City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Utopia London

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Via the director Tom Cordell, news of his new documentary Utopia London:

"The film observes the method and practise of the Modernist architects who rebuilt London after World War Two. It shows how they revolutionised life in the city in the wake of destruction from war and the poor living conditions inherited from the Industrial Revolution. This film is their story. Utopia London travels through the recent history of the city where the film maker grew up. He finds the architects who designed it and reunites them with the buildings they created."

"These young idealists were once united around a vision of using science and art to create a city of equal citizens. Their architecture fused William Morris with urban high-rise; ancient parkland with concrete."

"Utopia London examines the, social and political agendas of the time in which the city was rebuilt. The story goes on to explore how the meaning of these transformative buildings has been radically manipulated over subsequent decades. Inspired by the optimism of the past it poses the question; where do we go from here and now?"

I recently wrote about the book Nairn's London, and this will do little to move me on from thinking about the old place, particularly as the UK's architectural future seems potentially more depressing than ever. In this light, Cordell's film is timely indeed, seeking to highlight the potential in progressive architecture with a social conscience, evidence of which is still just about visible, dotted around the UK, from Robin Hood Gardens to Park Hill, Brunswick to Barbican.

The documentary looks great. It's a particularly lovely idea to locate the original designers and talk to them about what happened. The accompanying website has some good clips; here's the trailer:


Utopia London


6 responses to “Utopia London”

  1. Benjaminbrowett Avatar

    Modernist architecture has fascinated me from a young age, probably having been surrounded by it – the looming Park Hill, the Hole-in-the-Road. My building at university in Manchester – ironically the architecture building – more resembled a military command post.
    Born in the 80’s, I’d only really experienced it in its decayed and grimy state, and struggled to understand why architects would inflict that on a nation. But then I realised they were just being overly optimistic, and admitted a degree of admiration.
    Contrary to what most people think, it seems it did work for a while. The BBC4 doc on the Park Hill showed that the first tenants were in love with their new apartments. But it didn’t last sadly, probably because many people became more affluent, could buy a car, and drive to the suburbs. Which is good, unless you were one of those people left behind, fearing the daily trip up the dark, piss stained stairwells.
    I used to walk down Golborne Rd on my way to work and though I couldn’t live in Trellick Tower, it’s a fantastically imposing site. If you go to the Barbican on a good day, the falling water and hanging gardens really do look like a Utopia.
    The flats in the video above are just off Abbey Rd and I looked around one this year. It was a great flat, but looking down the walkway, we both looked at each other and thought the same thing – that it resembled the slum in Gomorrah. Sad really.
    Anyway, apologies for the length and thanks for this, I’ll make sure I go see the film.


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  3. Liz Ferrier Avatar

    Thanks for this post – will look for the film.
    I saw a very different kind of film which says a lot about contemporary urban transformations and gives insight into a very distinctive phenomenon of modernity and the modernist (viewing) subject in the city (without directly addressing this) – Bill Cunningham New York. Bill as you may know is a well known photographer who has been working for the NY Times for years, mostly known for his perspective ‘from the street’ on what people in new york wear. Although his photography is associated with fashion and who’s who in the NY charity fund raising scene, it’s also an incredible testiment to the power of the mobile street level perspective. It seems this is how photography, films (and their spectacle/entertainment antecedents such as panoramas etc) and the figure of the flaneur are inextricably linked with the modern conception of architecture and the city. It seems that post-modern theorists such as Michel de Certeau (Practices of Everyday Life) became fascinted with the notion of the flaneur or the pedestrian, and their intimate embodied sense of the spatial environment of the city. Jane Jacobs, in a far more accessible way, spoke of the power of the common sense perspective of the person in the street (or the woman navigating the city with an infant in a pram) in her great work The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Bill Cunningham is one such flaneur/photographer (Sontag describes this link as well) – and is really more le cycliste than the flaneur – who never fails to have a compassionate view of his human subjects and the built environment they’re a part of. It’s an inspiring film that is as much about the city of New York as it is about this charming photographer.


  4. Liz Ferrier Avatar

    This trailer on Utopia London, has me thinking about that piece “Heterotopias: Of Other Spaces, by Foucault (1967), wondering if our antipodean cities and spaces are ‘heterotopias’ – perhaps not so much as the Brazilian favelas, but in some ways.
    Foucault’s essay on ‘heterotopias’ is suggestive but so cryptic and vague it’s spawned hundreds of honours theses on all manner of sites, from theme parks, shopping malls to brothels and prisons. But….back to antipodean cities….
    An extract from Foucault: “Either their role is to create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory (perhaps that is the role that was played by those famous brothels of which we are now deprived). Or else, on the contrary, their role is to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled. This latter type would be the heterotopia, not of illusion, but of compensation, and I wonder if certain colonies have not functioned somewhat in this manner
    First there are the utopias. Utopias are sites with no real place. They are sites that have a general relation of direct or inverted analogy with the real space of Society. They present society itself in a perfected form, or else society turned upside down, but in any case these utopias are fundamentally unreal spaces.
    There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places – places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society – which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias. I believe that between utopias and these quite other sites, these heterotopias, there might be a sort of mixed, joint experience, which would be the mirror…
    And so on…


  5. Aaron English Avatar
    Aaron English

    The Chatham building resembling a military outpost? Outrageous. Its a magnificent and befitting piece of architecture for our school.. oho I jest. You might be interested to here that work began on an extension to the facilities this year. Feilden Clegg Bradley have designed the building, it looks like a very good design. I can’t condone painting the Chatham black though.


  6. Elite Concrete Restoration Avatar

    It is impressive to see how London has rebuilt itself during the last century and become much more livable for everyone. We applaud the use of green building materials and public construction works.


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