Architecture on Film: The Dilapidated Dwelling + Patrick Keiller Q&A / Intro

A fictional researcher (Tilda Swinton) dissects Britain’s relationship with its extraordinarily expensive, backwards housing. Past architectural innovations do battle with present day crises, through a narrative of facts, fiction and interviews.


06:30pm, Tuesday, 29 January 2019


10:15pm, Tuesday, 29 January 2019


Cinema 1
Barbican Centre, Level -2
Silk St, London, EC2Y 8DS



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This is a past event

18:30 [Sold Out]
Introduced by Patrick Keiller, followed by conversation between Keiller and Owen Hatherley

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20:45 [Sold Out]
Introduced by Patrick Keiller

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18.30: Introduced by Patrick Keiller, followed by conversation between Patrick Keiller and writer and journalist Owen Hatherley [Sold Out]

20.45: Introduced by Patrick Keiller [Sold Out]


The Dilapidated Dwelling

“What does it mean to live in a culture that finds it so difficult to produce new domestic architecture?” asks the invisible protagonist of Keiller’s film, an inquisitive and puzzled fictional researcher, voiced by actress Tilda Swinton. She returns to the UK with fresh, and soon frustrated, eyes, finding, after her 20 years in the Arctic, that whilst the UK remains one of the world’s wealthiest and most technologically advanced economies, its extraordinarily expensive housing still lingers in a state of backward ruin.

Nineteen years on from its initial release, Keiller’s essay on the problems of the house in Britain has only gotten more vital, acute and devastatingly pertinent, as the housing crisis rages, rising rents displace residents, and property is leveraged as an asset that dominates, and rocks, the global economy.

Breaking down the failures of the housing industry to innovate and re-think itself – despite past achievements ranging from Neave Brown’s Alexandra Road Estate to Walter Segal’s self-build typologies – the film looks to Archigram, Buckminster Fuller, Constant’s New Babylon and Japan’s Metabolists for answers, alongside interviewees including Cedric Price, Doreen Massey, Martin Pawley, James Dyson and Saskia Sassen. Throughout, Keiller’s narrator journeys on her quest for answers, through facts, fiction, humour and even a love story.

“Is English housing just another characteristic of a backward capitalism? Is England a backward capitalism because it’s never had a bourgeois revolution?”

Exploring the typology, technology and semiotics of the house, offering a critique of the British home as outmoded in both its design and as a value system, architect-turned-filmmaker Keiller (London, Robinson in Ruins) critiques and questions what the home should and could mean today, through ‘an investigation of the predicament of the house in advanced economies’.

UK, 2000, Patrick Keiller, 78 mins

Programme notes by Owen Hatherley

Introducing The Dilapidated Dwelling at a rare screening at Birkbeck College a decade or so ago, Patrick Keiller described it both as his 'naughty film' and his 'New Labour film'. It's not hard to see why, in both cases. The film operates at a tangent to the Blair project, as part of a brief moment when Britain seemed to be moving towards a saner Euro-capitalism, rather than a less bigoted version of Thatcherism; a movement a left-wing thinker could try and influence. And it’s a 'naughty film' because of its ambition to shift the Marxist-urbanist driftworks of Keiller’s first two Robinson films into a mode of propaganda, like a GPO Film Unit documentary affected by paradox, irony and decades of defeat – as if filmmaker Paul Rotha had read Walter Benjamin.

Its topic is straightforward: British capitalism is relatively technologically advanced, and prices for the overwhelming majority of consumer goods have been falling consistently for several decades, yet housing has risen sharply and inexorably in price. An unnamed travelling narrator tries to investigate why, much as Robinson is commissioned to investigate 'the problem of London' and 'the problem of England' in Keiller’s previous films London and Robinson in Space. Here, that problem is narrowed down to something quite specific, through interviews and archival footage mixed with Keiller's dialectical images of British man-made landscapes. The film was commissioned for Channel 4, who decided not to screen it, something which comments upon the populist conservatism and paucity of imagination of 1990s-2000s British culture as sharply as the film itself.

Arriving back in Britain from the far north at the start of 1998, Tilda Swinton's narrator – who has been absent from her home country for two decades and, while away, has seen the fine social housing of Sweden, the customised industrialised housing of Japan, and the houses of eskimos – comes back to a place where most houses are reduced versions of the houses of the 19th century. This puzzle is explored via the dreams of post-war social democracy – Charles and Ray Eames's houses, Buckminster Fuller's spaceship earth, Constant's New Babylon, Ralph Erskine's Byker, Archigram's flying cities, Walter Segal's self-build houses and Neave Brown's Alexandra Road (which Keiller himself had worked on briefly as a young architect) – this at a time when these ideas and buildings were still widely condemned. Keiller-Swinton contrasts these experiments in housing with views of both Britain’s streets and streets of mouldy, draughty and worn Victorian houses, and the new estates of tiny neo-Georgian and neo-Victorian cul-de-sacs being built in the English suburbs.

Stylistically, leaving aside the interviews and the archives, there is much in common with the two Robinson films – the unreliable narrator, the imaginary research task, the overdubbed birdsong – it even begins at the Tyne Bridges where Robinson in Space ends. There is more movement in this film however, with many shots taken from a moving car, and memorably, many cityscapes taken from a moving train, perhaps showing the influence of Mitchell and Kenyon (use of whose footage would form the basis of Keiller's next work, the installation The City of the Future, at the former BFI Southbank Gallery). Keiller even splices a Japanese house advert into the film.

The interviewees come in three distinct groups. There are the practitioners and defenders of the 'High-Tech' modular architecture that grew out of the 1960s (and was rejected by domestic architecture), including Cedric Price, the utopian designer who was a mentor to Archigram, and the critic Martin Pawley. These are placed alongside your actual capitalists – economist and government adviser Michael Ball, one Yolande Barnes from Savills, and the industrialist James Dyson – and the Marxian academics Saskia Sassen, Doreen Massey, and most memorably Ellen Meiksins Wood, whose explanation of Britain's alleged 'backwardness' via the completely capitalist nature of its society in The Pristine Culture of Capitalism was a major influence on the Robinson films. What is striking is how the different interviewees all point to similar factors. A picture come together where dilapidation and backwardness emerge from the lucrative fusion of nostalgia and the interests of property, symbolised strikingly by Martin Pawley's example of the design of a £20 note. The fact that, say, James Dyson is confused by the backwardness of construction is explained by his misunderstanding of British capitalism outside of his own corner of it. It's simply far more profitable to not build, or to build badly, than it is to use the advanced techniques of Sweden or Japan.

Perhaps at the time Keiller assumed that New Labour could sort all this out, and challenge these vested interests via a new technocratic settlement. Certainly the director seemed unsure about this aspect when reflecting on the film a decade later - 'I can't remember why I wanted us all to live in Tesco' he noted, with respect to his film's gleaming images of Norman Foster-like modular supermarkets, contrasted with the dreadful new-old houses. The film retains quite uncritically the rather questionable 1960s idea that resources are infinite, and that air travel is a good model for anything in particular. Some of the street shots, meanwhile, are of areas in the north-east that would soon be decimated by one of the only attempts to tackle 'dilapidated dwellings' – New Labour's Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder scheme, that has left many streets in the north derelict to this day.

For all that, The Dilapidated Dwelling is a strikingly prescient film, pointing to the now-inescapable housing crisis in a period when most of the media and the political class were exploiting an apparently endless boom (no wonder the film was effectively banned). Near its end, we find some 'modern' new housing in the form of Montevetro, a Richard Rogers-designed block of flats on the Thames. Impeccably High-Tech and high-rise, it was also astonishingly expensive. That was the future, right there.