Dezeen Magazine

Owen Hatherley on Redrow's promotional video for One Commercial Street

"More frightening than American Psycho"

Opinion: the visual style associated with cinema's super-villains has been transformed into a marketable asset for house builders, says Owen Hatherley.

The conjunction of modern architecture and film is seldom flattering to the former. In the UK, the image of modern housing took some time to recover from its depiction as the urban anomie set of choice, from Kubrick picking Thamesmead for the droogs of A Clockwork Orange onwards.

But a more luxurious Modernism has always been a cipher for a more individualised villainy, from the use of various scenes in Californian modernist houses in Los Angeles Plays Itself, to the highly well-informed architectural designs Ken Adam contributed to James Bond films cited, perhaps unsurprisingly, by Norman Foster as an inspiration.

However, the film clip currently doing the rounds as an exemplar of the intersection of modern design and evil is not fictional but a promotional video. Which begs the question – when precisely did dystopia become a selling point?

British social networks and architecture critics have already had at Redrow's clip for the One Commercial Street building in east London. A young City worker experiences various horrors and stresses in a graffiti-strewn inner city, but then manages to use his inflated, state-subsidised salary to purchase one of Redrow's beautifully stainless, immaculate, shiny new luxury flats. He looks around, smugly taking in his book on design, the surfaces of his kitchen, the view of London from the window, his sleeping girlfriend. As the voiceover tells us, all is encapsulated in the feeling that 'I made this'.

I won, it says, over the multicultural messy chaos of London. And that is exactly what buildings like One Commercial Street set out to do, particularly in places that have a large amount of less shiny, frequently poor people.

The video appears to symbolise that triumph, and this is one of the many things that make it extremely creepy – with its explicit class hatred and boomingly insistent voiceover, there's something awry about it all, as if the sinister assumptions behind what used to be called 'regeneration' have suddenly burst out. And then there's its clear narrative and aesthetic similarity to Mary Harron's film of American Psycho, a kinship which has already inspired one parody video.

The real question is: why would something so obviously dark work as salesmanship?

Property development has for a long time been about selling exclusivity. This why the defenders of the 'free market', who argue that developers are only offering a service and letting them do what they like would solve housing crises around the world, are deeply misguided.

Selling mere housing has never really been enough, something left to the rationalist world of local authorities and housing associations – best left to the plebs. The idea of 'home', and particularly the aspiration to own it, is not always entirely rational, and developers have always made capital on appealing to the least public-spirited aspects of home-ownership.

From the ring of semis around London or Birmingham to the segregated Levittowns of post-war America, in order to sell a house you had to sell a dream. Often that dream was not merely of escaping the inner city but also escaping from those awful inner city people. But over the past few decades property developers have gone from selling suburbia to selling the inner city itself, and have necessarily had to adapt. Rather than images of green rolling fields, families round hearths and wooden gates, today you have images of glass towers, couples round expensive fridges and automatically-operated gates.

You can see this sort of thing in any big city. It's an international language – some local variation on "Luxury, Aspirational, Loft, Stunning, Available Now" can be found everywhere from Budapest to Nanjing. But the best place to find it is still London, due to the sheer intensity of the property market there, and the way that a combination of SexyUrbanVibrantCool, former mayor Ken Livingstone's density-encouraging planning policies and current mayor Boris Johnson's subsequent refusal to plan anything at all means that various towers of faceted glass shafts, barcode facades, faceted curtain walls and don't-look-at-me brick panels have been rammed into areas that were quite poor.

Combined with the fact that towers have mostly been negatively associated with public housing in the UK, plus the generally small, single-aspect flats inside them, the imagery department has had to go overboard to support sales. The result is a relentless barrage of soft focus, neon lights, wine drinkers on balconies and attractive thin couples in pyjamas, draped over the improvised walls protecting building sites, all designed to insist, insist and insist that this is the very height of luxury, the peak of cool, and, not coincidentally, the last thing in seclusion and security – because, after all, you know who is living next door.

You can see the results well in curator Crystal Bennes' grimly hilarious tumblr Development Aesthetics. Recent slogans captured therein include 'London's Premier Residence', 'Who Has What It Takes To Join Us', 'Turn Your Back on the Norm'. People are generally wealthy-looking, tidy and roughly 90 per cent white, with occasional exceptions to add "vibrancy". More recently, they've been branching out – Londoners purported to be shocked when one hoarding displayed a model with a Kitchener-style hipster 'tache.

Architecture is always a vague CGI backdrop, but always dramatically lit, to make clear the way each little development, each cluster of towers, glows like a jewel amongst the undifferentiated sh*t of the rest of London. The image of the city here is frankly horrible – unequal, smug, nasty, cruel. It's easy to spot that and easy to criticise it, and the Redrow video even suggests the people that make it are aware of how horrible it is and accidentally got carried away.

The thing is, someone out there actually likes this, finds it exciting, promising or at least reassuring. That's a deeper problem, and one that designers and their enthusiasts may need to ask themselves if they're comfortable facilitating. What is the appeal of these spaces to you? Why the relentless focus on the interior? Why is the city reduced to a series of icons in an undifferentiated, dilapidated mass? What would it mean to design publicly, to create a sort of design that could never feature on a development hoarding?

Advertisers know what they're doing. Their aesthetic choices reflect the assumptions held deep in their heart of hearts – an area connected, as we know, with the wallet – that this is what a certain, lucrative number of people actually want. That should be more frightening than American Psycho.

Owen Hatherley is a critic and author, focusing on architecture, politics and culture. His books include Militant Modernism (2009), A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (2010), and A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through urban Britain (2012).