The Lifespan of Utopias

Sam Gonçalves

North East January 04, 2017

Five years ago I went up to Dundee Law (the highest point in the city) and along with a large crowd watched the demolition of four multi-storey buildings. We cheered, clapped and inadvertently inhaled some dust on the way back down. Little did I know that in 2016, these buildings would become a focus of much fascination for my work.

They were known as the Alexander Street multis, built in the 70’s as a promise for a much more accommodating city. Being the first multi-storeys with indoor toilets and elevators, many Dundonians referred to them as the ‘New Hope of Dundee’. On Saturdays, families from all over the city came to these buildings to have a shot at the elevator – and the view of the Tay did not disappoint.

Today the site where the buildings used to be is empty, surrounded by fences and CCTV.

A place that attracted dreams of utopia became a shameful stain for the city. Later, new utopian ideals were born as we cheered and clapped for the building’s destruction, only to immediately leave a mile-long stretch of rubble, hardly touched for half a decade.

The film you can watch below explores this cycle of utopia and destruction that seems so common in the history of many cities. One decade we celebrate our constructions reaching new heights, the other we try to blow them up for the opening of the Commonwealth Games. This repetition is powered by the very idea of utopia, the idea that anyone can think something good enough to eradicate an urban problem, like a mathematical formula that just needs cracked. In reality, the glamorous utopian dreams of a minority rarely represent the needs of the local communities intimately impacted by these changes. These communities get blown about from ambition to disaster, like plastic bags in an empty building site, with no real, holistic engagement with the issues they face.

The film itself is not an argument for one particular version of this site, but instead, a historical and storied look into a pattern that we might not recognise as we exist in the midst of these decisions being made.

In the end, utopian constructions seem to continually fail while the communities who populate them survive and invent new ways of living. In the words of Jane Jacobs: “Less noticed, but equally significant, in city after city the wrong areas, in the light of planning theory, are refusing to decay.” Though world-saving schemes of few are left in rubble, the communities they were built on are still full of life, and in need to be heard, before we try to save them again.

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Sam Gonçalves

Sam Gonçalves

Sam Gonçalves is a documentary filmmaker in Dundee. His films often explore the life and dynamic of urban centres as well as the way in which the transformation of cities affects the experiences of individuals within it – both in the UK and Brazil, where he is originally from.

He is also the co-created Sidling Bears, a production company which focuses on the making of documentary and socially engaged films. The short film presented here, The Lifespan of Utopias, is a result of Sam’s MFA course and his degree show, originally presented alongside an installation at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. The film has also been feature at NeON Digital Arts Festival and been awarded a grant from Fife Decorative Arts for further development on the subject matter.

You can find more of his work here: