Social Housing in British Cinema: Between a Myth and the Truth

The effective quality of cinema makes it a powerful communication tool. Fictional movies can generate empathy in the public and modify their perception. Even documentaries, a non-fiction genre, depend on the decisions of those who make it, and the limits between objectivity versus subjectivity and reality versus invention are quite vague.

Social realism has a strong tradition in British cinema, and within this theme the role housing plays has always been central: given the 1935 documentary Housing Problems in which the terrible living conditions of the English neighborhoods were explored through the personal experiences of their inhabitants and the plans of the local authorities to construct better accommodation. Even though it was promoted by a private company, the British Commercial Gas Association, the movie was one of the first examples of the vox populi – public opinion – and of the apparition of common place people talking directly to the camera.

Still frames from Housing Problems (Arthur Elton & Edgar Anstey, 1935)

Still frames from Housing Problems (Arthur Elton & Edgar Anstey, 1935)

Numerous fictional films, especially between the 60’s and the 80’s, have used social housing as their stage: Caty Come Home (Ken Loach, 1966), A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971), High Hopes (Mike Leigh, 1988)… In the majority of them, the representation of postwar residential architecture, especially high building typologies, are associated with antisocial behaviors, anarchy, and chaos.

But how was the design of the apartment buildings destined to reallocate working class families who were, until then, heaped up in Victorian neighborhoods? The reality is that even though the majority of inhabitants would not have initially chosen to live in these towers, once they were installed there they appreciated the technical advancements, and thanks to the excellent views and more space compared to their former dwellings, they ended up enjoying them, and this type of housing became somewhat popular among people.

How, then, did this acceptation first of Modern Movement and then of Brutalism, end up transforming into a frontal refusal? At the end of the 70’s press titles began to appear of the type, “Terror in the towers,” and the news explained stories of “dark alleys, passages without a way out, and dismal stairways,” hallways that were “lairs to thieves” and people that “had to run to cross the dimly lit areas.” Was it the architectural design that led to the failure of collective living in taller buildings? Or was it demonizing the inhabitants through the media that influenced the consideration of this building typology as nothing more than a last resource for housing?

Margaret Tatcher after turning in the deed of her house to the Patterson’s on Harold Hill (Essex, 1980)

Margaret Tatcher after turning in the deed of her house to the Patterson’s on Harold Hill (Essex, 1980)

Even though in the most recent decades British Social Realism as a cinematographic genre has been almost completely extinguished, the towers of apartments continue being represented as marginal settings in commercial movies: Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, 2011) or High-Rise (Ben Wheatley, 2015) are only some examples. Paradoxically, while those who bought their homes following the politics of the “Right to Buy” cannot take on the overflow of needed maintenance, and there are plans to demolish many of these buildings, blaming their poor design as the cause of social problems, others are cataloged with a second degree of protection and the price of their remodeled apartment continues to grow obscenely.

Fortunately, the problem of social housing, speculation, and the process of gentrification in the contemporary city have recently come back as a central theme in cinema. Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle (Paul Sng, 2017), projected in various cinemas throughout the United Kingdom, is a documentary that exposes how some communities are resisting the privatization of their homes and also of public spaces, reflecting life in social housing as “a life of struggle but of solidarity, community, and coexistence, not just of the nearly pornographic poverty that is shown on television.”

Dispossession sign: The Great Social Housing Swindle (Paul Sng, 2017)

Dispossession sign: The Great Social Housing Swindle (Paul Sng, 2017)


Text translated by Kaitlyn P. Delaney
Autor:
Ester Roldán (1976), arquitecta por la ETSA de Valladolid y DEA por la ETSA de Barcelona. En 2000 funda longo+roldán arquitectos junto a Víctor Longo, con quien desarrolla desde entonces proyectos en los que intenta materializar sus ideas arquitectónicas experimentando en intervenciones que van de la escala urbana a las instalaciones efímeras, y por los que han recibido numerosos premios, apareciendo así mismo publicados en revistas especializadas nacionales e internacionales. No limita sin embargo su trabajo al ámbito de la construcción, y colabora asiduamente como articulista en varios medios, imparte clases y conferencias y participa activamente en todo tipo de propuestas culturales.

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