Paradise Lost review by Phil Smith

This review was originally posted to Facebook, June 2021 and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author.

There is a fragile kind of precious feeling that comes in certain places that mix some threat with the whiff of decaying high ideals and clumsy thuds of harsh and ill-deployed materials. Sometimes, it’s the abjection, the making the inside into an outside that overwhelms the seeker or the one lost; the puddles collecting in deserted basements, piles of dissolved lime or the detritus of lives hidden and ignored. In the case of the empty shell of Birmingham’s Central Library, the subject of Andy Howlett’s remarkable film ‘Paradise Lost’, the generator of its peculiar ambience is not so much its physical decline (talk of ‘concrete cancer’ turns out to be lies serving moneyed and political interests), but the betrayal of a future. For this inverted concrete ziggurat was designed to be clad in white marble; its labyrinthine walkways were intended to be wound with greenery and water features; part of a post-war vision of a utopian, modernist future of spaces serving its public with a crucial public service (freely available books), multiple options for wandering, and maximised democratic openness. The resulting brutalist shell is revealed by Howlett’s film not as the result of an unpopular vision, but the desecration of a vision that never got the chance to be tested.

The first third of ‘Paradise Lost’ introduces us to the space, with its comic quirks; the dishonesties have produced multiple absurdities over the years and there are many to enjoy in the film. Equally, the disposal of idealism has left the space open to idealist uses, and for a while its lower parts became a much loved and much used arena for skateboarders. As the film burrows deeper into the history and the architectural and social principles in play, the smile disappears and we begin to see the bone underneath. This is a crime scene, the commentary explains, the future was destroyed here and the evidence has been covered up. Then, just as the narrative seems about to relapse into a familiar, defeatist complaint against the appropriation of public spaces by private developers masked by a rhetoric of remaking history, the film flips and transcends/undermines all its circumstances.

The film outdoes itself in a sequence and becomes something very special. What seems to be a humdrum urbex adventure opens metal doors, into the crawlspaces and ‘between floors’, and a trap door drops the adventurers into the dark heart of the building. Given the references to Milton and Lucifer this might seem to be a Dante-style drop through the rings of hell, but in climbing up the side of the building, then worming into the centre and finally descending through the centre, we arrive at utopia. In the base ruins of the shell, the film puts together surviving fragments of an old vision of the future; for example, a neglected ‘dry garden’ of bright yellow flowers and their bee visitors and echoes of protests that emptied the surrounding streets of cars. This uncovering and replaying of the past and its lost visions of the future deserves a better term than ‘hauntology’; for these ruins of the future that are present in the now, are more than, harder than, spectral. ‘Paradise Lost: History in the Unmaking’ creates an engrossing, always entertaining and subtly intelligent infrastructure and then, in one swift and neatly understated feint, it takes us right down into the gravel of utopia where yellow flowers bloom and bees dust for pollen. It’s something special is this film; Paradise may be lost in the trashing of ideals, but Andy Howlett found it again in ruins where it works.

Dr. Phil Smith is a performance-maker, writer and academic researcher, specialising in work around walking, site-specificity, mythogeographies, web-walking, somatics and counter-tourism. He is an Associate Professor (Reader) at the University of Plymouth.