With pre-recorded introduction by Steven Foxon, BFI Curator (Non-Fiction)
In 1936 Kensal House, situated in the west of London, was opened by the Gas Light and Coke Company as a model estate. Designed by the leading architect, Maxwell Fry, Kensal House put into practice ideas about mass housing which echoed the work of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus in Europe.
This film is a biography of a building which between 1936 and 1984 has changed considerably. It sets out to examine both the ideas that helped bring Kensal House into existence and the changes it has seen in its lifetime. When the estate was opened, the film Kensal House, which became a classic documentary, was made, extolling its virtues with contributions from the architect, the housing manager and the tenants. The ‘12 views’ include those of the people who have known the building from a variety of perspectives, including some seen in the original film. A picture is built of the aesthetic, architectural and social issues which Kensal House represents. Maxwell Fry explains the modernist ideals of the period, while Stephen Bayley of the Victoria & Albert Museum traces the antecedents of the modern flat and the problems facing architects in the 1930s. Tenants resident since 1936 recall their initial reactions and the way they have altered with time, alongside recent tenants who don’t share the same sense of the past.
12 Views of Kensal House is a timely contribution to the current debate about modern architecture and its future.
Arts Council of Great Britain programme notes
Less the history than the archaeology of a building, Peter Wyeth’s film on Kensal House is an amalgam of two different perspectives: a series of picture-postcard-style ‘views’ interwoven with a wide range of aesthetic, architectural and sociological opinion about the building, with contributions ranging from Stephen Bayley of the Victoria and Albert Museum and Maxwell Fry through to past and present tenants of Kensal House itself. Also brought into play are excerpts from an earlier film in which the building ‘starred’ – Kensal House (Frank Sainsbury, 1938), something of a companion-piece to the better-known Housing Problems (Edgar Anstey and Arthur Elton, 1935). From the opening tracking shot along a graffiti-covered wall (on which, to the accompaniment of Mozart on the soundtrack, the camera picks out the word ‘Mozart’ in large, spray-painted letters), through to the gently absurdist titles of some of the ‘views’ – ‘fishermen passing along the Grand Union Canal’, ‘return of the Bristol train’, ‘waste chute at the new flats to the east of Kensal House’, 12 Views of Kensal House employs a wryly subversive humour. This both reinforces the hint of Peter Greenaway in the title and pokes parodic fun at conventional architectural discourse and the standard art-historical thesis.
More distinctive still in this respect is its refusal to treat Kensal House as a simple, homogeneous object, and a concomitant insistence on constructing the meaning of the building from a series of differing perspectives – economic, aesthetic, political, etc.
Julian Petley, Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1984
Housing Problems is both a propaganda piece and a document of optimism. With its iconic image of new flats rising behind an old row of slum terraces in Stepney, it shows what has been done to improve living conditions by the most ‘enlightened’ local authorities and planners, and provides an exhortation to others to follow suit. Rather than merely asserting the necessity of new housing, it uses the voices and stories of working class men and women to demonstrate the slums’ dreadful conditions, and the benefit of the new estates.
Its method – ordinary people talking straight to the camera about their lives – was an innovation in documentary, though to a modern viewer the rehearsed words sound stilted. A more serious note of condescension might be gathered when the narrator tells us that slum-dwellers ‘quickly respond’ to their improved living conditions by becoming more hygienic themselves.
With hindsight, it might be easy to see faith in planned housing as the solution to social problems as naïve. Leeds’ Quarry Road Estate, displayed as an exemplary piece of planning, was never fully completed; many of the vaunted amenities were never added to the basic housing, and the whole estate was demolished in 1978. Nevertheless, the full horror of the slums is brought home, as the badly housed talk about the deaths of their children and daily encounters with vermin, and the camera pans around houses with crooked stairs, blown plaster and collapsed roofs.
Finally, there’s a chilling pathos in the filmmakers’ hope that in the next ten years the worst of the slums would have been cleared. By 1945, the Luftwaffe had indiscriminately destroyed large areas of working-class housing, and Britain faced a new and rather more desperate housing problem.
Danny Birchall, BFI Screenonline, screenonline.org.uk
Production: Arthur Elton, E.H. Anstey
For: British Commercial Gas Association
Photography: John Taylor
Recording: York Scarlett
12 VIEWS OF KENSAL HOUSE
Director: Peter Wyeth
©: Arts Council of Great Britain
Production Company: Capital Films
For: Arts Council of Great Britain
Sponsor: Arts Council of Great Britain
Executive Producer: Rodney Wilson
Producer: Peter Wyeth
Production Manager: Andrew Barratt
Script: Peter Wyeth
Photography: Patrick Duval
Assistant Photographer: Martin Shirley
Editor: William Diver
Assistant Editor: Toby Benton
Video Titles: Pullman Video
Laboratory: Colour Film Services
Sound Recording: Stan Phillips
Sound Re-recording: Aad Wirtz, Cine-Lingual Sound Studios
Post Production Services: Cinécontact
Relaxed Screening: Kes + intro + discussion
Mon 22 Aug 18:15
Woman With a Movie Camera Preview: Queen of Glory
Mon 22 Aug 18:30
Terror Vision: Burnt Offerings
Thu 25 Aug 18:10
African Odysseys: Sambizanga + discussion
Sat 3 Sep 14:00
Silent Cinema: The Primrose Path + The Kid Reporter + intro by BFI curator Bryony Dixon
Sun 4 Sep 15:30
Course: Celebrating 15 Years of African Odysseys
Wed 7 Sep 18:30; Wed 14 Sep 18:30; Wed 21 Sep 18:30; Wed 28 Sep 18:30
Art in the Making: Graham Sutherland and John Piper + intro by John Wyver
Thu 8 Sep 18:20
Seniors’ Free Talk: African Film on Channel 4
Tue 13 Sep 11:00
Seniors’ Free Archive Matinee: Wend Kuuni + intro by Rod Stoneman
Tue 13 Sep 14:00
Projecting the Archive: All In! + intro by film historian Mark Newell + Claude Deputises
Tue 13 Sep 18:20
Experimenta: Journeys from Berlin/1971 + introduction by Michelle Pierson, Senior Lecturer in Film at Kings College
Wed 14 Sep 18:00
Woman with a Movie Camera: Preview: Silent Land (Cicha ziemia)
Mon 19 Sep 18:00
Film Wallahs: Malam + discussion hosted by Anuj Radia from Film Wallahs
Thu 22 Sep 18:10
Relaxed Screening: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) + intro and discussion
Mon 26 Sep 18:20
BFI Flare: Bent 25th Anniversary + Q&A with director Sean Matthias, actor Sir Ian McKellen and writer Martin Sherman
Tue 27 Sep 18:10
Terror Vision: The Sender
Thu 29 Sep 18:10
Welcome to the home of great film and TV, with three cinemas and a studio, a world-class library, regular exhibitions and a pioneering Mediatheque with 1000s of free titles for you to explore. Browse special-edition merchandise in the BFI Shop.We're also pleased to offer you a unique new space, the BFI Riverfront – with unrivalled riverside views of Waterloo Bridge and beyond, a delicious seasonal menu, plus a stylish balcony bar for cocktails or special events. Come and enjoy a pre-cinema dinner or a drink on the balcony as the sun goes down.
BECOME A BFI MEMBER
Enjoy a great package of film benefits including priority booking at BFI Southbank and BFI Festivals. Join today at bfi.org.uk/join
We are always open online on BFI Player where you can watch the best new, cult & classic cinema on demand. Showcasing hand-picked landmark British and independent titles, films are available to watch in three distinct ways: Subscription, Rentals & Free to view.
See something different today on player.bfi.org.uk
Join the BFI mailing list for regular programme updates. Not yet registered? Create a new account at www.bfi.org.uk/signup
Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
Questions/comments? Contact the Programme Notes team by email