Monday, 15 November 2010

Utopia London?

In this new documentary Tom Cordell attempts to tell the story of the London he grew up in and the Architects who built it. As he explains:
I grew up in the London of the 80s and 90s and it's still my home. I've always been drawn to the excitement of its post-war landscape; concrete and brick textures, unadorned clean lines, neon glow and dark shadows. And most Londoners my age that I know feel the same - the modernist city is our landscape. Yet all our lives we have been told that the same urban spaces are ugly – symbols of a failed, arrogant technocracy. While we're comfortable celebrating 60s pop culture, many people still hate the buildings of that time.
Worryingly, while I had once thought that popular taste would catch up with the urban building of the 50s, 60s and 70s, it's now under attack. Major symbols of that time are being destroyed - often with gruesome delight on the part of the wreckers. We urgently need to defend what is left before it is all gone.
So this film is an attempt to understand both why I am so drawn to these cityscapes and also why some hate them so much.
What excites me about Cordell's project is the way the tensions he describes resonate with my own interests in the subject of urbanism, and my personal ambivalence toward the city to which I remain attached. Undoubtedly Cordell's attachments are different from my own. Growing up in the fringe of London's northern commuter belt I have always felt like an outsider or stranger in London. As Georg Simmel would have had it in his influential essay 'The Stranger': I am 'the man who comes today and stays tomorrow - the potential wanderer, so to speak, who although he has gone no further, has not quite got over the freedom of coming and going'. If we accept this supposition of a propensity toward wanderlust, the real riddle of the stranger then would be to find out what makes him stay? While I am yet to visit many of the the sites appearing in Cordell's film, I wonder if the draw they have for him bares any similarity to that which I've felt toward the Barbican Estate ever since I stumbled upon it on a walk through the City a couple of years ago. 

Situated near the heart of London's central business district, the Barbican appears as an anachronism on the City's changing skyline. Perhaps there is something quixotic in the image of this outmoded Brutalist fortress of concrete, squaring off against the City's new champions of commerce rising to the east; palaces of commerce armoured in glass and steel, more ethereal in appearance, or more wraith-like depending on your view.

At the same time the Barbican is an island of urban life in a sea of commuters. I've often imagined it declaring independence from the rest of the city, or else turning feral in the vein of Ballard's book High-Rise. In my imagination it is more a ship waiting to set sail than an island. Over the last couple of years several of the pedways that reached out from the estate have been severed as the surrounding area has been redeveloped: the gangplanks are going up, all we're waiting for is the hoisting of the mainsail and we're off down the Thames in search of booty off the Docklands main.

While it is extremely unlikely that architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon or the LCC ever entertained thoughts of the Barbican as a Pirate Utopia, it is interesting to consider the extent to which the buildings they created have preserved or compromised the Utopian Egalitarianism that informed the earlier work of planners and architects such as Patrick Abercrombie and John Foreshaw, embodied in the County of London and Greater London plans of the 1940s:

[Video - The Proud City: A Plan for London (Public Domain Video) hosted by Utopia London on Vimeo]

Despite the harsh modernism, the uncompromising functionalism, or even the brute concrete hostility of many of the sites that were intended to embody these ideals, I'd like to suggest that it is their enduring influence on London's urban imaginary that continues to draw us to them. As Cordell tells us:
I began to contact the people who tried to change the city, and my narrative thread continued to shift around as the filming went on. And what I found was that the power of the buildings came from the vision they were meant to serve - and that it's this vision that so polarises opinion. They symbolise an attempt to build a fair, open society, and their existence frightens people who have rejected these values.
The film will be screened by DoCoMoMo in London on the 14th of December and followed by Q and A with director and architects. The film is also available for purchase on DVD from the Utopia London website.

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