The Future Cities project

promoting a human-centred approach to nature

Whatever happened to Utopia?

FILM: ‘Utopia London’ by Tom Cordell, 2010

Reviewed by Rowan Morrice | 14 September 2012

It’s not often we hear about Utopia these days. An idea which used to be identified with the future, is now a purely historic phenomenon. Today when it seems we can only imagine a dystopian future, this film presents a nostalgic look back at the Modern movement in 20th Century London. 

The film charts, through a series of key buildings in the mid to late 20th century, the changing political and social landscape which gave rise to the Modernist relics now dispersed across London. Each building represents a different idea of what modernity could bring to society, but all are radical, optimistic and visionary.

The film examines chronologically the political and social movements which gave rise to the architectural legacy of Modernism in London still visible, though increasingly less so, today. From its beginnings with Lubetkin emerging from the politics of the Soviet revolution, through to its decline in the face of Thatcherite capitalism, Cordell’s artful documentary identifies that understanding the social and political context that the architects worked in is key to understanding the architecture of that time. The film draws our attention to the fact that these architects were working in times of significant political and social upheaval. Beginning by setting the scene of a nation caught in a malaise in the aftermath of a war that had taken its toll, where everyone really was “in it together”, Cordell demonstrates how the Modernist social housing boom did not stand in isolation, but rather, was part of a broader progressive movement across society which included the creation of the NHS and the welfare state. These exemplified the socialist egalitarian ideals that captured the public mood, with a new optimism for a fair future that was a natural response to the horrors of war.

From Neave Brown to Ken Livingstone, Cordell has managed to muster an impressive line up of London’s influential architects and politicians for interview, and is able to capture the spirit of the era through the eyes of the key figures that led the post-war progressive movements. Cordell is able to give us a particularly emotional view of the human endeavour behind the buildings by taking the various architects back to visit their visionary creations to discuss them. As architect John Bancroft identifies in the film, the relationship between an architect and their building is like that of a parent and child, and so Cordell’s reuniting of architects and their buildings is an apt method of conveying the atmosphere in which these architects worked. This gives this documentary a unique place as a comprehensive insight into the great social experiments of the Modern Movement, but its nostalgia serves to make us to reflect on the situation today. In fact, the film is probably less a yearning for Modernist architecture, more the political dynamism it represents.

Architect Kate Macintosh states in the film, “the symbolism of architecture is very direct and easily read”. The fact that the architecture stood for egalitarianism or socialism is almost irrelevant, what is key is that it stood for anything at all. Contrast this with the apathetic and belligerent attitude to the built environment that pervades society today, and it is not surprising that there is a reluctance to accept the lowest common denominator architecture which often results. Yet all this is in the face of a Dickensian housing crisis which currently chokes the city, to which many politicians are still wilfully blind.

This contrast between then and now is perhaps best summed up in the film with the example of the Lambeth Towers estate by George Finch, with architectural historian Elain Harwood describing the architecture as shouting: “This is Lambeth, we have the worst housing conditions in the Britain and we’re doing something about it!” Yet today’s eagerness to tear down buildings like these is perhaps due to the fact that they do shout so loudly, and that they now shout of neglect. As Dickon Robinson, previously of the Peabody Trust, points out, it’s almost as if to get rid of the buildings will get rid of the problem. This current attitude of sweeping of poverty and inequality under the carpet, shows how ineffective the planning and political system is now for dealing with these problems.

Cordell quotes Mies Van Der Rohe: “Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space” and so it follows that a society gets the architecture it deserves. The resistance to new buildings so pervasive today is symptomatic of a society not at ease with itself. Utopia London shows how it used to be, and invites a search for a new vision of the future to rally behind, and to build for.

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Rowan Morrice is a recent graduate of architecture schools in Aberdeen and Tasmania. He works in London both in practice and as a freelance critic and writer.

For further information see Utopia London