Metroland and modernism

I'm a fan of the Manchester Modernist Society and their magazine.

They recently tweeted a link to Modernism in Metroland, which is a great website detailing the modernist buildings along the Metropolitan railway. I especially like the post-war houses, with their stark white minimalism, bold but because of their size, still unassuming and in keeping with the brick vernacular (though this was disputed at the time).

Modernism in Metroland struck a particular chord with me because I've just led a book group with our postgraduate history students, focusing on Betjeman's Metroland. (I picked it merely for the reason that it was on TV recently, but it fits in with wider reading and planning I've been doing in relation to the history of new towns and slum clearance).

Diamond Geezer's uniformly excellent blog and resource about London districts and geographies visited all the stops and locations for metroland back in 2006, and again more recently. See also his flickr collection of photographs.

The discussion in the book group centred around the following topics and questions:
  • the film as a piece of art and poetry and architectural criticism, with history and historical images as an add-on rather than as a study of the history of those places along the line; the more extended pieces of 'filler' were in fact part of the poetry but in visual form (the view from the bottom of the train with the tracks passing underneath; the soap bubbles running down the cars being washed) and their closeup nature reflected psychedelia.
  • how those members of the group who were old enough to remember it the first time saw Metroland differently from those who were watching it from a 21st century viewpoint. The older members of the group recalled how the presentation and style wasn't as strange or dated as it seemed to the younger students, but then they recalled how their generation had regarded films such as Gone with the Wind as oddly stilted and outmoded in 1973. But then, with hindsight, they also recalled how the early 1970s were, for them, an era of women's lib, Greenham common, left-wing politics and progressivism. All therefore could recognise how Metroland was...
  • nostalgic. We appreciated Betjeman's vital role in the nascent preservation movement of the 1970s, seeking to preserve the vernacular and the outmoded. Yet the choice of subjects was centred around a particular form of nostalgia - for the 1930s suburbs, and indeed for the fields and countryside and rural idyll that the suburbs were built over. Betjeman's sense of relief and repose at the end of the line, with its (misleading) view of fields, was palpable. There was also a hint of nostalgia for empire, with the focus on the decaying imperial exhibition building, and the failed tower project that became the site of Wembley stadium. 
  • We also commented on his portrayal of women - the ladies who lunch seemed ridiculed in his view, though they were stridently ignoring his presence in the room. The terminology used about women and their place in society was very much of the 1970s (though again this was being challenged at the time).
  • The English eccentric also featured heavily in Metroland: the eccentric touches to the houses (the stained glass, the castle in suburbia, etc); the birdwatcher in the park (the older members of the group thought he would have been seen as weird even then); and of course Betjeman himself, standing next to Humpty Dumpty, and other stage props representative of another source of English eccentricism, am dram.
  • Suburbia - Betjeman's focus was on the big stand alone piles that provided the model for the swathes of 1930s terraces, but in fact were completely different from them in purpose and situation, being set in their own estates, a remnant of a gentry villa past. 
  • Vernacular architecture - some of us loved the whitewashed sleek lines of modernism that intruded in among the red and brown brick; others hated it. 
  • Would a programme like this be commissioned today? The younger students thought not, but some of us pointed out the similarities and parallels with Jonathan Meades's recent programme on Essex, which also had the arty feel and singular grumpy old man presenting straight at camera and at odd angles, with a touch of irony. 


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