“Ciudad perdida”: on Dora & the Lost City of Gold, and the enduring appeal of the lost city

A publicity shot from Dora & the Lost City of Gold. Image: Paramount.

This article contains spoilers for Dora and the Lost City of Gold, a film for nine year olds.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold is one of those surprising, far-better-than-it-needs-to-be kids’ films that occasionally rise from the morass of wisecracking CG animal films and extended toy adverts. A live action sequel to long running pre-school animation Dora the Explorer, it’s a charming, periodically waspish teen comedy that acts as a meta-commentary on the source material, poking fun at and cheerfully deconstructing the tropes of its TV predecessor.

It’s also, as the title promises, a film about a lost city, driven by an adventure plot that pits Dora and her friends against ruthless mercenary treasure hunters in the quest for a fabled Incan city. This slots it comfortably into a vein of adventure fiction where explorers seek out long lost mythical places, in search of treasure or knowledge but often finding that the fabled city was lost for good reason. It’s a sub genre that most of us can probably recite the modern lineage of, a line that runs from the pulps, especially the antics of Allan Quatermain, through the black and white movie serials and given new life by Spielberg and Lucas in the Indiana Jones franchise.

The sub-genre mostly lives on now in videogames, led by Indy’s modern day successors Lara Croft (the Tomb Raider series) and Nathan Drake (Uncharted). That these stories should flourish in an interactive medium isn’t surprising – it’s one thing to see epic vistas of a crumbling metropolis in a couple of nice effects shots in a movie, a whole other level of wish fulfilment to spend hours navigating those deserted streets yourself, evading traps and solving puzzles.

Hollywood, always keen to cash in on a popular multi-media brand, has found it difficult to shift the archaeological adventure genre back to the big screen. Three Tomb Raider movies have received decidedly mixed receptions, while an Uncharted movie has been lost in development hell for so long it’s in danger of fading into myth itself.

For the writers and execs who have fallen into a creative abyss trying to wrangle Nathan Drake’s sprawling adventures into a conventional action movie, it’s a bit awkward that Dora and the Lost City of Gold’s third act so efficiently delivers the thrills and wonder that an audience wants from a lost city story. When Dora and her friends reach Parapata they have to deal with traps, puzzles, and the spectacle of fabulous treasure and lost magical power – all in a movie that crams in jokes, teen angst and a cartoon monkey too.

Perhaps it’s the fact that Dora is a kids movie that allows it to shake off the adult concerns that might inhibit a movie for grown-ups. It can embrace the lost city tropes, worries that protecting a treasure haul with puzzles doesn’t make sense, or the fact that the city would be visible by satellite (even the 1950s-set Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull felt the need to demolish its lost city in the last act so as to “explain” why it wouldn’t show up on Google Maps half a century later). A story for children doesn’t need to mitigate its fantasy with arbitrary divisions between what is and isn’t plausible in the genre. It can just have fun with it.

Plausibility concerns aren’t the only problems with the lost city genre. The idea of lost civilisations can often be tied up with unsavoury presumptions about the arc of history, the racist urge for white fantasy writers to ascribe the architectural achievements of the peoples of Africa and South America to some kind of lost Aryan super race, the kind of “graceful” pallid people that a colonial mentality could allow itself to believe built pyramids and ziggurats. Dora dodges that problem – the indigenous people who protect Parapata are mysterious and understandably hostile to treasure hunting outsiders, but they’re also fair-minded and fully in control of the ancient powers under their protection.

These narrative challenges need to be addressed if the lost city sub-genre is to carry on, and carry on it almost certainly will. In a world that has been mapped so comprehensively we can pore over it via Google Earth, one where are our own urban civilisations seem to be heading for collapse as resources run scarce, the idea of fallen cities, the remnants of past civilisations more advanced or more doomed than our own has an irresistible appeal. To imagine walking through the streets of a long dead city, discovering forbidden knowledge and clues to a history lost to the records book, is to experience a kind of re-enchantment, to take our extensively mapped, resource-depleted world and restore to it a sense of mystery and potential.

That’s an imaginative impulse that will stay with us, until it’s our own cities that fall silent, vegetation slowly reclaiming the streets we once walked.   

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.