Review: Utopia London

Many of us grew up with the idea that 60s tower blocks are ugly and awful, and that they breed ill-health and crime. But the story that this eye-opening documentary tells is a completely different one.

When European modernism hit the shores of Britain, the buildings that dominated the London skyline were monuments to the power of the church and the power of money. As postwar Britain began building the welfare state, its modernist architects created buildings that spoke of the power of people. This was revolutionary stuff.

These new buildings were structured like great hives, where each individual household had an equal part. “We wanted to build heaven on earth,” says Oliver Cox, architect of a tower block scheme that is the epitome of mid-century council architecture. And it’s true – the buildings he created have the most beautiful views over Richmond Park, and the rat-infested slums they replaced are not fondly remembered by the towers’ older residents.

But when the Conservatives returned to power in the early 1950s, the idea of integrating rich and poor was abandoned. Modernist tower blocks were constructed only in the poorest areas, with little consideration for beauty or setting. The sink estate was born, but the older masterpieces survive. Amid the concrete there are playgrounds, schools, health centres – and communities.

I used to live in a council block in Manchester. At the time I believed that the fun I was having, and the friendships I was building with other tenants, was in spite of the structure of the estate. How wrong I was. Thanks to this intelligent and charming film I have a new appreciation for the work of a much-maligned generation of architects.

Go see it! www.utopialondon.com

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