The tower blocks that stand stoically on the outskirts of Camberwell have a new play developing in their shadows at a small, local theatre. It is a seemingly apt setting for a production about the legacy of Britain’s brutalist architecture.
Taking its name from Le Corbusier’s collection of essays Towards A New Architecture, in which houses are ‘machines for living in’, the play follows a husband-and-wife team of architects who believe their Utopian ideologies can change the way we live. It is a story that seems overly familiar; you don’t necessarily have to be an architect to know of Alison and Peter Smithson.
Members of Let Slip, the dynamic four-person theatre company that conceived Machines for Living, trained at the avant-garde Jacque Lecoq Theatre School in Paris, renowned for a very particular pedagogy concerned with the body and movement. Member Frode Gjerlow says: ‘The school trains your eye to find movement in everything. Jacque Lecoq himself said that movement never stops, nothing stands still, everything moves. In our research we’ve seen so many drawings, so many buildings. There is so much movement in brutalist architecture!’ The storyline came about when the company heard a myth circulating the Ferrier estate in nearby Kidbrooke that the architect who had purportedly designed the estate had killed herself, and the actors decided that they wanted to tell the story of this urban myth through the eyes of the building’s creator.
The play starts out steeped in optimism and Utopian dreams, the idealistic couple pronouncing ‘Primary forms are beautiful forms!’, ‘Blue skies thinking for blue skies living’, and the slightly satirical rhyme ‘Take Le Corbusier, give it an English twist, and you have brutalist!’ Before long, however, their tower block falls into disrepair and in turn to social decay, and despite the couple’s good intentions it becomes a failure. The voice of the residents is given to one endearing character ‘Community’, a puppy-like figure who is at first malleable to the character of Le Corbusier, but who becomes drunk and disorderly as the tower declines.
The black-box studio space of the Blue Elephant provides a blank canvas for a simple, modulated set that comes alive with projected images of building plans and the actors’ movements. The play is set to go this month to the Edinburgh Fringe – perhaps not as befitting a setting as the housing estates of Camberwell.
For architects the play might seem a bit predictable, and certainly doesn’t say anything new about social housing. Nevertheless, Machines for Living offers an entertaining and humorous way of looking at a subject that has never been so popular than in its downfall.