The National Film and Television Archive is not only a collection, but also a collection of collections. The way in which the nation’s moving image heritage is collected is often by acquiring smaller collections which have already been gathered or curated: the Mitchell and Kenyon collection, for instance, or the Joye films, which both keep their own identity and become part of the larger collection.
Some of these are company collections: many large firms historically maintained film units for the various purposes of record-keeping, internal communications and pubic relations. The Laing construction company was one such company, and on Wednesday night, at the NFT, Jez Stewart and company historian Alan Thorpe presented films from the Laing (pronounced mote like Laying than Lang, apparently) collection, which have now been donated to the NFTVA.
The audience was full of Laing workers and retirees, who seem to share some company spirit: Sir John Laing was a member of the Plymouth Brethren, and a paternalistic employer who rewarded loyalty to the company with a sense of belonging and staff holiday outings. Laing Company Outing 1 from 1948 has many long shots of Laing workers, and some of Sir John himself on their annual jolly by boat from Tower Bridge to Margate, enjoying themselves by the sea.
Motorway through the Lune Valley documents the construction of the Cumbrian section of the M6 past Tebay and over Shap, through to Carlisle, in the early 70s. There’s clearly enough consciousness of the negative effect of roads on the environment that an effort is made to suggest both the harmony of the new road with its environment, and the scenic appeal of driving the motorway itself (it is actually one of the most spectacular stretches of motorway in England).
80 weeks to Touchdown feels even more sinister: beginning with Michael Heseltine’s announcement to the commons that a proper airport was to be built in the Falkland Islands, it’s a CoI film of the construction of the airport, starting with the valiant pontoon landing of JCBs, complete with characteristic 80s bright video, incidental synthesiser music and a chillingly Tory-sounding voiceover.
Coventry Cathedral shows Laing’s contribution to Basil Spence’s great modern cathedral: the struts and wires that hold up its enormous edifice. There’s a lot about stained glass and the craft of stonemasonry, but the most amazing thing revealed about the cathedral, fundamentally a medieval gothic cathedral in form, is that the roof forms its own self-supporting cantilevered vault: the tall and fine pillars of the nave were only put into position afterwards to hold up the wooden beans that echo the form but not the function of traditional vaulting. This is a mutation even beyond Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, where the nave’s columns still support the roof; but in Coventry all is illusion.
From the high art to low living, Where You Live is a paean to Laing’s programme of cottage estates system-built in concrete with ‘Easiform’ metal-shutter moulds. True to the form of this kind of film, it invokes vox pops from newly-installed residents to praise the ramped underpasses ideal for pushchairs, and pans lovingly across (unvaryingly white) children at play while their mothers shop. It makes to want to run immediately to the history books to find out when the estate was demolished. The film takes a surreal turn when it plays Pete Seeger’s Little Boxes over scenes of estate life (making you think the filmmakers might just not understand the irony) before rounding off with a forthright attack on the satire, and defence of the necessity of the estates as both essential housing and a place where individuality can flourish.
But it’s Taking Stock, a film from 1961, detailing (in great detail) Laing’s contribution to the postwar construction boom that makes you understand most the kind of unauthored vernacular architecture that Laing is responsible for. Here are secondary modern schools, factories and industrial estates, office blocks and housing blocks, all in a suburban sub-International Style, large windows, flat roofs and intermittent towers. A kind of low-rent brutalism: even as the ribbons are optimistically cut, these places contain the seeds of future melancholy. They are the everyday, invisible ugly buildings that we still live among today: the ones we don’t mention when we talk about architecture.