Tuesday, 28 August 2012

A High Rise Tale

In my previous post I mentioned Battersea Power Station.  I’m a fan of this building and in general I find 20th Century architecture appealing.  I don’t know if this is in any way connected with my appreciation for John Betjeman, one of the last century’s most famous architectural enthusiasts.  Did his poetry inspire me, or do I like his poetry because he writes about buildings so well?  Who knows?  We do disagree on some things.  I actually rather like the 1930s “Tudorbethan” houses that he so often rails against.  I think that they demonstrate the mentality of the time when they were built – as the country spiralled its way into World War Two and battled through depression, people needed to hark back to English supremacy and daring knights and their castles.

Betjeman was a founder member of the Thirties Society, which later became the 20th Century Society.  I am a member of the society, although I just hang around the periphery, not quite confident enough to join in.  I’d like to study the subject academically, but unfortunately time does not permit me such frivolous pursuits.  Instead I have to learn what I can from the 20th Century Society journal and those wonderful information-tardis books from Shire Publications.

To finally get around to the subject of this blog, you can also get a good look at architecture in some old films.  Those set in contemporary London – such as ‘Up the Junction’ – often give some good panoramic shots of the capital with iconic buildings and bridges to help you get your bearings.  Some early films give you a glimpse of what the capital looked like before the Luftwaffe did their work, some show you what streets were like before some equally damaging post war redevelopment.

One aspect of 20th century architecture that I am increasingly drawn to looking at on film is the high rise flat.  This is probably because my life started out in one; it is where my earliest memories are.  I spent five or six years living near the top of a block on one of Sheffield’s several high rise developments.  Unfortunately, I didn’t live in Park Hill – that famous set of flats now listed by English Heritage and the subject of many an academic article and documentary.  What an architectural claim to fame that would be.  Our block was further along that same hillside, and looked out over a similar panorama.  Our flats were demolished around twelve years ago to make way for an estate of two storey houses – it is strange to think that my first memories took place in what is now a patch of sky.  This whole replacing of the streets in the sky with ‘normal’ houses, after a working life of less than half a century, is a sure indication that such developments were a failure.  I agree- despite my nostalgic tendencies to look for them on film.  I remember the lifts that stank – and sometimes didn’t work leaving my Mum to get toddler me and the shopping up thirteen flights of stairs.  I also remember having no other children of my age on our landing to play with, and a trip to the playground being such a hassle from so far up.  But I also have little nostalgic memories of seeing a magnificent thunderstorm rage across the city from the best vantage point, and watching Dad’s car weave its way home from work.

I can think of two films that show high rise living from a contemporary view.  Firstly, I remember watching ‘The Likely Lads’ film one lazy evening a few months ago.  A spin off from the TV series of the same name, it was filmed around Tyneside in 1976 – the same time that I was living the high rise life.  It stars James Bolam as Terry, a “bit of a lad” and his middle class aspirational friend Bob (Rodney Bewes).  While Bob lives in suburbia, Terry lives in a flat.  While Terry enjoys his home as being better than the slums that they replaced, it is clear that his abode is a step down from Bob’s proper house.  Bob moves in with Terry for a while – a definite step down.  Bob’s loss of privacy is emphasised with even the milkman watching the comings and goings and drawing his own conclusions.  One of the most difficult things that the British found with flat-life is the lack of a sense of ownership and privacy.  Without a garden and a fence to delineate our boundaries we are just not comfortable.  We don’t even like sharing our driveways, never mind walkways, lifts and balconies – often poorly designed ones at that.  In this film I’m reminded of how we aspired to a proper house, and were elated when the council offered us a brand new one on a new estate.

Another spin off film from this period is ‘Steptoe and Son’ (1972).  During the course of this, Harold (Harry H Corbett) enters a block of flats while on his rag and bone rounds in London.  The fact that he is shunned by residents serves to emphasise just how low he has sunk at this point of the film.  Even high rise dwellers don’t want him.  It is also interesting to compare different styles of architecture between the two films – one with covered walkways and the other with the street in the sky open to the elements.

I shall be looking out for more high rise films to compare and contrast with these two.

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