Capital Punishment: London on film 02.08.13

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  • The firefighters in Truffaut’s film of Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

  • Alton West Estate, Roehampton, 1959

  • Battersea Power Station in Children of Men (2006)

The London that rose up in the 1960s and 70s proved inherently cinematic, luring film-makers such as Kubrick and Truffaut to its new offices and housing estates. But their dystopian visions were to create an indelible link in the public imagination between modernism and failure

This article was first published in Icon's July 2013 issue: Film. Buy old issues or subscribe to the magazine for more like this. You can read more from our film issue here.

In 1962, the American architecture critic GE Kidder-Smith wrote that the Alton Estate in south-west London was "the finest low-cost housing development in Europe". Comprising blocks of flats, high and low-rise, set in expropriated aristocrats' gardens and parkland, aesthetically split between an "east" of pretty details and informality and a "west" of raw concrete and sublime scale, Alton was the nearest thing London ever got to a complete Ville Radieuse, a total implementation of Le Corbusier's programme for the metropolis of tomorrow.

Just four years later, in the film Fahrenheit 451 (1966), it really was the metropolis of tomorrow. Its most famous corner, where five slab blocks punctuate a rolling hill, each designed by their London County Council architects as serial copies of Corbusier's Unités, became the imposing, mute backdrop to the burning of books, in a future society where reading is banned.

This marked the first in a series of films in the 1960s and early 70s where directors from outside the UK, from France, the US and Italy, arrived here and radically re-read the British landscape, severing it from the cliches of either the stately home or the kitchen sink, filming it instead as a hard, alienating and unnervingly futuristic place. Even in recent years, the most convincing visions of dystopia, such as Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men (2006), have been visitors' visions of a country, unaffected by familiarity or affection. In short, for these directors England is a country of violence, concrete and piss – and its then-internationally-admired modern architecture is the invariable backdrop.

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On the Alton Estate during the filming of Fahrenheit 451 (image: Kobal Collection)

Fahrenheit 451's director François Truffaut famously claimed that the British landscape was inherently uncinematic – all that rain, all those smudged landscapes, all those pinched towns without aesthetic drama, all this meant that London could never become a cinema city like Paris or New York.

It was a completely ridiculous statement, of course, and not least because of its provenance – an interview with Alfred Hitchcock about his earlier films in the UK. In the interwar years, after a brief spell in Germany learning the techniques of the expressionists, young Leytonstonian Hitchcock started to make impressive use of exactly these vague, threatening aspects of the British environment – pea-soupers engulf the murderer of The Lodger (1927), a bomb is carried on to a bus in a crowded Fleet Street in Sabotage (1936), a police chase crawls across the heavy metal of the Forth Bridge in The 39 Steps (1935).

So whatever he might have said, Truffaut had learned how this landscape could be made to look eerie and unnerving rather than pretty and picturesque. In Fahrenheit 451, you have for possibly the first time on film the use of tower blocks as dystopia, rather than utopia, images of an atomised society rather than an image of community. And it's not just the use of the already famous Alton Estate, but also spec housing from the same era, as in a scene where the professional book burner goes back home to a street of spaced-out modernist villas surrounded by pine trees, a location that could be either Surrey or Sweden. Meanwhile, our book-reading heroine, played by Julie Christie, lives in a mock tudor semi, here coming to signify freedom rather than conformity. It's no condemnation of the film to admit that, for the most part, this begins what would become an easy identification of concrete with dystopia – especially dystopian compared with the joyous explorations of historic Paris in Truffaut's other films.

Michelangelo Antonioni could never have been accused of being obvious in his choices of buildings and locations, though. In films such as La Notte (1961) and Red Desert (1964), he had already depicted Italy as the country not of historic architectural grandeur but of sterile modernist apartments (in which people have seemingly endless bleak, anomic relationships) or of pre-war industrial wastes. Unlike Truffaut's film, there is no hint of a "good" historic place being contrasted with a "bad" modern one – there is only a modern environment, whether it has new or old buildings in it.

In his only film made entirely in London, Blow-Up (1966), Antonioni did various peculiar things to the local landscape – most notoriously, painting the grass in a park in Charlton because it wasn't green enough – but he also chose to shoot pivotal scenes in newly built London office complexes. An early scene of the film's various swinging Londoners cruising around the city takes place along London Wall, which was then being experimentally redeveloped with Miesian towers and overhead walkways, with the road itself a traffic-light-free runway. In another scene, Antonioni's melancholic beautiful people are filmed hanging around the Economist building, as if to acknowledge the way that the Smithsons' raised plazas in that scheme provided a site to see and be seen.

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The Brunswick Centre, 1971, seen from Bernard Street (image: John Donat/Riba Library Photographs Collection)

Less well-known than Blow-Up in its treatment of modernism, though, is a scene in The Passenger (1975). Set mostly in the North African desert, this is a bleak film even by Antonioni's standards, starring a depressive Jack Nicholson. In one scene he wanders around Patrick Hodgkinson's newly built Brunswick Centre, through the shopping plaza in the middle between the ziggurats of the housing blocks. The estate looks incredibly shiny and clean, bathed in sunshine, as if the occasional tendency of British modernist architecture to wish it was in Italy had been fulfilled. As with Blow-Up, you get the sense that Antonioni was a very keen reader of the architectural press.

Both Truffaut and Antonioni made British modernism look more than a bit unnerving, but they didn't take it on in the same ferocious way as the Americans Stanley Kubrick and Sidney Lumet. Kubrick deliberately had his violent droogs in A Clockwork Orange (1971) live in what was then the most complete modernist environment in London, and Thamesmead has never really lived it down since. When a part of the estate was demolished a few years ago, the local paper's headline was "No More Clockwork Orange" – although the area on Southmere Lake, with its angular blocks arranged placidly around the water, is mostly the same as it was in 1971.

An equally terrifying vision of people in brutalist buildings behaving in a brutal way can be found in Lumet's The Offence (1972). A psychologically damaged policeman (played a little too convincingly by Sean Connery) resides in Point Royal in the new town of Bracknell, a (now-listed) tower in a park designed by Ove Arup. At several moments in the film Connery has flashbacks to the horrors he has seen over the years – dead bodies found in railway sidings, a grim, stunted, Victorian country to confirm all of Truffaut's scepticism – but he always returns to his impeccable modernist apartment in the tower surrounded by greenery, an attempt at escape that inevitably ends in the flat being smashed up.

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Droogs-in-waiting, Trinity underpass, Wandsworth (image: Warner Bros/The Kobal Collection, 1971)

Although A Clockwork Orange's success and notoriety meant that Thamesmead is perhaps the only one of these places to have been adversely affected by its cinematic depiction, these films all helped the sudden shift in the public presentation of modernism, away from optimism for the future towards a more familiar vision of mechanised and dehumanised failure. And interestingly, none of them depicted the standard blocks system-built everywhere in their hundreds – most were filmed in the prestige projects of the time.

Tom Cordell's recent documentary Utopia London (2010) explicitly argued with these visions of the modernist city, polemically editing Truffaut's depiction of the Alton Estate next to very different accounts from its actual inhabitants. Turning a real, lived environment into a mythical dystopia always creates a caricature. Other recent documentaries, from Enrica Colusso's Home Sweet Home (2012) on the Elephant and Castle, to local residents' Rowley Way Speaks for Itself (2009), on Neave Brown's Alexandra Road estate in Camden, take places more commonly used as backdrops for TV crime dramas and tell stories of everyday life in the buildings, and of the now-defunct socialist modernism behind their construction.

However, it is noticeable that the most interesting recent depictions of Britain on film still come from foreign directors. Tellingly, they make more use of the luxury spaces of the new ruling class than they do of the housing projects of the 1960s. Children of Men depicts its fascistic future London looking much as it does now, with chain coffee shops and art galleries in converted power stations; while Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's 28 Weeks Later (2007)takes Canary Wharf literally, as the sealed-off decontaminated zone where the UN try to police a zombie-ridden London. The films of the late 60s and early 70s were prophetic; their vision of London as the site of failed housing projects, concrete and social collapse began to be how a lot of Londoners saw their own city. Will these films of an authoritarian, neoliberal, steel and glass London have the same effect?



Owen Hatherley

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Children of Men depicts its fascistic future London looking much as it does now, with chain coffee shops and art galleries in converted power stations

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