Building the Future: In the 1960s, British Architecture Was at the Forefront of Modernism. Is It Time for a Revival, Asks Owen Hatherley

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"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, Francois 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 die 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 Thames mead development and Brunei University, in Uxbridge--were the setting for a horrifying vision of mind control and casual "ultraviolence". …