Tom Cordells’ film from 2011, Utopia London, opens with an evolutionary tale of London’s cityscape, from its early days of domination by religion to that of finance today. Such stories are often recalled with an air of inevitability to them, and are dependent upon a conception of time as something homogeneous; like a dark empty tunnel with the light of progress perpetually up ahead in the distance. The writer Amit Chaudhauri, remembering a poster that hung on the classroom wall of his private school in Bombay that depicted the evolution of man from homosapien to European man, remarks that the poster gave an impression of history as if could be captured in one sweeping movement, leading to an inevitable conclusion.
What about everything else? Caught in between these points are the trappings of stories and lives that remain untold, or yet to be told. Official historical narratives rub away at these other narratives, removing their tracing marks; yet they remain, as Chaudhauri describes them, in ‘the waiting room of history.’ Time is not indeed a dark, empty tunnel and neither is history, as he writes in his essay for the London Review of Books,
“‘Homogeneous’ and ’empty’ are curious adjectives for ‘time’: they are more readily associated with space and spatial configuration. Certain landscapes glimpsed from a motorway, or the look of a motorway itself, might be described as dull and ‘homogeneous’; streets and rooms might be ’empty’.”
What does it mean to conceive of a a landscape as empty? It is surely these seemingly “empty”, negative non-spaces that are in fact Chaudhuri’s waiting rooms of history; and they are certainly not empty.
“History,” writes Arundhati Roy in her novel The God of Small Things, “was like an old house at night. With all the lamps lit. And ancestors whispering inside. To understand history… we need to go inside and listen to what they’re saying…”
Cordell’s film is an attempt to explore London’s ‘waiting rooms’; the old houses of history (with all the lamps lit, as illustrated by his use of nighttime photography) and examine the time/space that exists between London’s official architectural history—the evolution from religion to capitalist finance.What else happened here?
Like a flâneur, who views the history of the city subversively, deliberately relocating its various meanings and hierarchies, Cordell aims to seek out and ‘decode’ these buildings from the city’s recent past; products of Modernist, utopian ideas that still stand (for now at least) as exceptions to the official evolutionary narrative. This task sounds simple at first, but it is not. The official history of these Modern projects is that they were a failure, doomed somewhat from the start. This history is followed by the desire of some to wipe them off the map, and out of history, completely. The facts of the matter are of course much more complicated, but the task of opposing such existing, dominant assumptions about these projects is challenging.
Upon entering the old house of history, Arundhati Roy warns:
“we look in through the windows, all we see are shadows. And when we try and listen, all we hear is a whispering. And we can’t understand the whispering, because our minds have been invaded by a war. A war that we have won and lost … A war that captures dreams and then re-dreams them. A war that has made us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves.”
War was in fact a key aspect of Britain’s Modernist project. The buildings reviewed in Utopia London were a proposed response to a national disaster, a reaction to a social imperative that absconded, by absolute necessity, from what was considered to be the needless artifice of precious decades. “Back when Modern still meant new, context was everything,” explains Cordell and his enigmatic use of archive footage points to various origins of modernity around the world.
The Russian architect Berthold Lubetkin witnessed the revolution that was happening in his own country and the architecture it was inspiring from London, where he was living, but his own ambitions to bring such architectural projects to the UK were strictly limited to a ‘penguin utopia.’ In contrast to Russia, from Britain at that time the modern was considered to be a concept for dictating a decorative fashion for the elites rather than a radical template for a new society. However, Finsbury Borough Council, faced with a population dominated by squalid living conditions, later commissioned Lubetkin to devise a plan for their new health centre as part of an ever-pressing problem of how to tackle a desperate social situation of poverty and squalor. The aftermath of the Second World War would further this imperative in Britain’s cities, and Britain’s Modern project gained momentum.
The archive footage from Utopia London appropriately and evocatively contrasts an effervescent energy of bodies literally revolving and twisting around the streets of Moscow in a revolutionary fervour, with glimpses of rubble, devastation and squalor in London. These clips are followed by colourful, friendly and optimistic government archive animations promising a better, nicer life in the British city. This sequence effectively demonstrates the idiosyncrasy of Britain’s Modern movement, which T.J .Clark has referred to as one that preferred a method of brokering with gentility, keeping on favourable terms with the status quo, rather than steaming ahead with a bold new one.
Winston Churchill suppressed the possibility for a revolutionary London like Lubetkin’s once the war was over. This culture of compromise that defines British Modernism is apparent from its buildings, along with the nuances of Britain’s shifting political landscape. These nuances are what form the code of each building, which Cordell engagingly deciphers, as Utopia London‘s narrative unfolds across the decades following the Second World War.
The film contains significant interview footage with seminal architects and follows them back to their buildings as they stand today. Despite meeting the odd resident along the way, very little of the film is in fact reserved for residents. One standout interview with two young men in their rented council flat in Brixton demonstrates the kind of stigma that predominates public opinion of council properties today (‘It’s really nice, once you’re inside, you wouldn’t know it was a council flat’). This stigma might go some way towards an explanation for why there are a limited amount of interviews with residents in Utopia London, but it is still unfortunate that the lives of people living on these estates today is still rather under represented. Then again, this is a film about architecture—about grand ideas and master plans—and a great deal of the original footage shot for the film is dedicated to slick portraits of the buildings themselves at night, city lights reeling around them, emphasizing their certain resilience in face of time’s passing.
Cordells research is impressive. Is he an effective critic as well as an archivist of the British Modernist architectural movement? The narrative and filmic techniques in Utopia London compose a unique space, a filmic non-place, as a site for the re-vision and re-telling of past events and lost ideas in London’s architectural history. It is perhaps only marginally more than a nostalgic or mournful lament for what was, or what might have been. Narratives such as this one that resist dominant political and social ideologies can still maintain a sort of myth of ‘the establishment’ as something wholly determined and unquestionable when they pit master narratives against other master narratives.
Rather like Geoff Dyer’s recent analogy of the squash player that repeatedly insists on slamming the ball against the wall without thinking to question the existence of the wall in the first place, in seeking to replace one grand narrative with another, Cordell perhaps does not get to grips adequately enough with the complex realities of the lives entwined within these super structures. In seeking to establish counter-narratives to the status quo of history, what if we were to resist slamming things against that wall as if it were unshakable and try to do something else? What would that something else be?
Last year I enjoyed Jonathan Coe’s spoken word drama, Say Hi to the Rivers and the Mountains, with its narrative that revolved around a brutalist 1960s housing estate. A boy who lives there develops a relationship and falls in love with the daughter of the architect who designed the estate and enjoys returning to the place she conceived. This established entwining of lives, between grand designers and tenants, does become gradually loosened over time, as the architect’s daughter goes on to university and meets an up-and-coming architect, a new breed, whom she travels the world and falls in love with. The boy grows up to be a writer and, a romantic at heart, never really forgets his love for the girl. At the end of the story when the estate is slated for demolition, he questions the notion of ownership and the whereabouts of lost ideals. The story was inspired by the Robin Hood Gardens estate in East London, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson. Say Hi to the Rivers and the Mountains is a combination of allegorical lament for the failed idealism of Britain’s Modern project, and a scathing critique of the ensuing cynical consumerism that followed it in the name of progress.
Whilse seeking to decipher ‘hidden’ messages from history, it is worth remembering that all codes are essentially comprised of many complicated fictions; dreamed up dreams, re-dreamt, dreams that we own and are owned by. The young characters from Roy’s The God of Small Things come to learn how “history negotiates its terms and collects its dues from those who break its laws,” and also that it “lurk[s] forever in ordinary things.”
Chaudhauri also describes historicism as something that at once liberates, defines and shackles us in its discriminatory universalism, “the blessed and the excluded are real people, real communities. The insight waiting for elaboration… must find the best and, in the positive sense of the word, most opportunistic expositor… that is potentially vast, important and problematic.”
In Utopia London, the process of exposing and decoding the histories that lurk in these neglected, overlooked buildings, exposing them as products of developing political ideologies and social inventions does not reduce the role they have played in the drama of London’s 20th century cultural history so much as it problematises it. Utopia London as a film is a witness to the ideological denigration of these buildings, followed by a rejection of government responsibility for them (there is no money, government-run schemes are insufficient, etc) and the apparently inevitable solution of private investment to fulfill public needs.
Thomas Paine’s famous lines from his pamphlet, Common Sense are poignant here: “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.” Today we are faced with a contemporary British culture that has gradually, since Thatcher, seen the ‘right to buy’ normalised in such a way that they appear equal to the rights to safe, clean housing and adequate healthcare. “But,” Paine continues, “the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason,” and Utopia London could not be timelier. Through an his engaging utilisation of the remnants of time passed, Cordell is a worthy and “opportunistic expositor” for the waiting room of London’s socialist architectural history that has been too patient for too long.