JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

 

The South London slang of the film’s tower block teens imprinted on the urban architecture (and upon the marketing image for Attack the Block), released in 2011. The film’s executive producer, Edgar Wright, also produced Shaun of the Dead (2004).

Moses (John Boyega) demands that Sam (Jodie Whitaker)…

…hand over all of her valuables in the deserted street outside Wyndham Tower, on the (fictional) Clayton council estate, South London.

Moses and his gang: the unexpected, eventual savior of the city, the young black urban (hoodie-wearing) male begins the film as an outlaw figure, in the tradition of white characters like Snake Plissken (Escape from New York, 1981), to evolve into a complex anti-hero.

Movie poster for the explosive public housing action of Banlieue 13: Ultimatum (Alessandrin, 2009)

Co-stars David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli traverse the “banlieues” on the outer margins of Paris in a still from Banlieue 13: Ultimatum. Oppressive urban space is linked to equally oppressive institutions (government, policing, and the mass media).

The poor, the working class, and the immigrant experience in the public housing of Paris is made central in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995). As in Banlieue 13 and Banlieue 13: Ultimatum (both produced by Luc Besson), it is the oppressive eye of police, government, and media surveillance against which the inhabitants of La Haine / Hate write their own resistant narrative within their marginal city spaces. Attack the Block mines similar territory.

The tower blocks of Paris in La Haine. The housing project...

...is presented as bleak and confining to its inhabitants.

 Director Matthieu Kassovitz follows Vinz, Hubert, and Saïd (white, African, and Arab characters) as they, like the characters in Hill’s The Warriors, try to make their way across the hostile (or indifferent) city to get home. Reflecting police and media discourse, the marketing image here renders the men faceless in the graffitied environs of their public housing location.

The warehouse aesthetic of New Brutalism has been most frequently applied to government buildings, tower blocks, and shopping centers.

Modernist design (and its New Brutalist incarnation) meets social welfare in public housing here in Glenkerry House, London (begun in the mid-1960s). It's a rare example of a tower block that has successfully merged design and community. It's been managed by an independent cooperative leaseholder’s association since 1979.

 

Attack the Block: monsters, race, and rewriting South London’s outer spaces

by Lorrie Palmer

"Government probably bred those things to kill black boys. First they sent in drugs, then they sent guns, and now they're sending monsters in to kill us. They don't care, man. We ain't killing each other fast enough. So they decided to speed up the process."
— Moses (John Boyega, Attack the Block)

"The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language."
— Michel de Certeau[1][open endnotes in new window]

One of the first things you notice in the science fiction/comedy hybrid, Attack the Block (Cornish, 2011), is the dizzying patois-slang of the hoodie-wearing gang of youthful muggers menacing the streets around the South London (fictional) Clayton council estate.[2] As with the complex vocabulary and frequently impenetrable pace and pronunciation wielded by the urban poor in HBO’s dialogue-heavy social realism series, The Wire (2002-2008), context often helps de-code the labyrinthine spoken text situated within marginal city spaces. Similarly, it is often the case that the spatial practices enacted within the racialized metropolis are analogous to the spoken word. To an outsider’s ear, a new dialect can be as indecipherable as a map of an unfamiliar city. Just as the characters traverse the city space they inhabit, the spectator likewise navigates the accented slang of Attack the Block. Here are dialogue patterns made deliberately immersive by director Joe Cornish.

Cornish wrote the script after his own real-life mugging by street-tough teens in his native South London and subsequently work-shopped dialogue with his young, largely non-professional cast (some of whom hail from the London borough of Southwark that we see onscreen). Cornish’s stated aim is to teach the audience the language by having his characters repeat a small number of words and phrases throughout the film, acknowledging that even British audiences may not be fluent in its dense urban slang. He notes that the UK has long produced narratives of science fiction and social realism, and he brings the two together in Attack the Block. The conduit for this genre convergence is further linked by Cornish to his impressions of the young teens he encountered in his mugging experience and what they conjured up for him in his memories of cinema, urban setting, and language:

“I thought about it a lot. It made me think about the kids who did it. I thought that they looked weirdly cinematic. They looked like ninjas or bandits in a Western. The bikes they rode looked a bit like something out of ET or the hoverbikes in Return Of The Jedi. The slang they used felt a bit like Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange. And I thought, ‘Here’s a setting that has only been used for depressing social realism, and actually there’s the toolkit for an action adventure here.’”[3]

It is these combined generic traditions that the central teen hero of Cornish’s film simultaneously symbolizes and disrupts. The monster evoked by contemporary media—from cable news to screen fictions—is the young black urban male, a figure of white anxiety and political expediency. He’s linked to violence, drugs, and the steely face of race- and class-based resentments. This guy is never the hero, he never saves the city. But a funny thing happens in Attack the Block: he is, and he does.

Michel de Certeau makes the distinction between rational urban planning characterized by the proscribed circuits and designated uses available to city dwellers and the resistance to these by citizens electing to write their own narratives. Illustrating this distinction, the urban martial art of parkour, in which the built environment is used as an obstacle course for acrobatic running, jumping, and precision rolls, was made mainstream in the French action film, Banlieue 13 (Morel, 2004) and its sequel, Banlieue 13: Ultimatum (Allessandrin, 2009), both films written and produced by Luc Besson and both set in a public housing district.

David Belle, founder of the urban art of motion, parkour, leaps between buildings in a scene from Banlieue 13 (Morel, 2004) and…

…rappels across the architecture of the vertical city.

The strength and creativity of such a sport demonstrate a resistant use of city space and was born in the marginal (and racialized) housing projects located at the periphery of Paris. Parkour makes use of the urban landscape as its practitioners run at high speed across and through obstacles—walls, stairwells, landings, windows, rooftops—physicalizing fluid motion in three dimensions. It requires an elegant discipline, epitomized by the spatial mastery and taut fitness of the two central protagonists in the Banlieue films.

In contrast, the public housing inhabitants of Attack the Block demonstrate no such disciplined elegance. The gang of black, white, and mixed-race teens does not gain control of their turf through the assured deployment of muscles. Instead, they go into battle with the improvised toys-as-weapons of adolescence, their collective knowledge of the built environment, and the unlikely, evolving leadership of the most socially-stigmatized among them, the juvenile delinquent, Moses (newcomer John Boyega). To his friends—for whom he takes on a protective role—Moses represents the word of law on their estate.

De Certeau describes the ordinary social processes of exclusion in the policing and surveillance of public space. Official power structures of law and discipline mark out the bodies of people who live on the margins of dominant society by symbolically rendering them as Other. This is done by designating subordinate identities for these inhabitants, reducing them to “something said, called, named,”[4] effectively criminalizing them. Such naming—of delinquency, of dark monsters—is initially the exclusive purview of the institutions and architecture in Attack the Block. Until aliens fall from the sky over South London.

Attack the Block

In a film directed by British comedian-turned-filmmaker, Joe Cornish (in his directorial debut), the alien invasion action of Attack the Block mines similar urban genre territory as John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Escape From New York (1981), Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979), and John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988). It also can be compared to European city-cinema, such as Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995), including the latter’s social commentary on the effects of repressive discrimination and stigmatizing media discourse upon the inhabitants of urban public housing.

On bikes and mopeds, Moses and his friends defend their turf from alien invasion. Local kids on the estate help Moses in the battle for Wyndham Tower. Here, Probs (Sammy Williams, L) and Mayhem (Michael Ajao, R) prepare to shoot petrol from a Super Soaker at the monster who has Biggz (Simon Howard) trapped inside a trash bin below.
Dennis (Franz Drameh), astride his moped (with learner’s “L” permit on the back) and armed with a samurai sword, rides into the smoke from his friends’ fireworks to free Moses, locked inside a bully (police) van.

South London’s (fictional) Wyndham Tower: a “gaunt, grim tower block that looms into the night sky like a marooned spaceship” (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, 2011). See his review of Attack the Block at http://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/
may/12/attack-the-block-review

The thematic and visual center of Attack the Block is the looming monolithic Wyndham Tower, dotted with blazing exterior lights and dark windows, shot with slow tilts on an extreme low angle to suggest a slate-grey spaceship parked in the wilds of South London. The survival traditions of science fiction—a scrappy band of former enemies works together, a besieged stronghold becomes a living character, and anti-heroes find redemption—frame Cornish’s cinematic city in microcosm. Set on Bonfire Night[5] in the capital, the film maintains its focus on the five young muggers who confront recently-graduated nursing student, Sam (Jodie Whittaker), outside the tower block where they live. The camera stays with them throughout, as they lead it (and us) into the depths of their urban turf. They stand in contrast to, on the one hand, the genuine gangsta hardcase, Hi-Hatz (Jumayne Hunter), whose relatively small-time drug operation nevertheless dominates the community. On the other side, they confront the police, who are predisposed to perceive the poor, the working class, and people of color—particularly teenagers—as disproportionally disruptive.

After her first encounter with Moses’s gang, Sam labels them “monsters,” but once the alien threat becomes clear, she joins with them, recognizing that their skills make them uniquely qualified to help her get out alive. Together they use the corridors, elevators, walkways, stairwells, and individual flats inside the tower block to elude the pursuing aliens as well as Hi-Hatz, who soon emerges as the film’s only human monster. Once his friends begin to die in the ensuing siege of the block, Moses takes responsibility for bringing the aliens into the building and formulates a plan for eliminating them en masse, aided by his remaining gang members, Sam, and a few additional friends inside the tower. His heroic final act—symbolically staged and shot—critiques race and national identity against the culturally-loaded outer space of British urban life: the high-rise tower block emblematic of public housing.

It is in this specific social and spatial context that Cornish foregrounds the tower block teens’ survival instincts, proposing that “people secretly know that, when push comes to shove, a gang like this are gonna be stronger, more together, and more capable to deal with situations”[6] than those who are less familiar with London’s rough edges. Attack the Block upends more than just genre conventions of representation. Its young protagonists rewrite the negative stereotypes linked to poor urban youth in which decay, criminality, and pathology conflate inner city residents with their environment. The gang disrupts the discourses that frame the precise “genre” of city space—public housing—that most reflects their marginal social status within it. Moses wounds the first alien after it crashes through the roof of parked car mere feet away from where the gang is robbing Sam. Led by him, the boys (including Pest, Dennis, Jerome, and Biggz) pursue the alien and kill it, unaware that it has bigger, meaner friends falling right behind it. These deep black neon-fanged predators literalize monstrosity, thereby disconnecting its symbolic stigma from the gang. We can read these monsters as symbolizing the potential danger lurking in the dark corners of public housing, a danger that has long been part of the debate around the social, economic, and political realities of these sites. And it all began with an architectural vision.

Postwar public housing in Britain

Utilizing the rational blueprint of Modernism, the designers and planners of public housing in postwar Britain envisioned a progressive synthesis of efficiency and community during the heyday of high-rise council estates that began during the widespread reconstruction of the period. Driven by the same Modernist urban dreams of Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus School and by the Le Corbusier-inspired International Style pioneered in the 1920s and 1930s, the high-density vertical city was to re-direct urban expansion upward instead of outward. This was the historic moment when old Victorian slums could be cleared and wartime bombed-out neighborhoods razed. The centralized government, with local councils acting as proxy, adopted public housing as the civic and economic centerpiece of the modernized welfare state. Architects channeled the working class and the urban poor through the twinned imperatives of social engineering and institutional beneficence. The 1950s and ‘60s saw affordable housing projects shift from the green zone, low-rise construction of rural Britain’s New Towns[7] toward the high-rise tower blocks of the modern city. Prefabricated concrete panels could be stacked on-site using construction cranes to build higher than old-style scaffolding had previously made possible. The design component of exposed concrete, inside and out, of these mass-produced units was in keeping with the Modernist style and imagined by its supporters to be more honest, eschewing decorative flourishes. Concrete was inexpensive, flexible, and believed to be nearly indestructible.

These practices were epitomized by two London architects, Alison and Peter Smithson. Their style, which they called New Brutalism in 1954, comprised a warehouse aesthetic, an exposed exterior paired with an unadorned interior. British architectural theorist, Reyner Banham, notes that critics of New Brutalism

“complained of the deliberate flouting of the traditional concepts of photographic beauty, of a cult of ugliness, and ‘denying the spiritual in Man.’”[8]

The result, not surprisingly, precipitated the necessarily cold affect of glass, steel, and concrete.

Similarly austere and unadorned is the Bauhaus style, begun by Walter Groupius in Germany in 1919, and continuing in popularity into the post-WWII period in Europe and in the U.S. The International and Bauhaus styles were utopian in their philosophy (and intent) but taken to their extreme resulted in the cold, prison-like fortresses of Brutalism (and Alison and Peter Smithson’s New Brutalism). This was a style...

... of architecture that prized exposed concrete in both interior and exterior spaces. Nice aesthetic but miserable to live in.

Far removed from the Victorian slums and bombed-out neighborhoods of British cities after World War II, low-rise suburbs – called New Towns – were developed in the rural countryside as a way to alleviate overcrowded urban housing. Pictured here is the New Town of Crawley, outside London, 1959. Mass-produced cheaply and quickly, prefabricated concrete slabs are raised by construction cranes in the modern tower block. Each unit is fastened with concrete joints and relies on its own dead weight to maintain its structure.

The artistic and architectural rhetoric of the Modernist movement was itself a form of language, organized around the combined impacts of social engineering and style, as the designers’ intent was conflated with a perceived logical outcome. The conceptual disconnect within the Modernist aesthetic was that it was detached from living space. British planners and architects were influenced by Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation housing development in Marseille (1947-1952) and its aspirational “streets in the sky.” James Donald remarks that Le Corbusier

“made the unwarranted deduction that planned changes in that environment would be sufficient to produce predictable changes in people’s perceptions, mental life, habits, and conduct.”[9]

Aesthetics were therefore causally linked to social organization. The UK high-rises of the 1950s-1960s were discursively and visually situated around

“image-making, that large Modern blocks were always photographed and seen as ‘images.’ But the blocks, and their images, consistently served as signs of ‘progress,’ and thus there appeared to be a strong correspondence between visual and factual elements.”[10]

The Smithsons considered this imagery a metaphor for the community-building they believed would result from Brutalist designs, but image alone is far removed from experience (particularly once race and class are taken into account). A Modernist warehouse aesthetic makes sense in public exhibition spaces where pure image matters, but the lived reality of such materials is more prosaic in its dailiness, discomfort and, eventually, its decay.

Far from the pristine whiteness that the postwar planners and architects imagined for their concrete utopias, the reality is that cracking, chipping, and staining from air pollution inevitably accompany the oppressively grey dampness of concrete, especially as it deteriorates over time. Concrete’s postwar image as a miracle material for the future eventually shifted to the realization that it gave city dwellers instead what Andrew Burke describes as

“the feel of cold incarceration, of subordinating those within it to the state’s desire for rationality and modernity.”[11]

This disillusionment toward tower blocks reached its apex in public consciousness in 1968, when a tenant in the two-month old Ronan Point council estate in Newham, East London lit her gas stove. The resulting explosion, caused by a small leak in a substandard brass nut connecting the stove to the gas hose, knocked her unconscious, blew out the load-bearing wall of her living room, and collapsed a whole corner of the 22-story structure, killing four people and injuring 17 other residents. There was a chain reaction as the weight of each floor collapsed the one below it. The collapse resulted from earlier fundamental design flaws, dearth of skilled construction workers, and post-war boom in cheap precast concrete components—as well as lack of central support structures in the building. Only a year earlier in 1967, the government had discontinued its incentivizing policies toward tower block construction—initiated by the Housing Subsidies Act of 1956—which had stipulated that the greater the number of floors, the higher the subsidies. The writing and not just graffiti was on the wall.

Politicians and the media routinely focus on the exterior deterioration of tower blocks, creating in the public imaginary a symbolic association with social problems in contemporary British cities. However, this representation often masks a more general underlying antipathy toward the poor, working class, and immigrant populations housed at these sites. It also aims to justify pulling down the blocks to make way for privatized redevelopment schemes rather than restore the existing dwellings and provide consistent on-site maintenance and management. South London council estates like Aylesbury and the Heygate (a primary shooting location for Attack the Block) have become symbols of urban blight and the failed social engineering of postwar housing policies. The discourses in tabloid and mainstream media brand the residents and their communities as deviant, criminal, or abnormal.

For example, the public literature around the Aylesbury estate has been examined by Loretta Lees, who finds that social inequality becomes synonymous in the public eye with a stigmatizing defect in the built environment. This kind of naming, or branding, is then used to build public support for the forced gentrification of an estate like Aylesbury, popularly known as “Hell’s Waiting Room.”[12] Film crews have pumped money into Southwark Council coffers to shoot at Aylesbury, exploiting and perpetuating its reputation as a “sink estate.”[13] Entertainment fictions such as the Michael Caine vigilante thriller, Harry Brown (Barber, 2009) as well as popular TV crime series like The Bill (ITV, 1984-2010) and Spooks (BBC, 2002-20011) have used it as a backdrop. Channel 4 famously deployed an image of its bleak upper floors as a logo, something the residents[14] of the estate deeply resented, particularly since, as The Guardian reported:

“The washing lines, the shopping trolley filled with rubbish bags and the many satellite dishes, were all artificial embellishments added in by film-makers.”[15]

What these PR campaigns, news programs, and film and television narratives discount—besides the tenants’ real-world experiences—is that, whatever their graffitied exteriors might suggest, these estates can and do signify community. Dystopianism may sell, but in the “hot, fierce, funny, vicious and ready to bite”[16] action of Attack the Block, alienation trumps Alien Nation.

A 3-D model of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, originally designed for low-income residents. You can visit the building and see an apartment preserved and decorated as it was in the 1950s and stay at the building’s enclosed Hôtel Le Corbusier. At the other end of the livability spectrum is East London’s Robin Hood Gardens, designed by New Brutalists Peter and Alison Smithson, completed in 1972 and demolished in 2013.
Eight tower blocks comprised the Red Road housing projects in Glasgow, Scotland, constructed between 1964 and 1969. Unlike the collapsed Ronan Point (right), Red Road towers were built with steel supports. Unfortunately, they were also built with asbestos. All buildings are currently either demolished or scheduled for demolition. Two months after opening in 1968, the Ronan Point tower block was doomed by design flaws and shoddy construction, which included some joints stuffed with newspaper instead of mortar. It used the Danish Larsen-Neilsen system of precast concrete panels, with no central support structure or fail-safe redundancies built in. A minor gas explosion on the 18th floor collapsed the load-bearing wall, in a domino effect, of the southeast corner of the structure. The building was demolished in 1986.

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