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.