The Spirit of the 70’s: Monumental Structures and Urban Wasteland

Every decade ends up being defined by the cultural traces it leaves behind. That covers a lot of things of course, from books and films to news reports and political speeches.  Somewhere in the middle of all this there forms a commonly agreed set of ideas about what those ten years must have been like, even if they bear little actual resemblance to how it was for those who lived through them.

So everyone has their own mental image of the 1970’s. For some people it’s ABBA or Watergate, for other people Dirty Harry, Star Wars or racist sitcoms. I was born in 1975 and I really don’t have many clear memories of the decade the produced me before about 1979.  If I’m honest, my lasting impression of the decade essentially stems from a scene in a 1972 episode of Doctor Who.

As a teenager back in the late 80’s, I was discovering episodes of classic science fiction through BBC Video (an activity which, in 1988, endeared you to precisely no-one sadly). I had a copy of a Doctor Who adventure called Day of the Daleks starring Jon Pertwee as the Doctor. In the sort of time paradox the new version of the series is fond of, the Doctor follows guerrillas from the future to an Earth where humanity has been enslaved by the Daleks. At one point, the Doctor, newly arrived in the desolate future, looks up to see a monolithic building looming over him. The shot is accompanied by a warble of electronic music, not a million miles away from the sort of thing Tangerine Dream were doing at the time. And that image, the monumental building looming over the wasteland somehow became the 70’s for me: distant, forbidding, solid. Adult in a scary way.

High Rise

High Rise – created using a Samsung Camera, Powerpoint and Paint.

Maybe it’s doing the decade a disservice to have latched onto so bleak an image and made it into a sort of mental avatar for a whole period in history. But in some respects, it does still seem appropriate.

The unfeeling concrete tower looms several times in the middle of that decade. In 1975, David Cronenberg’s debut film Shivers and JG Ballard’s novel High Rise both dealt with the breakdown of society in the enclosed world of a tower block. The unsettling 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers uses tall, angular buildings on the horizon to reinforce its atmosphere of alienation. Perhaps these buildings all in someway represented the fall of the 60’s dream and the rise of a decade defined more by its economic and political strife and uncertainty than by hopes of a better world.

The Future is Monumental

Monumental – created using a Samsung Camera, Powerpoint and paint.

Present in these works was a certain ambiguity about social change. The Body Snatchers remake seems to hint that human relationships were already in decline even before people started being replaced. The characters in Shivers are similarly possessed and driven crazy by – regrettably faecal – parasites but in their new state are able to leave their confining concrete world. Change and the fall of the old order is inevitable in these films, but the meaning of that change is left up to the viewer. Interestingly, at around the same time conceptual art was very much engaged with notions of how context impacts on meaning, making meaning itself an uncertain concept.

Another landmark film of the 70’s which made quite an impact on me at university was Dawn of the Dead. This is generally regarded as the greatest of all zombie films, with an influence that can clearly be seen in the likes of 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead. It continued the shift in horror away from the gothic environs of the Hammer films and into a modern, urban landscape. It also laid waste to that landscape.

And here is another image from the 70’s that has stayed with me: the urban wasteland. The latter end of that decade saw people began to think about how they might survive if the modern world were to suddenly stop working. Fears about running out of fuel existed long before Mad Max.  A world where progress has run down and stopped is an idea present in the post apocalyptic TV series like Survivors and the last Quatermass serial.  A curious side-effect of all this from a post-crash, 21st Century point of view is that some of these fictional landscapes now look grimly prophetic of what was to come. Only it was investment bankers and not zombies that brought the buildings tumbling down.


So that is the 70’s that TV, film, books and art created in my head. Tower blocks, wasteland, conceptual spaces, parasites,  zombies and Jon Pertwee. I’m sure it’s a long way from the real thing. Maybe one day, when all our history comes from YouTube and Wikipedia, the recording of events will be entirely down to  subjective experience of found images.

As for my version of the 70’s, it wouldn’t have an ABBA or a Queen soundtrack, great though those bands were. The music would be the ambient electronica of Brian Eno, describing open and undefined spaces.

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