About the Centre
Research projects
Contact us


Winter 03/04

Patrick Keiller

The City of the Future is a research project that attempts to develop a critique of present-day and possible future urban landscapes by exploring archive film of the past century. Patrick Keiller is currently an AHRB Research Fellow in the Creative and Performing Arts at the Royal College of Art.

During the 1990s, I made three films about the UK's urban and other landscapes. London (1994) attempted a re-imagination of already-existing spaces of London, suggested by various literary and other treatments of Paris. A sequel, Robinson in Space (1997) explored landscapes outside London in which the newness of spaces characteristic of a computerised, international consumer economy contrasted with the dilapidation of much of the rest of the built environment. A third film The Dilapidated Dwelling (2000) examined the future prospects of the UK's housing stock, and included some archive film. It was partly suggested by a study commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which pointed out that the rate at which the UK's stock of dwellings were being replaced was so low as to imply that every dwelling would have to last for several thousand years.[1]

The film asked whether the application of computer and other new technologies - which had transformed so many aspects of manufacturing, food distribution etc., and was very visible in the landscape of Robinson in Space - was likely to alter this outlook, and concluded that in the short or medium term it was not, and that the predicament was more likely to intensify. A few years later, it appears that (at least in the UK) the housing stock of the future will be composed of nearly all the dwellings that already exist, and a few new ones not unlike them. This longevity of the built environment (not all buildings are dwellings, but 70% of urban land is residential, and much of the rest of the built environment appears to be almost as permanent) contrasts with expectations of the early twentieth century, when there seems to have been a relatively widespread anticipation that new technologies and social structures would - or at least should - give rise to a radical transformation of urban space in the decades that were to follow. About half the UK's dwellings have been built since 1945, but most of these were additions to the stock, and much of the built environment that existed in, say, 1910 survives today.

In the last hundred years, city life has probably changed rather more in other ways, often in ways that involve perception and imagination. The subjective transformations of Surrealism and Situationism - that prompted the first of this series of explorations, the film London - were the prototypes of a process in which the 'discovery' of previously undervalued spaces by artists and other creative types has become the sought-after preliminary to urban regeneration.

When viewing archive film for The Dilapidated Dwelling, I was struck by a contrast between the familiarity of many of the spaces glimpsed and a feeling of distance from the lives of those who formerly inhabited them. It was also intriguing that the onset of the apparent relative stasis of the built environment - which seemed to have occurred, at least in the UK, during the decades either side of 1900 - should coincide with the beginning of moving pictures. It seems highly unlikely that there might be any direct connection, but moving pictures are just one of many communication and transport technologies that were developed or became widespread at about the same time, which was also the peak period of European emigration. These social and technological changes might be seen as the beginning of a rapid expansion of virtual space, which has continued with radio, television, telecommunications and the use of computers. One can also imagine that this expansion of virtual space might have disadvantaged actual space.

At the same time, during the last 100 years the cost of building does not seem to have decreased relative to average earnings, and has probably increased, whereas food, most manufactured goods and transport have become much cheaper.[2] Much of this increased productivity has been achieved through mechanisation, automation and economic activity in the virtual realm, in which building has lagged far behind. In most respects (life expectancy, for instance) the majority of people in the UK now are much better off than the majority of the early twentieth century, but there are some ways in which the present is impoverished.

In the 1980s, I tended to assume that the increasing dilapidation of the built environment was visible evidence that the places in which one encountered it were becoming poorer. By the mid-1990s however, it was clear that similar dilapidation was just as likely to be found in prosperous areas. Somewhat inadvertently, I began to use the word 'Orwellian' to refer to the expansion of virtual space, and to describe dilapidation that was not a result of economic failure, but merely an aspect of the prevailing economic reality. There was a similarly 'Orwellian' aspect to the landscape of the film Robinson in Space, in the contrast between the spaces of global finance and consumerism - new office towers, airports, shopping malls, supermarkets and so on - and the increasing neglect of so much of everything else.

I had not read Nineteen Eighty-Four since leaving school, but recalled its protagonist's conversation with an old man in a pub who has tried to insist on being served a pint of beer, by then sold only in litres and half-litres, following which:

Winston sat for a minute or two gazing at his empty glass, and hardly noticed when his feet carried him out into the street again. Within twenty years at the most, he reflected, the huge and simple question, 'Was life better before the Revolution than it is now?' would have ceased once and for all to be answerable. But in effect it was unanswerable even now, since the few scattered survivors from the ancient world were incapable of comparing one age with another.[3]

For us, 'the huge and simple question, "Was life better before the Revolution than it is now?"' might suggest, if anything, a comparison with the mid-1970s. The revolution - whether a digital revolution, the onset of neo-liberalism or the 'shift in the structure of feeling' with which modernity gave way to postmodernity, or all of these - is usually located around the time of the 1973 oil crisis.[4] In advanced economies, reductions in the cost of consumer items, air travel and so on might suggest that people are generally better off now than during the 1970s, but is not difficult to argue otherwise.

Later in the novel, when Orwell's protagonists present themselves as recruits to a rumoured underground resistance, they drink 'to the past'. Their contact sends them a copy of The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, by Emmanuel Goldstein, which includes:

The world of today is a bare, hungry, dilapidated place compared with the world that existed before 1914, and still more so if compared with the imaginary future to which the people of that period looked forward. In the early twentieth century, the vision of a future society unbelievably rich, leisured, orderly and efficient - a glittering antiseptic world of glass and steel and snow-white concrete - was part of the consciousness of nearly every literate person.[5]

Even in this dystopian context (and Goldstein's book is a fiction within a fiction, as it turns out to have been written by a member of the Thought Police) the comparison with 'the world that existed before 1914' might seem surprising,[6] but Orwell does appear to see the past as subversive, even if its material attractions are a trap.[7] If one is a film-maker, one might wonder how a film of the past - as both an artefact of the past, and a record of people and artefacts of the past - would qualify these ideas.

One of the first films I encountered that recalled such questions was Panorama of Ealing from a Moving Tram, photographed by William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson in 1901 for the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company. This is a view looking forward from the upper deck of an electric tram passing east along The Broadway, The Mall and Uxbridge Road alongside Ealing Common, a short length of the former Oxford to London coach road in the neighbourhood of Ealing Broadway railway station. The National Film and Television Archive's viewing copy is a 35mm print, but the original was photographed with the 68mm Biograph electric camera which ran at 40 frames per second, and in bright, clear sunlight.

The left side of the street is visible, lined by what look like plane trees about 30 feet tall, behind which most of the shops have awnings. There are a great many flags and banners, some of them very large Union flags, others less easy to decipher, and a lot of people out walking who appear rather smart, as if the day is a public holiday or weekend of some national or other significance.
Near the beginning of the film, the tram passes the London and County Bank (previously the Town Hall), which has put out two large flags, and later a music shop with a sign 'pianos'. Towards the end of the film, an open-topped electric tram passes in the opposite direction, fairly full on top, with several of the passengers carrying parasols, as are many people in the street. There are cyclists on the road, a pony and trap and other horse-drawn vehicles, but not many tradespeople and no motor cars. The non-panchromatic stock probably exaggerates the brightness of the weather a little, and Dickson might have used a red or yellow filter, but the people's dress, the large number of parasols carried, and the degree of movement of the flags and the leaves of the trees, together with the celebratory atmosphere, suggest an unambiguously euphoric, breezy non-working day in summer. The unusually sharp definition of the image - which I assume is a result of both the original large format and the good condition of the archive's 35mm copy - together with the extraordinary lighting effect, create a degree of heightened photographic realism, so that it is not difficult to imagine that the film might be a fragment of a costume drama made in the 1940s.

It is easy to forget how little of the actuality of the past is documented in films. Even today, whether in fiction, documentary, news or even the recordings of surveillance cameras, very little of ordinary, everyday life appears in moving pictures. Exceptional circumstances - if only those accompanying the camera - will almost certainly have attended the making of any film. Even in the 26 hours of the Mitchell and Kenyon collection, the motives of the film-makers nearly always condition and sometimes create the events seen in the films.

The first three electric tram routes in London began operating on 4 April 1901, from Hammersmith to Kew Bridge, from Shepherd's Bush to Kew Bridge via Chiswick, and from Shepherd's Bush to Acton. With the completion of the latter route's extension to Ealing and Southall, the entire network was inaugurated on Wednesday 10 July, which was also the day on which Ealing celebrated its Charter of Incorporation as a Borough, the first in Middlesex. Electric trams were popular both as public transport and as representing the benefits of electrification and modern technology.[8] As moving camera platforms, they offered film-makers the possibility for striking spatial simulations, which in return publicised the trams and identified their modernity with that of cinema. The film is one of four Biograph films that recorded the Ealing tram inauguration on 10 July.[9]

In 1901, Ealing was a well established suburb, as the tree-lined streets seen in the film suggest, but still new enough not to offer much evidence of decay. As 'Queen of the Suburbs' it was also relatively prosperous, probably more so than it is today. Like much surviving domestic architecture of the period, the landscape of the film appears to confirm the relative prosperity of the late Victorian and Edwardian middle class. All this might be said of a number of films of the period, but few seem to suggest that the summer of 1901 was an enjoyable time to be alive in the way that the Ealing film does. I suspect that this is as much a result of the film's cinematography, especially the unusual quality of light, as of anything else - there is a similar emancipatory feeling in Pissarro's paintings of Bedford Park in 1897.

About ten days after first seeing the film, I was travelling upstairs on a bus which unexpectedly diverted eastward along Uxbridge Road, and found myself passing through the space depicted in the film. It was a dull day in November. The bank is still a bank, now a branch of the NatWest, and many other buildings on the north side of the road survive, but the view from the bus certainly suggested that something other than mere age had impoverished the landscape. Ealing is still a prosperous, successful London suburb, so, as before, one wonders what to make of this apparent impoverishment. In 1901, poverty was often shocking and never very far away - Dickson's film of Ealing is approximately contemporary with Jack London's account of the East End in The People of the Abyss, published in 1903.[10] Ten years later Maud Pember Reeves's Round about a Pound a Week detailed the domestic conditions, child mortality and inadequate budgets endured by women in north Lambeth whose husbands earned between 18 and 30 shillings (£0.90 - £1.50) a week, not unusually low wages for unskilled workers.[11] In 1914, skilled workers - bricklayers, electricians, engineering pattern-makers, shipwrights, engine drivers - earned around two pounds a week,[12] seemingly about average earnings. Skilled workers today tend to earn rather more than the average, and the middle class is much bigger and relatively less well off, but reduced wage differentials or increased scarcity of certain skills seem unlikely to be the underlying causes of a change in the material quality of the built environment.

The qualities of space one seems to see in Dickson's film are those that attract tourists to
less 'advanced', or socialist economies. Given that the UK's economy in 1901 was less 'advanced', it is hardly surprising that one should detect such qualities in the film. Perhaps their absence from the space today can be seen as a predicament of the local in a culture in which power is increasingly located elsewhere. The disempowerment of local government, for example, leads to dilapidation, so that it seems appropriate that Dickson's film might have been partly suggested by Ealing's becoming a borough. London's public transport flourished under the control of the London County Council, and public transport is a major priority for its successor, the Greater London Assembly. On 29 May 2002, Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, announced the decision to construct two new tramways, one of them from Shepherd's Bush to Uxbridge, via Ealing.



1. Philip Leather & Tanya Morrison, The state of UK housing (Policy Press, 1997). In the 1970s, a similar calculation produced an implied life of 250 years, then considered problematic.

2. Earnings have increased about three times as much as prices. A study by Encyclopaedia Britannica published in 1999 suggested that between 1899 and 1999, retail prices increased by a factor of 57.5, while average earnings rose from £1.95 (39 shillings) per week to £384.50.

3. George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (Penguin, 2000): 96.

4. See, for instance, David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge MA; Oxford: Blackwell, 1990). The early 1970s also saw the end of large-scale urban redevelopment, at least in the UK, as with the successful resistance to the GLC's plan to redevelop Covent Garden.

5. Orwell: 196.

6. Orwell was born in 1903. During much of his childhood, his family lived in the Thames valley near Henley, a landscape which appears in positive contexts in the novel.

7. The space in which these are encountered - the junk-shop 'to the north and east of what had once been St Pancras Station' (pp85-86) - is the site of the novel's protagonists' entrapment.

8. Though Ealing's council had opposed the introduction of the trams. As cheap public transport, they were perhaps seen as a threat to the suburb's exclusivity.

9. The other films were Distinguished Guests Leaving the Power House, The First Trams Leaving Shepherd's Bush for Southall and Panorama at Ealing Showing Lord Rothschild Declaring Line Open. See Richard Brown and Barry Anthony, A Victorian Film Enterprise - The History of the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company 1897-1915 (Flicks Books, 1999), 295. This gives the date 10 July 1901 for all four titles.

10. Jack London, The People of the Abyss (London: Pluto, 2001).

11. Maud Pember Reeves, Round about a Pound a Week (Virago 1979).

12. British Labour Statistics, Historical Abstract 1886-1968.


Another version of this article will appear in the Nottingham British Silent Cinema Festival volume for 2004 (Flicks Books)


back to Newsletter Contents
Previous page
Next page

Last modified 10 March, 2004 ; web@bftv.ac.uk