Friday, January 04, 2008

Greater London Council Vortex, Again



An extraordinary film, in the BFI’s Mediatheque archive: Living at Thamesmead, directed by Charmian and Jack Saward. This is a short propaganda piece made by the Greater London Council in 1974, depicting the concrete idyll that is the aforementioned aborted Ville Radieuse (once described by someone as my ‘spiritual home’ – though at the very least a haircut and a more restrained wardrobe would be required before I could make it my actual one). The innocence and hope of this utopia of the slum overspill is personified in our pubescent protagonists, bathed in the sunlight that reflects off the concrete surfaces. Opening with scenes of the communal lakes turned, seemingly, into Butlins, filled with frolicking children, we move onto a walk through the gigantic estate, soundtracked by a bucolic electro-acoustic ditty that demands reissue on Trunk. The couple can’t keep their hands off each other: at one point they lay down on the playing fields and the camera closes in on the girl’s red, parting lips, then dissolves. Their traversal of the concrete walkways is at every level sexualised, their evident desire to go off into the proverbial bushes made symbolic of the appeal of the sparkling, ex nihilo city.



What’s funny, and sad, is that even in this film, made purely to convince people to move to the estate, the (justified, no doubt) complaints keep coming. There’s not enough facilities. The rent is too high. It’s too isolated. The public transport isn’t good enough. What isn’t mentioned, except by allusion, is the architecture, and the sheer confidence and total sweep of its Modernism (the directors not chastened by A Clockwork Orange two years before). At one point the boy looks over to the school and exclaims ‘it looks like a factory!’ and the girl replies ‘better than my old one. Old was the word for it!’ The very things that are now considered so inhuman, so criminal about Thamesmead and it’s lesser versions – the walkways, the towers, the concrete, the lack of any ornament or historicist ‘context’ (context with what? The poisoned wasteland that was there before?) – are not considered worthy of comment by the people in the film, both those fictional and real. The camera, meanwhile, adores the architecture, and the directors have the characters acknowledge it, silently: as at one moment across the walkways, where our couple turn back to see the geometries line up starkly behind them, a row of gradated towers stepping back, one after the other. A glance that would now have to be one of fear is of wonder.

19 Comments:

Blogger Qlipoth said...

"the architecture, and the sheer confidence and total sweep of its Modernism"

This is a wonderfully evocative post, especially for someone brought up on a postwar council estate (i.e., me).

It strikes me, though, that qualities such as 'confidence and total sweep' are easy to admire in (say) an actor or a writer or a painter, whose fields of influence are very strictly limited both temporally and spatially. (If you don't like the play, the book or the painting - and even if you do! - you don't have to live with them for long, or indeed at all.) In an architect, though, those very qualities are almost by definition going to alienate the very people privilged (i.e. forced) to live in the artist's 'confident' 'sweeping''vision', maybe for decades, maybe for a lifetime.

I'm speaking as a complete architectural amateur here, but... isn't it very noticeable that vernacular architecture, all over the world, from the pueblo village to the proverbial Italian hilltown - i.e. houses built *by people for themselves* - never has this kind of 'confidence and total sweep'? And yet it coheres. And yet that coherence is not the result of anyone's single decision. And no one complains of a lack of facilities, unless there's a war or a famine on.

Politically, there's surely something highly questionable about the very idea of top-down Architecture For The Masses. It's surely no accident that it ends up depressing the very people forced to appreciate it on a daily basis (and to recognise, year after year, their own utter irrelevance to it. The little white stick-figures are always last to be added on to the model.) Hence vandalised lifts, and TV addiction, and piss on the stairs.

P.S. I realise I run a risk of sounding like Prince Charles here.

-w.

7:16 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Crikey, you're opening a huge, huge can of worms...

First of all, one of the places I grew up was a decidedly non-modernist pre-war estate (pretty indistinguishable from most other 30s estates, roughcast, proper houses with proper gardens) which had all the aforementioned isolation, crap facilities, lack of transport, TV addiction, public weeing, casual violence etc etc so it doesn't necessarily tally with ambitious architecture.

These sort of places were often top-down, and that is dubious, I know. But not always. The connection of Tecton with the Labour movement in Peterlee or London for instance, plus the 'New Brutalism' was a product of 'scholarship boys' , redbrick universities, class mobility (people like the Smithsons, Stirling etc). Not totally a true authentic product of the workers, but something not entirely the product of rarefied aesthetes, bureaucrats and mandarins either. Also, Thamesmead (for instance) was designed by committee rather than some individual visionary.

Third, well - vernacular building does often have a unity and totality to it. There's a book called Architecture without Architects on this subject, which shows how unified and coherent these sorts of places actually were. Lots of Brutalists and late modernist types (Moshe Safdie for instance) tried to replicate their closeness, irregularity, etc (the 'italian hilltown' is almost a cliche in postwar planning). The problem is, how can people 'build their own' in an industrial capitalism of advanced technology - wouldn't to do so be perverse, retrogressive...? Not that there haven't been Modernists into self-build schemes, and not that some sort of self-build socialism wouldn't be a good thing. Personally though, I'd rather be in the Banlieue than the Favela, given the running water, electricity and so forth.

The problem is the forcing. In the Barbican (or less Modernist places with a 'sweep' or coherence: Georgian squares, etc) nobody minds the 'totality', cos they have enough money, facilities and crucially have chosen to be there. Sadly, that isn't how council housing works, but it was how it was intended to work. The conjunction of an architecture considered overwhelming or ugly with a pretty grim existence can, obviously, be horrible. But it doesn't have to be like that.

6:19 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why fetishise a ghetto?

Thamesmead doesn't work. That is evident. The Ferrier nearby is being demolished and quite right too.

No infrastruture, poor location (on the way to nowhere, so isolation is inevitable), no hope.

It's easy from the outside, working on a PHD or whatever. Who has fun living there? Who enjoys the tunnels, the walkways, when there is a real fear of attack? Or the lack of shops, social facilities, community?

6:53 pm  
Anonymous ben said...

i'm sure you know about this already, but it's worth bringing up:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115640/

these days, it is hard to imagine channel four getting to grips with the thamesmead in quite the same way. also, the director was also involved in the 'in a land of plenty' tv series...

8:52 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Sigh. Look, Anon, I'm not an idiot, I don't need to prove working class credentials to some troll, and I'm not suggesting that Thamesmead, as it is today, is some sort of bloody utopia. It is a ghetto. But it wasn't built as a ghetto. Say, you have a huge strip of land, and want to settle council tenants on it. What do you do with it? The GLC built an area which had, incidentally, when first built, decent infrastructure, shops, facilities, playing fields, most of which were better than the average for the time (or today). I think that's laudable, and the Pavolvian response it always gets (oh no! concrete! towers! etc) simply because of the architecture (by the way, 'tunnels'? I presume you don't know the area) is ignorant. It's been left to rot for most of the last 30 years and is now in a parlous state, and is no doubt not a nice place to live for many of its inhabitants. That was not inevitable, and the original GLC plan, if it had been properly maintained and looked after, would have 'worked' a damn sight better than the endless atomised Barratt Homes that surround it.

Also, if you're going to talk about the Ferrier, you might at least acknowledge this.

2:23 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Ben: I've never seen Beautiful Thing, which is funny, as it's clearly very much up my strasse. If anyone wants to lend a copy...?

3:13 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The troll responds...

Sure, it wasn't built as a ghetto, but Thamesmead is literally on the way to nowhere, a strip of land that being a floodplane was quite rightly uninhabited. Without any through traffic local business in particular was bound to suffer. Working class families could be shifted "out the way" of the rest of Bexley and Greenwich boroughs. Hardly utopian. And not sure laudable, either.

Feel free to ignore me, but I'd like some info on the infrastructure around Thamesmead in its early days. As an 80s child I remember the shopping centre going up and there being like else around it. Tavy Bridge was never a welcoming place and was hardly enough for the amount of people living there. Riverside School was always seen as the school for kids in Thamesmead - you'd rarely get anyone from nearby Erith or Belvedere heading there, in my experience at least. So, the isolation continued.

Condemning Barratt Homes is like shooting fish in a barrel, and maybe criticising Thamesmead is too. But using the poor as guinea pigs for a unproven system doesn't seem right to me. I think they'd have preferred the Barratt Homes, and they'd perhaps be in a better state too.

Re: tunnels, read the underpasses of various descriptions and lengths. My mistake in phrasing.

As for the Ferrier - isn't that people feeling pissed off about even further neglect rather than thinking the Ferrier Estate was a wonderful idea?

Trolling over.

7:14 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Correction: line 3 read "little" rather than "like".

Thanks!

7:16 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

OK, now you're sounding a little less like a troll, though I do wish people would leave their names...in answer to your points.

On Ferrier, yes, you're right - and I'm much less inclined to defend it than I am Thamesmead, as its much meaner, far more like the stereotyped prole-stacking scheme than the former.

On its infrastructure, well: it had a health centre, a community centre, (as you point out) its own school, playing fields, lakes. In the original plans it had a tube station, which got junked cos of 70s funding cuts. You don't get any of that in most Barrattvilles, which is why I mentioned them. Oh and Thamesmead (or the original bit), being raised, is a damn sight more sensible a way to build on a flood plain than what got built there from the 80s onwards.

It's in a wasteland, as I mentioned (when writing about a FICTIONAL film by the way). Not much can be done about that, really - this is why it was supposed to be self-sufficent, and of course we know it wasn't, and that's a big flaw from the start, and one not properly taken into account.

I just don't see the 'guinea pigs for some perverse modernist experiment' argument as ringing true. In Europe, or Hong Kong, or in central London (uh, the Barbican, which is ridiculously similar to Thamesmead in plan and ethos) this sort of thing worked just fine. Between it being started and finished the economy went downhill, and community declined - as it has done everywhere, by the way: when people make this argument I wonder if they assume that all the surviving areas of terraces (of which there is no shortage) are hotbeds of Coronation Street community. They aren't. They were in the 50s, and so were Modernist developments at that time.

If I'd written a post about a film on Whitechapel, or Salford, or the East End of Glasgow and how picturesque it was, then nobody would have given a damn. But these places were built as slums, and get romanticised and fetishised all the bloody time. For some reason when talking about anything built since the 50s, one has too append 'BUT WE KNOW IT WAS AN ORWELLIAN NIGHTMARE!' to every comment. This strikes me as a bit odd. Nobody ever starved to death or got cholera in fucking Kidbrooke.

12:36 pm  
Anonymous Steve said...

Thanks for the response...I have left my name now, for what its worth. Hope this helps.

I'd agree that at least in design the Ferrier is worse, but in terms of location was potentially that much better. It has always struck me as bizarre that the hellhole of the Ferrier was so close to leafy, super-expensive Blackheath, but they could be a world away. Thamesmead was on the road to nowhere, above Abbey Wood and specifically the Abbey Wood Estate, which were hardly wonderful (and I speak as someone from Abbey Wood).

Interesting to hear about the Tube plans - I think this certainly could have made a difference (see North Greenwich's appeal now, although that seems just as isolated in its own way).

As for the Barbican (and can I sneak in a hackneyed criticism about how easy it is to get lost there?) I think the fundamental difference is that the Barbican is in a much better location - the City and West End nearby, much better transport links. Thamesmead is tucked away in the least-fashionable, most neglected part of London and so I imagine after a certain point there was little incentive to make it work. Never seen, easy to forget. Let's face it, the press and TV virtually ignore SE London unless there's a murder there. The Barbican, right in the centre of London, and regularly visited by many (with the Barbican Centre) had a much better chance of being prioritised and becoming appealing. Far more visible.

While nobody starved or got cholera in Kidbrooke it was still a pretty grim experience, at least by modern standards. I understand that the gaps in life expectancy between the worst and best levels in Greenwich Borough are pretty startling - I have no idea if that is down to the architecture or not. I suspect it is far more complex, but I doubt that new ideas, well-meaning but unproven and poorly executed helped.

1:08 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Second to last para I agree with entirely.

By the way, the tube for Thamesmead was to be part of the Jubilee line extension (first mooted in the 60s) - so basically it goes Canary Wharf-North Greenwich-Stratford instead of Westcombe Park-Woolwich-Thamesmead, which was the original route (and which I think exemplifies changing social priorities very nicely).

Re: Ferrier being so close to Blackheath: well, that's why they're kicking all the tenants out now...

4:33 pm  
Blogger Dan said...

I think the Barbican parallel is bang on, as it indicates that it's very little to do with the actual architecture (architecture as built form I mean) and more to do with services, support, care and attention, ongoing operation, and proximity and connectivity to a core. All of things were present and cared-for in the Barbican - and not at Thamesmead. A Clockwork Orange could've been filmed at either, back then - but only one now.

Moreover, the political/socio-economic backdrop is far more affecting than the concrete, and will corrode any community if it's too acidic. And that's what happened in Thamesmead and their ilk.

And *of course* the Barbican is well situated - but the point is that perhaps these schemes can only work best when embedded in a dense variegated urban core - as opposed to the outskirts. They should reinforce the city rather than attempt to sprawl it.

Oh and the "hackneyed criticism" about the Barbican is bogus. Firstly, you're supposed to get lost in cities. That's the whole idea. Secondly, if you don't want to get lost, the Barbican is a piece of piss to get around, with a highly developed wayfinding system despite its complex form.

Owen, where did you see the film? I'd love it if it found its way onto the internet...

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