Machines for Living

Devised and written by India Banks, Frode Gjerløw, Nicole Pschetz and David Ralfe
Let Slip
Blue Elephant Theatre

Machines for Living at the Blue Elephant Theatre. Left to right: India Banks, Nicole Pschetz, Frode Gjerlow and David Ralfe Credit: Christina Hardinge

Over the first half of the twentieth century, Le Corbusier, now regarded as the master of modern architecture, developed a vision for the cities of the future.

Exploiting burgeoning industrial techniques for high-rise construction, he advocated affordable quality housing for all. The housing unit was not an end in itself created in isolation, but sited in harmony with units providing services and shared spaces for the inhabitants: an entire neighbourhood in green parkland.

It is against this setting that Let Slip takes up the tale of two post-war British architects: prosaic Roger who has his eyes opened by the concrete-loving modernist Wendy, who becomes his wife and design partner adopting the popular style of their time.

The architectural movement of their generation had taken up Le Corbusier's utopian vision and combined it with a credo of honestly un-adorned structures. Unforgiving and unrepentant in its use of bare modern materials, not for nothing was the name of this philosophy inspired by the Le Corbusier technique 'raw concrete': béton brut.

To a contemporary and most likely unversed audience Brutalist Architecture means something far from the beliefs that inspired it, and there is a delightful irony in Wendy's and Roger's high-rise creation being named 'Graceful Towers', and being award nominated for its grandeur and simplicity.

In reality what was built was compromised by the demands of the funders from the start. Then the faceless managers of the mass housing project swiftly start cutting corners. Large families are put into apartments built for smaller households and, with the caretaker gone, repairs go unattended, cockroaches infest the flats and the lift remains broken.

Community, in this Lecoq Theatre School nurtured work, is represented initially by a demanding but jolly puppy but as the neglected environment degrades Community becomes unrecognisable, a belligerent drunk who vomits in the hallways exacerbating the incubus.

David Ralfe plays Roger sympathetically leading him along a short arc from the commonplace to being driven by the fervour of the converted. His answer to the overcrowding issues is to design flats half the size and twice as high, blind to the fact that equality is not the same as uniformity.

India Banks is an agreeable Le Corbusier-inspired Wendy who cannot reconcile the purity of the original intent with the reality of the concrete Frankenstein.

Frode Gjerløw's principal role is the scapegoated man himself and Nicole Pschetz imbues hers as Community with a sprightliness that makes its degeneration all the more disturbing.

There are passages in this piece which show their improvised origins too blatantly and tackling a gargantuan and controversial issue in an hour is bound to raise more questions than it answers—Roger suggesting the residents may be as much at fault as the building is a token defence of an ethos that deserves much more.

In a surreal nightmare sequence, Community and Le Corbusier physically engage, alternately beating each other and fornicating, exemplifying the un-resolvable conflict between the needs of communities and those who seek to satisfy them. It is one of several disquieting sequences in this devised piece which needs only a little finessing and rebalancing to be powerfully thought-provoking.

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti