The Tory-led coalition government's dismantling of Britain's public services isn't anything new. During the last stint of socially destructive Conservative rule, architecture lecturer, artist and cinematographer Patrick Keiller made two seminal films – London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997) – that pointed out the negative impact that government can have on the British landscape.
For anyone who hasn’t seen the films, they’re beautiful documents of an important time in UK history, characterised by lingering shots of seemingly mundane scenes that we might otherwise take for granted. Like Concorde flying low over rows of semi-detached suburban houses and McDonald's forecourts with cars swinging around the drive-thru. Keiller takes these and makes them beautiful.
Keiller had made several short films prior to this and went on to make two other films – The Dilapidated Dwelling (2000) and Robinson in Ruins (2010) – about the country’s housing problem and the future of its countryside, respectively.
With Britain's current housing crisis in mind, all four films have taken on an even greater poignancy, which is convenient, because Keiller has just released a new book – A View from the Train – that perfectly summarises his thoughts on the topic. And considering he seems to understand better than anyone how our country's architectural landscape is falling slowly and irreversibly to shit, I thought I should get in touch for a chat.
VICE: What did you want to achieve by making your last four films?
Patrick Keiller: The three Robinson films [London, Robinson in Space and Robinson in Ruins] are all attempts to address a "problem" by exploring a landscape with a cine-camera. In Robinson in Space, for example, an initial assumption that the UK’s social and economic ills are the result of it being a backward, flawed capitalism gradually gave way to the realisation that, on the contrary, these problems are the result of the economy’s successful operation in the interests of the people who own it.
In Robinson in Ruins, on the other hand, the "problem" is capitalism itself, prompted by Fredric Jameson writing, famously, "It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations." The film arrived at its final destination in autumn, 2008 during the immediate fall-out from the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
London includes several shots of Elephant and Castle, which is in the news again because the Heygate Estate is in the process of being torn down. How do you feel about that?
The Elephant is unusual in that it’s the end of an underground line, but very near the centre of the city, so there are always a lot of people at the bus stops, as you see in the film. It was the hub of the South London tram network. I was intrigued that the shopping centre had never been very successful, commercially.
The pictures of the Elephant in London are mostly of the shopping centre and some nearby 1960s single-storey GLC prefabs that were about to be cleared away when we were photographing the film. An elderly couple had lived in one of them since 1965. As the film relates: "After 27 years in the house, where they had brought up all their children, they were reluctant to leave and had been offered nothing with comparable amenities; but as their neighbours disappeared one-by-one, the house was increasingly vulnerable and they no longer felt able to leave it for more than a couple of days."
I was an architecture student when Heygate was being built. My contemporaries and I thought it fairly bleak, dominated by the priorities of a big building firm rather than those of its architects. But, by most accounts, it turned out much better than we’d anticipated. More recently, however, I can imagine that the various pressures it faced – increased inequality, and hence poverty in London; a rapid turnover of residents; over-stretched housing management and so on – had taken their toll. In a context in which public-sector housing and its architecture are continually demonised, Heygate offered an ideal opportunity to displace poor people from a potentially very valuable redevelopment site.
The clearance is carried out in the name of "regeneration", but the motive seems fairly transparent. The buildings are far from irredeemable, and they’re not even paid for – public-sector housing was built with 60-year loans. But instead the site has been handed over to [property developers] Lend Lease, who are no doubt very capable of undertaking a transformation in keeping with neoliberal assumptions. It’s a tragedy in three acts.
Are there any estates or housing initiatives outside of the UK whose basic model you think we should follow?
I'm interested in models of housing that aren't exclusively residential and aren't based on the individual nuclear family. In the UK now and recently, that seems to mean living on your own – a lot of present-day housing demand is the result of couples splitting up. Communications technology probably makes living on your own less isolating than it might otherwise be, but it doesn't strike me as very attractive. Living as an independent member of a larger unit might be more engaging.
There are various models one might imagine adapting, including the university college or campus; the monastery; the squatted street – Frestonia, for example; the block of serviced flats, as at Lawn Road in Hampstead; and some kinds of sheltered accommodation for elderly people. There are already quite a few examples of co-housing, some purpose-built and some in large houses, the latter often in the country. There was once something called Le Familistère de Guise in France – a large building that, in 1880, housed 1,170 people and was equipped with co-educational schools, a theatre and a park. According to Ruth Eaton’s book Ideal Cities, it was established in 1858, was "economically viable and socially progressive" and survived for over a century.
Among housing architecture, I very much admire the buildings of Hans Scharoun, of which there are many examples in Berlin. In the UK, you might have a look at Walter Segal’s self-build developments in Lewisham and Ralph Erskine’s Byker estate in Newcastle.
What do you make of the fact that a lot of central London has been sold off to investors, leaving many buildings empty at a time when lots of people don’t have anywhere to live?
We’re living with an economic reality in which profits aren’t so much derived from creating wealth as by transferring it, often from the poor to the rich. In former times, wealth creation meant investing in production and infrastructure, but now we encounter these extraordinary examples of asset-price inflation. In London, that means placing capital in property, much of it residential. As you say, many of these owners find it easier to leave their buildings empty, especially if they’re based elsewhere, which they often are. I wouldn’t have thought it was very difficult to legislate against this kind of thing, but any such discussion seems to be off the political agenda, just as hardly anyone ever mentions rent control.
Your book is called The View from the Train, presumably because we spend so much of our lives in transit. How do you think this has affected our understanding of the home – or "the dwelling"?
There’s a lot of cultural and critical attention devoted to the experience of mobility and displacement. But often the emphasis is on their negative aspects, and we still tend to fall back on assumptions about dwelling derived from a more settled, agricultural past. This kind of place-centred dwelling is very problematic, as we see all the time in the Middle East, the UK and elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean that we can dispense with claims on territory, or with territory’s claims on us. That’s what tax-avoiders do – the super-rich think they’re above the level of the nation state. But equally, the idea of ancestral rights to settlement is just not practical. In the UK, hardly anyone isn’t "displaced" to some extent.
In England, this accompanied private ownership of land and property. Before land-enclosure, a process that dates from the 16th century or earlier, ordinary people had rights to land. Land was enclosed by a rising class of gentry, often unlawfully, in a process that very much resembles what is happening today with, for example, the privatisation of Royal Mail. I think it’s time to begin a discussion of how to socialise the value of land, and to return formerly public assets to public ownership.
How do you see the Crossrail service affecting London?
It’s interesting to see how successfully these big infrastructure projects – Crossrail, the Jubilee Line extension and the Olympics – can be accomplished when there’s a political will behind them. Just think what could be achieved with energy efficiency, or "rebalancing" the economy away from financial services towards manufacturing, if there was a similar commitment. Crossrail is driven partly by the requirement to improve access to Canary Wharf from the west, especially from Heathrow, for those in the financial sector, hence the political will. I’m looking forward to its completion rather as I used to look forward to a new toy. I don’t really know what its wider impact will be, apart from increasing house prices even more and making it possible for more people to commute from far away, which seems a terrible waste of time.
What do you think of Boris Johnson – as a politician or otherwise?
Judging by his recent pronouncements, Johnson seems to understand success only in terms of money. He seemed to be suggesting that there’s a finite amount of wealth and a struggle in which the poor are those who lose out because they’re less "intelligent". He represents the interests of those who profit from dealing in assets, rather than investing in production. Larry Elliott pointed out recently that the UK hasn’t produced a single world-class manufacturing firm from scratch since World War Two. Johnson is a typical member of the elite responsible for this failure.
I could only think of one exception to Elliott’s statement: James Dyson is, I think, much wealthier than Johnson, and certainly much more creative. His manufacturing has enriched a great many people other than himself, both in the UK and abroad. It’s interesting that Dyson is an art-school graduate, whereas Johnson went to Oxford and was a member of a famously destructive club. I think he’s quite a sinister figure.
Do you think that the landscape of the UK is worse now, under the present government, than it was under the last Tory government?
The economy is in even worse shape now than it was under the last Tory government, and that’s reflected in aspects of the landscape, especially the urban landscape. After 1997, Labour continued Thatcher’s strategy of "undisclosed" redistribution, in which the private sector was allowed to prosper in the south-east while the government supported public-sector jobs in other parts of the country, notably the north-east and Wales. The current government are abandoning that without replacing it with anything else, with disastrous consequences.
A lot of your work deals in ruins, but is there anywhere in the UK that you feel still has a great future?
I find Sheffield a very encouraging city, although I wish they weren’t going to knock down Castle Market – it’s one of my favourite buildings. Halifax, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh, too. I’m attracted to cities in which there are a lot of hills.
Patrick Keiller’s films London, Robinson in Space and Robinson in Ruins are available on DVD and Blu-ray, released by BFI Video. His collection of essays The View from the Train is published by Verso – pick it up from Amazon here.
Follow Nathalie on Twitter: @NROlah
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