Show Hide image

Building the future

In the 1960s, British architecture was at the forefront of modernism. Is it time for a revival?

“The New Monumentality”, an exhibition of films at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, is about architecture and everyday life – or, rather, the disjunction between the two. The three artists involved, Gerard Byrne, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Dorit Margreiter, wrestle with the ways that the strangest of buildings have to be lived in. Byrne and Margreiter do so in the context of a building that stands just around the corner from the gallery – the University of Leeds campus, designed and built by Chamberlin, Powell & Bon between 1958 and 1968.

Local rumour has it that the complex served as a set for the 1970s science-fiction TV series Blake’s 7. This should come as no surprise. There is a divide, in the perception of these buildings, between the future they seem to suggest – a Space Age society with egalitarian buildings that make no reference to anything so prosaic as local materials – and the past they are more often seen to represent. That is, the other 1960s: not the decade reminisced over by ageing soixante-huitards, but the era of towers and slabs, walkways and motorways, which is only now, very slowly, starting to come back into favour.

Unexpectedly, given its tweedy reputation, Britain was briefly at the forefront of modernism. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, foreign directors came to the UK to film this new world, usually projecting it into the immediate future. In the earliest example, the 1966 film of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, François Truffaut shot a book-burning in front of the towers of the Alton Estate, Roehampton. Alton was once described by an American journalist as “the finest low-cost housing estate in the world”. In the film, it represented a frightening future where old media – books – are outlawed.

Only nominally set in the present were The Passenger(1975), directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, in which Jack Nicholson lingers in the placid plaza of Patrick Hodgkinson’s Italian futurist-inspired Brunswick Centre, and Sidney Lumet’s terrifying The Offence (1972), where Sean Connery plays a policeman having a nervous breakdown while pursuing a child-murder suspect through the windswept expanses of Bracknell New Town. Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl might be the only film to have depicted a modernist environment, Cumbernauld New Town, wholly in the present, with the optimistic spirit in which these places were conceived. It is also the only one of these films by a British director.

Nevertheless, the dominant cinematic example of the new monumentality was Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Here, two vast concrete schemes – the Greater London Council’s Thamesmead development and Brunel University, in Uxbridge – were the setting for a horrifying vision of mind control and casual “ultraviolence”. When the dilapidated yet futuristic health centre that was part of the estate was demolished a couple of years ago, the local paper ran the headline “No more Clockwork Orange”.

As if to confirm that these are places that can represent an ambiguous future or a reviled past, but never a present, such buildings become almost unrecognisable when they are “restored” – the much-praised redesign of the Brunswick Centre packed it so tightly with high-end chain stores that you could no longer imagine Nicholson dreamily traversing its concourses.

At the Henry Moore Institute, the most appropriately cinematic of the three works is Byrne’s film Subject. On three screens, in glorious, lustrous monochrome, earnest Yorkshire youths talk to the camera. They are dressed in 1970s clothing, but you can’t quite work out if this is a deliberate donning of period costume, or merely because they are fans of vintage fashion. They are reading 1960s texts on extrasensory perception, promiscuity and the legalisation of cannabis in a bracingly unusual space. Byrne tries to normalise the campus and to make it part of history once again. Yet as his camera lingers on the flying walkways, jutting lecture theatres and scintillating artificial surfaces, the eye is drawn to their incompossible, unassimilable strangeness.

That the university doesn’t know what to do with the campus is obvious when you visit. In early photographs, you can see the central space occupied by the sculpted nature of a planned garden. In recent years, however, the university has filled the whole space with such a quantity of street furniture, foliage and inelegant public art that you can now almost ignore the building. And the concrete – sculptural, shuttered stuff similar to that used in the Barbican complex in London, also by Chamberlin, Powell & Bon – has been painted estate-agent white.

This is a place that cannot make sense in the present. Yet that might be what is most valuable about it. In Margreiter’s film Aporia, the campus is juxtaposed with an itinerary of theme parks and reconstructions, these hypercapitalist spaces a sharp contrast to a barely remembered social democracy and its despised architecture.

As the Blair-Thatcher consensus unravels, such places suggest another future entirely from that of A Clockwork Orange– a future that got interrupted. Building on the advances of the 1960s could provide a new architecture to accompany the new politics that must emerge from the ruins of neoliberalism.

“The New Monumentality” is at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, until 30 August.
Owen Hatherley is the author of “Militant Modernism” (Zero Books, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, King and Country

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis