Utopia (has been) failed
On Wednesday 18th June I’m going to be taking part in a workshop organised by Nottingham Contemporary and facilitated by the really excellent Southwark Notes (whose writings on art and regeneration/gentrification around Southwark I strongly recommend). The starting point for this is a series of Keith Coventry’s paintings included in Somewhat Abstract, Contemporary’s current exhibition – which includes Berwick Tower, below.
There’s a whole series of these paintings, which are designed to mimic the ‘footprint’ plans of modernist housing estates as well as the works of the suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich (‘White on White‘ in this case). The standard reading of these – and the one presented in the curatorial notes in the exhibition – is that they’re about ‘failed utopianism’: “the moment when modernist Utopian dreams — the well-meant belief that peoples’ lives would be bettered by living in clean, modern, high rise buildings, with lifts, way up above the street with plenty of fresh air—evaporated. Because instead of being the touted New Jerusalem, homes for heroes, the estates spawned new problems, vandalism, violence, social isolation, drug dealing and addiction, prostitution and racism, recurring themes in Coventry’s work’, as Matthew Collings puts it (in a quote I have shamelessly lifted from wikipedia). In an interview with The Spectator, meanwhile, Coventry is a little less apocalyptic, noting that in these works there’s an air of ‘nostalgia’ for both ‘modernism’ and ‘lost traditions’.
But who lost these traditions? Implicit in Collings’ account is the ‘common sense’ perspective that human nature’s to blame for the problems of estates. In this, he updates an ancient anti-utopian trait, which – in the western world at least – has its origins in Augustinian notions of original sin. The City of God can’t be built on earth: the best laid plans will be laid to waste by greed, stupidity, racism, drugs etc. This, we are told, is as true of tower blocks as it is of Marxism. And it’s especially true when the utopia is home to poor people. Goodness! (Rich people, of course, are perfectly capable of living in high density blocks.)
Yet unless we believe that rich people are inherently superior to the poor (which many do, of course, it’s a belief at the core of Britain’s endemic class hatred) it can be argued that modernist Utopia has been failed rather than that it has failed per se. There are a whole host of reasons for this, and they’re far too complicated to discuss here, but the disregard with which councils across Britain have treated social housing tenants is certainly a factor (and should be seen not just as unhappy accidents, but sometimes as concerted efforts to produce the working class as abject subjects).
But is nostalgia the best way to deal with the failure of Modernist utopia? After all, it hasn’t just been failed by anti-utopians who never believed in it anyway, but by many of those who designed, financed and administered it. Perhaps the anti-utopians were right: its failure was in-built from the start, but they got things the wrong way round. The failure came from the top rather than from below.
The demolition of the Lenton flats
The other catalyst for this workshop is the ongoing demolition of the high-rise flats in Lenton (otherwise populated largely by University of Nottingham students), most famous for their appearances in the films This Is England and Control. There’s been nothing particularly spectacular about this demolition – no grand claims about their dystopian nature – and the public aesthetics of the demolition are rather tamer than, say, the planned explosion of the Red Road Flats in Glasgow as part of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony (by no means the first use of spectacular demolition as an aesthetic of gentrification), as in the above video’s wistful-yet-hopeful music and gentle timelapse footage.
The demolition is being overseen by Nottingham City Homes, who manage social housing in the city. They’ll be replacing them with a mixture of flats, bungalows, houses and ‘Independent Living’ flats for the over 60s – though these won’t house anywhere near as many people as the flats did and the council will be relocating some tenants elsewhere in the city. In addition to the timelapse demolition film linked above, they’ve commissioned local film studio Rubber Goat to make a feature length film; and Tracey McMaster from Rubber Goat will be taking part in a discussion about the flats at Nottingham Contemporary on the 10th June. There’s also an exhibition at Crocus Gallery, close to the flats: though when I tried to visit on Saturday it was closed. These are well-intentioned things I think – but I really hope they avoid the trap of presenting residents reluctant to move out as a curiosity: a spectacle for those of us who ‘know better’.
And as council tenant Ethel Singleton makes clear in the opening to Nick Broomfield’s Behind the Rent Strike (being shown before the discussion on the 10th June), there are questions to be asked of artists, filmakers, academics and the media who engage with these issues. Indeed, Southwark Notes have repeatedly, and forthrightly, tackled related some of them around Southwark. (One of the films they critique in that post – Marcus Coates’ Heygate Estate set Vision Quest – is being shown at Contemporary on 17th June, with a ‘post-mortem’ discussion afterwrds). Here, again, we come to the importance of working from the bottom-up. Though as is clear from a radio interview with people remaining in the Lenton flats, starting from below doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t get high. “I don’t want to come down ground level…none of us want to go down to ground level; we want to keep high”, says one of them.
Of course utopianism isn’t inherently Modernist. I’ve long maintained that it lurks in the background of all social orders; and all architectural projects. Indeed, the motto for the City Council’s building projects is ‘Building a Better Nottingham’; which is perhaps a little modest compared to modernism’s grand claims; but nonetheless seeks to ground a vision of the good in place. To get a sense of what this ‘better’ Nottingham might look like, we can take a closer look at the architect’s render (shown in full on this banner).
An elderly white, heterosexual couple. Perhaps they live in the ‘Independent Living’ flats. Perhaps they’re just visiting.
And maybe this (slightly squashed) white family is who’re they’re visiting. Kids nice and happy with both a mum and a dad. Some young people having a chat in the background.
Another white, heterosexual elderly couple. And blimey! They’re some expensive cars in the background!
As is that!
And a Mercedes! Still, I guess the Yaris is a little more modest. Lots of trees. Wonder if they’ll ever get planted.
A nice bourgeois wine-bar/restaurant. More trees.
And that’s it.
Of course we need to pay attention to the exclusions of utopias; that is, to consider who’s not present as well as who is. Now I don’t think the City Council is consciously trying to engage in social cleansing or gentrification in Lenton (it is, after all, building more social housing). But there’s an unwitting aesthetic of social cleansing behind their vision for a ‘better’ Nottingham that should disturb us all.
To book the events at Nottingham Contemporary, click here.
It’s interesting to compare Coventry’s paintings with Paul Waplington’s painting of the long-demolished Hyson Green flats in Nottingham (there’s an Asda there now). Here’s his portrayal of a May Day Parade there in the 1980s. Not a hint of nostalgia or irony; no knowing nods to those clever but foolish people who should have known better. Just a wondrous, joyful explosion of working class life, beautifully free of Collings’ glib stereotypes. It was on display at Nottingham Castle recently and moved me immensely. One can’t imagine similar works being produced around Lenton’s new develpoment…
The demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis lead Charles Jencks to proclaim the death of modernism, and it’s often used as the exemplary failure of utopian Modernism in architecture (bound up with a load of classism and racism about its inhabitants). I’ve not seen it, but this documentary looks like it might challenge that rather straightforward narrative in an interesting way.