Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Dilapidated Dwelling, The (2000)

Courtesy of Illuminations

Main image of Dilapidated Dwelling, The (2000)
Betacam, colour, 80 mins
DirectorPatrick Keiller
Production CompanyIlluminations Films
ForChannel Four
ProducersKeith Griffiths
 John Wyver
ScriptPatrick Keiller
CameraPatrick Keiller
NarratorTilda Swinton

Featuring: Michael Ball (urban economist, South Bank University); Martin Pawley (architecture critic); James Dyson (design engineer, manufacturer); Yolanda Barnes (FPDSavills); Peter Smith (architect, Sheffield Hallam University); Jon Broome (architect)

Show full cast and credits

An examination of the predicament of the house in advanced economies, the UK in particular. A researcher returns from a 20-year absence in the Arctic to find that although the UK is one of the most electronic of the advanced economies, its houses are the most dilapidated in western Europe.

Show full synopsis

The Dilapidated Dwelling investigates its subject from an extraordinary number of different angles. Archive footage, interviews, statistics, humour, accident, even a quiet love story are all used in pursuit of answers to the film's essential question: why can't the UK effectively produce cheap houses that are comfortable to live in?

Though The Dilapidated Dwelling works in some ways as a narrative history of Western house-building practice in the 20th century, Patrick Keiller's utopian vision is explicit from the start. His narrator begins her investigation by quoting radical philosopher Henri Lefebvre's maxim that "in order to change life we must change space". Keiller plays back clips from the 20th century's architectural utopians and dreamers: Constant Nieuwenhuys, who proposed New Babylon as one vast collective home; Buckminster Fuller, whose airplane-like manufactured houses became only museum-pieces; and the UK's own Archigram, more famous for their fantastic drawings of mobile cities than for constructing buildings.

Similarly, rather than interviewing Ralph Erskine about Byker's social housing, or Richard Rogers about the prestigious Montevetro development at Battersea, he talks to romantic and critical commentators like Cedric Price, who places human enjoyment above buildings, and feminist geographer Doreen Massey, who questions the relationship between society and its buildings.

The film frequently asserts that the economic demand exists for better houses, yet lacks an emotional assertion of people's desire to live in modern, modular, mass-produced dwellings. Indeed, lingering shots of the roof and garden of Keiller's own Edwardian house are accompanied by the narrator's admission that she gradually came to appreciate the settlement and surroundings of her own dilapidated dwelling.

As in London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1996), Keiller's trademark gathered images and post-sync sound are knitted together into a story constructed after the fact. Despite the absence of music and the use of more traditional documentary techniques like interview and archive footage, The Dilapidated Dwelling retains a poetic sensibility alongside its polemic structure. Its female narrator, with an explicit romantic relationship, may be better placed to concentrate on the theme of the inadequacy of the domestic environment.

Keiller, though, offers few answers or resolutions. His own bewilderment is evident in the narrator's final conclusion to her report, that the houses of the future will be the houses of the present, merely more expensive and in poorer condition. We have discovered how the UK fails to build enough of the right kind of houses, but not yet why.

Danny Birchall

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Changing spaces (3:30)
2. A new architecture (1:33)
3. The house as commodity (3:33)
4. A history of prefabs (1:28)
Griffiths, Keith (1947-)
Keiller, Patrick (1950-)