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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