Relief about Architectural Ruins – A review of Owen Hatherley’s book

Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, Verso (London and New York) 2010.

a review from a Helsinki-perspective

Modern architecture in Britain has, it’s pretty safe to say, been neither popular nor classy. It produces grimness and speaks dreariness almost everywhere it exists. No wonder a friend in London contemplated launching a website called “Campaign Against Crap Architecture” (or CACA). No wonder large swathes of the British public, along with the heir to the throne, prefer a “traditional” or “vernacular” “style” of architecture.

Unfortunately, most of the “traditional” building that has gone up in the last twenty, thirty, even forty years, is so ugly and so shoddily constructed that it sends shivers up my spine.

So given that the built environment in Britain is littered with so much hideous construction, whatever the “style”, it’s lucky that the British have such eloquent, even virtuoso, critics of architecture. Here in Finland or at least in Helsinki, where urbanisms of generations past have served us so well and where architectural crimes have tended to be either less massive or simply less egregious than their British counterparts, we don’t enjoy anywhere near the kind of informed polemic that writers like Jonathan Glancey or Jonathan Meades can offer in both specialist and mainstream publication.

The new kid on this block is undoubtedly Owen Hatherley. His first book, Militant Modernism, is now on my to-read list. This new one is a witty, polemical, fluent and very persuasive description of Britain’s contemporary urban landscapes and the underlying factors that helped produce them. An almost scarily prolific blogger (here) Hatherley writes for the architectural press as well as for quality magazines and papers. He writes with attitude and with considerable expertise on urbanism and architecture, which means that even when you don’t agree with his perspective you can appreciate his prose.

For me reading The Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain produced a sense of profound relief. My encounters with the unpleasant and ever worsening creations of builders in England began to make sense, Hatherley had managed to articulate in an overarching and consistent whole, a sense of bafflement and discomfort that’s bothered me for years, even decades. He sees pattern in what is going on in Britain’s bleak postindustrial developments, be they corporate glitz and commercial frivolity for collective consumption or sub-standard housing labelled as “regeneration” for life’s more intimate needs. Apart from offering the comfort of a story with a beginning, a middle and almost an end, the fact that Hatherley identifies pattern here is an optimistic move in that it suggests that it might be  possible to plan an alternative.

But the book is pessimistic from the outset. Tony Blair’s government, the only one Hatherley has known during his adult life, inherited a mess from its Conservative predecessors and promised that everything would change. It disappointed horribly and comprehensively. The conformist neoliberal consensus has created a cheap world of windowless big boxes for shopping where once we had daylight factories, of paranoid luxury enclaves where once we had lively streets, and slogan-drenched and pokey homes for cash where once there was social housing built to decent sizes and decent quality. And this, he notes, well under way before anyone dared contemplate financial meltdown and property slump.

As he travels with his photographer across the country, Hatherley observes scheme after scheme that is not merely architecturally mediocre but, and this is the book’s point, socially devastating. Blairism built something ghastly when it had an opportunity to do something good, is the argument. Less than a year after its end we already live with its ruins. The chapter on the London borough of Greenwich – where Hatherley lives – raises the passionate tone to a feverish pitch. Both the municipal socialist architecture of West Thamesmead and Greenwich’s Blairite schemes on the Peninsula and the Heart of East Greenwich (the latter for several years a desolate hole in the urban fabric surrounded by hoardings) are relics, he writes, of New Labour’s New London.

“… a mess of the punitive, the crassly money-spinning and the literally fraudulent. Hence there could be no better place to see the London Blairism built. Go and climb up the Tor in Broadwater Green, look around, and wonder at how much potential was thrown away. They could have remade London, but they made this instead.”

Somewhere around the second third of the book you begin to notice that Hatherley and his editors are not afraid of strong language. It is somehow appropriate. Recalling the garishness of some of the new parts of cities like Manchester and Liverpool that I had been shown as positive results of recent planning expertise, I could only agree wholeheartedly with the use of words such as “mediocre”, “crapness”, “yuppiedrome”. As the tone continues, even intensifies through the book, unconvinced readers will switch off, but for a sympathiser the over 350 illustrated (black and white) and well referenced book creates a solid impression. Compared to angry columns in The Guardian or acerbic commentaries on the radio or TV, the sustained and principled complaint in Hatherley’s wonderful book makes the problem of cheap new Britain (below, random evidence from near London’s Chelsea Bridge) more real and, one hopes, more open to the debate that is so desperately needed.

Buildings and neighbourhoods are treated in the books chapters city by city (what he says about Cambridge is heartbraking but probably true). The unseen shapers of regeneration projects in the form of clients or government policies are treated in a general way which probably makes the book easier for lay people to read. And it is, after all, the lay public who needs to sit up and take note. Though he doesn’t quite spell it out, Hatherley’s thesis is that planning and construction are victims of thoughtless fashions in both construction (“bar code architecture”) and urban policies (“branding” and so on). Again, it’s the consistency of the story that impresses, the repeating of needless mistakes and dubious policies in city after city, neighbourhood after neighbourhood. Anna Minton’s important (and serious) book reviewed here earlier argued that politics is to blame for the anomie of British urban life, Hatherley’s contribution is to lay out the links between politics and the concrete tangibility and visual experience that make you want to not look.

If I have a problem with the book it is that not wanting to look was something to worry about thirty years ago when I first got to know the British Isles. There was always something nasty and peculiar about the buildings of Britain that, somehow, went together with its peculiar social hierarchies. Modernism isn’t the problem, and though Blairism did awful things to left-wing aspirations, neither was Blair’s government. The problems are, I think, older, deeper and harder to resolve than that. They have something to do with the legacy of class and economic development of industrial capitalism. Of course Hatherley’s book touches on those things but it is, of course, architectural critique first and foremost, even if it reads at times like an anti-Blairite outburst.

Then again outburst is what was needed. Architectural critique like this reminds us over and over again that our environment is our own to mould.

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