Cinematic Geographies of Battersea: Urban Interface & Site-Specific Spatial Knowledge

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Architecture


CINEMATIC GEOGRAPHIES aims to harness the unique mechanism by which cinema and the moving image contribute to our understanding of cities by investigating the convergence of two different yet complementary ways of understanding the built environment: on the one hand, the historical approach developed by The Survey of London (English Heritage) and on the other, the cinematic interpretation of cities developed in the departments of architecture at the universities of Cambridge and Liverpool. Using Battersea as a case study, our aim is to contribute to a greater level of understanding and engagement with the built environment by enriching the Survey of London with a set of newly created digital resources made available in situ by means of locative mobile devices.

The Survey of London (SoL), referred to by English Heritage (EH) as 'the closest thing to an official history of London', provides a rigorous and systematic examination of each parish, whose topographical and architectural history - a description of its buildings - is what we would describe as the 'hard' city. Cinema, by contrast, provides the 'soft' side of the city as coined by Raban (1974): 'The city as we imagine it, then, soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, and nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps in statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture'.

Battersea, a landscape currently undergoing considerable changes, has been chosen by EH for a forthcoming volume of the SoL. Complementing EH's enormous effort to record and probe the architectural history of Battersea, we are planning to investigate the 'soft side' of Battersea through a process entitled 'cinematic urban archaeology'. This innovative technique makes visible the emergence of the modern city and its subsequent transformations since the year 1895 - the birth of cinema. Such retrospectively longitudinal cinematic studies of cities are now possible due to the increasing availability of archive material - fiction films, documentaries, newsreels, but also amateur films which are a particular focus of our study. Films have a remarkable capacity to resurrect a city's topography, which- together with its social and cultural context - is all too often folded away in maps of the past. Our initial investigations have revealed that Battersea is particularly 'moving-image rich', a fact that we want to enhance and make known through the creation of a novel and sustainable film database for the city.

At a time when in the words of Paul Virilio (1987) the screen 'became the city square, the crossroads of all mass media', so-called smart mobile phones play an important role in enhancing our experience of place, by bringing a perception of the 'here and now', one's presence in time and space, together with an aesthetic of representation. In the second phase of our project, by means of these ubiquitous smart phones, we are therefore aiming to make visible and accessible our new resource for Battersea, while also delivering the basis for a critical examination of its changing landscape. Locative media hold the potential to crack open the gap between everydayness and imagination. We argue that an intelligent use of locative media has the ability to reveal hidden 'lieux de memoire' [sites of memories]. In doing so, a new city topography can emerge where past memories, connected with individuals or communities, will make the 'invisible visible'.

Mindful of a careful balance between 'technology push' and 'content pull', we aim to offer an inspiring model for a coherent location-based digitally augmented experience and develop a methodology robust enough to be replicated in other cities in the future. It will be tested and demonstrated at the Wandsworth Heritage Festival in June 2012 and showcased in the London Cultural Olympiads later that summer.

Planned Impact

It would have a significant impact on the Battersea community. It would provide a valuable model for sustainable communities by identifying links to their physical environments.

A) This proposal falls within English Heritage's outreach policies, which aim to bring an interest in the built environment to as wide an audience as possible. In 2013 The Survey of London will publish the 49th and 50th volumes of their parish series on Battersea and this proposal constitutes a timely complementary form of exploration and interpretation of the area.

B) The Wandsworth Museum will benefit from amateur filmmakers depositing their films, thus enriching its archive - the museum is about to be reopened and it will increase its visibility within the local community.

C) The Wandsworth Historical Society and its members are the guardian of 'local memory'. This initiative would give their unsung efforts a profile within the wider community and beyond.

D) This initiative would provide a widespread testing ground for research in locative media, of benefit to the mobile devices and software related industry.


A) Within the local community, the largest beneficial impact is likely to be for young adults who are avid mobile phone users but have little 'common memories' with their environment. They would feel empowered to 'own the place' and intensify their sense of belonging to a community as young users would contribute their own memories in the 'write' mode.

B) The Survey of London could potentially expand this methodology to other London parishes in the future. This work could also be extended to other English Heritage's sites throughout the UK making many 'sites of memories' more visible and accessible to the general public.

C) The Wandsworth Museum is about to be reopened and it will increase its visibility within the local community.

D) The establishment of locative media accessible sites of memories would greatly benefit the Wandsworth Historical Society to promote their cause to a much wider audience. In particular we know that young adults, who tend not to go to museums, would be more inclined to use their mobile devices to access 'sites of memories'.


10 25 50
Title Cinematic Geographies of Battersea - App Launch 
Description 2:30 film capturing the iOS application launch as part of public engagement event in Battersea; including audience responses. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2016 
Impact Global reach of AHRC Battersea project. 
Title Cinematic Geographies of Battersea - On Location Testing 
Description 4 min long film reporting on user testing of iOS application on site in Battersea. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2016 
Impact Global reach of ARHC Battersea project. 
Description Jonathan Raban claims that the 'soft' city of 'illusion, myth, aspiration, and nightmare' is 'maybe more real than the hard city one can locate on maps, in statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture' . Can cinema and the moving image provide us with the perceptual equipment to reveal the 'soft side' of the city,and help us grasp the complexity of urban phenomena in Battersea? How can we juxtapose Cinematic Battersea with a study of the 'Hard City'?

The Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded 'Cinematic Geographies of Battersea' (CGB) project (2010/13) aimed to reveal the 'soft' side of Battersea through film, and at the same time to provide a counterpoint by locating the 'real' Battersea lurking within its glamorous cinematic persona, through time. The Survey of London (SoL), previously part of English Heritage and now based at UCL, is the nearest thing that the capital has to an official history of its streets and buildings. The SoL study of Battersea (Vol. 49 and 50 completed in 2013), has provided this counterpoint.


One of the first task was to assemble a database of Battersea movies, which revealed that the area was particularly 'moving-image rich', comprising around 600 movies - a mixture of fiction films, documentaries, Pathé News, and some amateur films. In order to analyze the archive we developed the 'cinematic urban archaeology' approach, wich enabled us to excavate the successive cinematic strata accumulated over the urban fabric, making visible the emergence of the modern city and its subsequent transformations since the beginning of the 20th century. The increasing availability of digitally- stored archive material makes such retrospectively 'longitudinal' cinematic studies (e.g. of a particular area through time), increasingly possible. It helped us to chart not only the transformations in the urban fabric but also understand the trends in social and cultural practices.

The interactive database is available at:


Exploitation of the film archives has been very revealing in showing the spread of moving-image locations over a map of Battersea. It showed that the 600 movies of the database were spread over 100 locations in Battersea - with a high concentration at the northern part of the site, with almost no data- points in the south, near Clapham Common, or between Clapham and Wandsworth Commons, areas which form part of Battersea. There is also a scarcity of data-points in the middle of the location, around the south end of Albert Bridge Road and the west end of Battersea Park Road. Existing well-known landmarks are well represented, such as Battersea Power Station, Battersea Park, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, the riverside and, St Mary's Church. But new landmarks also emerge in films, though these have not become 'historical landmarks' in the real world - such as the modernist Winstanley Estate. Overall, the indications from the bunching of data-points are that film-makers are fairly conservative in their choice of locations, and certainly did notn't go out of their way to explore many unknown areas. The location-points can also be analysed from the perspective of frequency-of-use in films. The most filmed location, by a long way, is Battersea Power Station although over time the meaning of a filmic association with Battersea Power Station changes as the building's own image evolves [to consult our interactive database, see:].


Turning to the social and cultural trends revealed by the cinematic urban archaeology approach, we found a number of recurrent themes in fiction films. Abandoned and unsupported women and children with few options are a theme which recurs from Sabotage (Hitchcock 1936) through This Happy Breed (Lean 1944) and Cosh Boy (Gilbert 1953) to the films of the 1960s. The films of the 1950s and 1960s suggest that the slow rise from bombed houses and slum clearance, the cramped and substandard living conditions in Battersea, the general level of poverty and lack of educational and other opportunities, combined with the collapse of pre-war family-structures and shared moral values, plus the liberalisation of sexual mores, handicap their denizens in the race for a happy, fulfilled and useful - crime-free - life. But by the 1970s, treating crime as a social disease and tackling it through inoculation by education for all, may portend change. With the 1980s and 1990s, Battersea has plunged into cultural diversity. Overall the CGB analysis of Battersea films has been an opportunity to complement and nuance existing views on London. Our study suggests that the question of location is much more contingent and nuanced than may at first appear: the line between the 'hard' and 'soft' city, between landmark and local London, can be blurred. The Battersea films looked at in this study tell as much about the observers who made them, the times in which they were made and the cinematic moment that gave them birth, as they do about the places and characters they depict. As a component of local 'cinematic urban archaeology', they offer a unique, iconic perspective on Battersea and its inhabitants, which is available nowhere else - evoking an intriguing vision of the 'soft' city of 'illusion, myth, aspiration, and nightmare' in and around the 'hard' city of its buildings.


One the most significant findings of this research has been to propose, elaborate and test a novel methodological approach, the cinematic urban archaeology. It highlighted in particular that it is crucial to carry out urban cinematic studies with a thorough understanding of the terrain - and the partnership with the SoL was key to this. The multidisciplinary nature of the CGB team, which included architects, film-makers, film scholars and urban historians, enabled our study to be firmly rooted in its sites of production. Overall we have devised an approach that can be ported and replicated in other cities, contributing to the overall understanding of urban complexities.

Given the extraordinary urban transformations planned in 2014 in Battersea, particularly in the Nine Elms area, this CGB study stands not only as a record of a specific epoch; but beyond its focus on this particular London locality, proposes a new methodological approach, that of 'cinematic urban archaeology', which may prove helpful not only to film-scholars and urban historians, but also architects and urban designers appraising both this and other equally complex urban locations.


We also developed novel visualisations techniques for re-presenting the reach and movement of the camera in geographic and cartographic terms, demonstrating ways in which the dynamic visual field of the screen can be translated into spatial coordinates and animated on historic and current maps. The value of translating cinematic/moving images into geo-data belongs to the field of digital humanities and has significant ramifications for academic and commercial sectors alike. Moreover our research has shown the need for a more sustained enquiry into the synthesis of cinematic vision and spatial information.


As part of the CGB project we developed the 'GhostCinema' iPhone App [see]. At some point, there were up to twenty-seven cinemas in Battersea as documented in the Survey of London - often 'shopfront' cinemas, with back rooms holding maybe forty seats. They have all disappeared and for example The Ruby, is now a bank, and it's current manager remembers going to see movies there as a child. The GhostCinema App aimed to create a unique, enjoyable and stimulating experience using locative digital media to connect people with carefully-researched historical and cultural information about the local Battersea area, collected and archived over five years by the Survey of London - opening this scholarly archive to the general public in an up-to-date and engaging way. But though a digital guide which includes the display of movie clips related to your location is compelling. While no cinemas exist today in Battersea, the Survey of London contains historical material, images and records of the twenty-seven local Picture Palaces and Cinemas which have risen and fallen since the late nineteenth century. The GhostCinema App was devised as an easily-operated mobile locative App, which gives access to a light layer of information in audio format. If desired, the deeper, more detailed, visual (stills and moving images), audio and text archive can also be accessed by those interested, via the Cinematic Geographies of Battersea Website.


The GhostCinema App allows to have access to extracts of films with key local scenes that were shown in some of these old cinemas - as well as historical details about the cinemas, extracted from the SoL. We selected film extracts which had been shot locally. This is a process of 'restitution', using the city as interface. Locative media devices create a new level of understanding and engagement by the general public with the built environment. It helps to crystallise common local memories that can connect communities
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Environment

Description There has been a number of local newspaper reporting on the project, which has attracted interest in the local community. Since 2013 there were a number of developments: A film made by Prof Chris Speed - University of Edinburgh - who was the co-investigator in charge of creating the Ghost Cinema App - the film was shot and edited in 2014. Richard Koeck has also got a website - see below - with two short films regarding the launch of the Ghost Cinema App with a local audience in Battersea - at the Whole Foods Market in Clapham Junction, as referred to in the text. This event took place in June 2015. An other film - entitled The Winstanley Plays Itself, is also available on vimeo - is by Aileen Reid who worked both as a research associate on the AHRC project as well as with the Survey of London: Finally there is a short film that presents a commentary about the urban environment over a short clip of Poor Cow (Loach 1967) - typical of the sort of trailers we produced for the Ghost Cinema App:
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Title Cinematic Geographies of Battersea Film Database 
Description The searchable database holds circa 600 films shot in Battersea catalogues by decade, colour, themes, locations, directors and feature/archive. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2013 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The database is regularly used by other researchers and film enthusiast interested in the filmic heritage of London. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact As part of the Town Hall Talks series at Battersea Arts Centre, Dr Matthew Flintham will be discussing the cinematic heritage of Battersea and the Nine Elms area. He will begin by describing his role in the Cinematic Geographies of Battersea project, a research collaboration between Liverpool, Cambridge and Edinburgh Universities with the Survey of London. The project created a database of nearly 600 films shot entirely or partially within the municipal boundary of Battersea, and Matthew Flintham will show clips from and discuss some of the diverse feature films which have represented and misrepresented the area over the 20th century.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Cinematic Urban Geographies Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Scientific meeting (conference/symposium etc.)
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience
Results and Impact The Cinematic Urban Geographies conference aimed to explore the different facets by which cinema and the moving image contribute to our understanding of cities and their topographies. This event was the final act of our AHRC research project entitled Cinematic Geographies of Battersea.

It was organised over two days at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH) and took place in Cambridge on 3 and 4 October 2013
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Prof Richard Koeck gives talk on "Digital Urban Heritage" at the 2016 Global Cities Forum in Shanghai organised by the Development Research Center of Shanghai Municipal People's Government, Shanghai Municipal Housing and Urban-Rural Construction Management Committee, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, UN-HABITAT and the World Bank. He showcased the AHRC Battersea as best practice example of digital heritage project in the UK.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Prof Richard Koeck gives a full day seminar in UNESCO endorsed Masters Programme in World Heritage and Cultural Projects for Development at the ITILO in Turin/Italy. The Master programme aims to impart the necessary competencies and skills to participants in the promotion of World Heritage Sites and other UNESCO designations, as well as of any cultural resource in the framework of sustainable economic development. The AHRC Battersea project was showcased as best practice example.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016