The City of the Future

Busy London: Traffic Passing in Front of the Bank of England and Mansion House (Walturdaw, 1903), courtesy British Film Institute and Eye Filmmuseum, the Netherlands.

The City of the Future was a research project at the Royal College of Art, London, developed with support from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Board (renamed Arts and Humanities Research Council on 1 April 2005).

At the beginning of the twentieth century, there seems to have been a relatively widespread anticipation that new technologies and social structures would – or at least should – give rise to a radical transformation of urban space in the decades that were to follow.

In retrospect, despite slum clearance in the 1930s, bombing during World War 2 and the reconstruction and redevelopment that followed, city life has probably changed much more in other ways, often ways that involve perception and imagination. Technology has radically altered the way we communicate, but the technologies of building and construction have changed much less.

Viewing film of, say, London in the 1900s, the immediate post-war period or even the 1970s, one might be struck by the contrast between the familiarity of many of the spaces glimpsed and our distance from the lives of those who once inhabited them. At the beginning of another century, we experience many new and unanticipated phenomena, but we do so often in spaces that have changed in only relatively subtle ways in the last 100 years.

The City of the Future was a project that set out to explore contrasts between the familiarity of old city fabric, the strangeness of the past, and the newness of present-day experience. With archive film of the past century and other documents of urban experience in literature etc., it developed a critique of present-day and possible future spatial experience, outlined in a series of published essays, accompanied by a database of selected film titles (nearly all held by the British Film Institute’s National Archive) with viewing notes, and demonstrated in successive versions of a DVD: a landscape of 68 films of urban and other landscapes of c1900 that could be explored in two interconnected ways, either by selecting individual films from their location on a network of maps from the period, or in a programmed sequence in the form of a journey. The DVD has been the basis of several exhibitions, the most extensive a five-screen installation at the BFI Southbank Gallery, London, 23 November 2007 – 3 February 2008.

Most of the films are included as documents of urban space, but the selection also covers transport, communications, oil, electrification, atomic weapons and some colonial subjects, including railway and port construction.

Some films are held by other archives and these can increasingly be viewed online at or via websites such as the British Film Institute’s Britain on Film and at the sites of some UK regional and other archives listed at Film Archives UK.

The project’s database was last updated in October 2010. It can be downloaded as a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet (xls). Please read the copyright and permitted uses statement below and follow the link here.

The database produced by The City of the Future project is the copyright of Patrick Keiller and the Royal College of Art, London. It may be used for private research and study purposes only.

Notes on the database (pdf) offers information about the database and instructions for searching it within Microsoft Excel.