through the BBC archive. I think it is also in the Open University Image and Sound archive and although this is supposed to be available through JISC Mediahub I can’t find a trace. The copy is missing a couple of bits – at the start and it jumps a bit later. I thought it might be edited because like Hatherley I find the juxtaposition of Le Corbusier and Albert Speer very strange. Booker doesn’t fully explain why he is making a link either. It leaves an odd gap which could indicate editing. On the other hand someone watching in 1979 might be able to fill in this line of thinking. Many had regarded Le Corbusier-inspired planning as social engineering, notably the Situationists, (Debord goes into a vitriolic lather about Le Corbusier), so I guess Booker’s adopting that kind of stance but it doesn’t seem very well expounded.

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