words William Wiles
"Wonderful! Look at the fun they're having!" says Neave Brown, spotting some junior Parkour-ists clambering over part of his Alexandra Road estate in north London. "The whole of the building is a play space." And children are still using it as such, running up and down its concrete slopes and exploring its stairwells while Brown dispenses paternal joy from the concrete walkways. This is Tom Cordell's documentary film Utopia London at its very best, a virtuoso bit of architectural cinema. It's as if the clouds part and Alexandra Road is suddenly flooded with sunlight: it works, it indisputably works! Far from being a dystopian crime-maze or a mothballed experiment with forgotten objectives, it is a living, functioning organ within the city.
The shaft of sunlight piercing heavy cloud is a metaphor that could be extended across Cordell's film. He looks at the brief period when the most ambitious architecture in London served the common man and woman, rather than the church or the banks, architecture that "breaks the timeline from faith to finance". Utopia London is, then, a sort of potted history of the welfare state in London, from Berthold Lubetkin's Finsbury Health Centre (1939) to John Bancroft's Pimlico School (1970). Those two buildings are, however, exceptions in a film dominated by housing estates: Lenin/Bevin Court, Altons West and East, Lambeth Towers and others.
Cordell does a solid job of stitching these diverse projects together into a narrative; even better, the film is filled with contributions from the architects of the buildings in question, including Brown, Bancroft, George Finch and Kate Macintosh. The architects mostly keep the tone as upbeat and celebratory as Brown, recapturing the optimism with which they set out their plans. But of course Utopia London is streaked with melancholy anger. The utopian moment was all too brief. Within a decade of its completion, Alton West in Roehampton was cast as the landscape of totalitarianism in François Truffaut's film Fahrenheit 451 (1966). Modernist social housing fell out of favour across the political spectrum, finally being crippled by the Thatcher government giving tenants the right to buy their homes.
"When you're inside, it doesn't feel like a council estate, it's just home," one of the young new private owners of a formerly council flat innocently tells Cordell. With friends like that, modernist housing doesn't need enemies; Utopia London is a dedicated and brave effort to overturn this kind of prejudice, which is now sweeping away these precious buildings. Near the end of the film, Bancroft watches the demolition crews smashing his school. "Bloody fools," he mutters.
top picture credit Patrick Abercrombie's County of London Plan (1943)