on 29 October 2010
Review - "A guide to the new ruins of Great Britain" - Owen Hatherley.
It is a simple statement that the buildings around us are expressive of the period in which they were built, and reflect of the values and politics of that period.
That is as true of the smallest country cottage as it is of a Georgian terrace, or for a Victorian textile mill as it is of a grey logistics shed sited off an M6 slip road.
British political and economic history and the values of the powerful permeate our architecture - for good or ill. And history passes verdict, sometimes alarmingly quickly, on what is built.
Those verdicts too, are political. Hatherley is a unrepentant modernist. And his modernism is of the classic period of that genre. He is also a Socialist in the original sense of the term.
His target in this architectural round tour of British cities is a precise one - it is the built form which he describes as being part of the 'urban renaissance', in his words the streetscene of the government funded development of our cities under New Labour.
He describes accurately the ubiquitous lottery built centres, entertainment and cultural venues and shopping, hotel and eating complexes built round disused waterfronts, the 'gated' apartment flats, Academy schools, privatized council estates, areas of cities redesignated as 'quarters' and all topped off with generous lashings of public artworks.
He hates and loathes this environment, its blandness, its acceptance of the neo-liberal approach to building and architecture (best exemplified by the use of the Private Finance Initiative as a kickstart funder) and the anonymous, but tightly interlinked quangocracy of housing associations, Academy schools, 'partnership pathfinders', incorporated colleges and universities and the faceless, but tightly interlinked, regeneration boards that oversaw the growth of this new built form.
He travels around the nation to find the worst (and at times, to accept the best) of this world. Little of what he sees will, he believes will be of lasting social or historical importance
The book is modelled on JB Priestley's 1934 classic English Journey - although crucially, as we will see later, he also visits Scotland and Wales.
In the book he travels across the cities of our nation, starting, as did Priestley, from his native Southampton (which comes in for a particularly heavy kicking) to what he sees as 'the mausoleum of Blairism" in renovated Manchester, to the former Socialist Republic of Sheffield and to Newcastle, Glasgow and Cardiff.
No town really escapes. In Southampton he seems to find grace only in the remains of the railway hotel architecture of what was once Britain's premier port city, a waste incinerator and the 'Salt and Battery' chippie outside the main dock gates. In the once proud and self-confident Aldermanic cities of West Yorkshire he sees only desolation and newly built decay. The same is true of Manchester and Liverpool and, with some saving graces, Tyneside.
Interestingly it is in what we must now call the 'devolved provinces' that he finds some hope. In Glasgow there is much to decry but also room to hope. In part this is because this city probably had the worse possible modernist architectural start of any UK conurbation in the form of monolithic tower blocks and outer 'schemes' whose name still inspire mild panic attacks - Easterhouse, Castlemilk and Drumchapel. After this dire start, anything would be an improvement. Cardiff too, gets a generally good press, and is possibly the one city where the balance for Hatherley is in the positive. Whether this is because of the lingering feeling of 'otherness' from England, the distant echoes of the old Socialist traditions of Clydeside and the South Wales valleys or because of the birth of the new parliament and assembly is a debatable question, and one that perhaps only long term residents of these two cities can answer.
Where I have a problem with Hatherley is in what precisely is what he is 'for'. For a modernist, it seems odd that much of what he celebrates - like the Tenements of Glasgow's west end or the shopping arcades and the St Fagan's urban park of Cardiff are from a period that predates modernism entirely.
In terms of housing I know to my own regret (as a former Chairman of a planning committee) that what the public queue up for is not a modernist masterpiece or an 'experiment in living' but a Barratt box or detached houses that look like mini-me versions of Morticia's Castle. Within days of the developers receiving permission and erecting the show house and the sales kiosk, the deals are clinched.
Again, in terms of popularity for older buildings, the real passion is for the two key forms of mass housing that still cover our land - the by-law terraces of the late Victorian period and the semis and bungalows of inter-war suburbia. For proof of this, see the way urban communities sprang to arms to defend their terraced homes threatened by the 'pathfinder' demolition process in places like East Lancashire, Liverpool and Middlesbrough, or view the deluge of objections that descend on any development control office when any 'inappropriate' changes are contemplated for the arcadian groves of the 1930's.
But these reflections aside, 'A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain' is a sharply barbed, witty and argumentative read.
Owen Hatherley's pure unalloyed idealism is a bonus. True, a funny thing may have happened on the way to utopia, but the dissection of what this was can only be properly done by a Bolshevik Pevsner. It is done here.
on 17 February 2011
A bit of a curate's egg this one. Hatherley is an entertaining writer but when I reach the end of a chapter, Im left with the impression that Ive read the thesis of an over-enthusiastic student, too eager to impress. This guy frequently uses five words when two would do; drops in the sort of references to other work which are a necessary part of an academia but not this; scatters -isms like confetti and generally seems to be aiming for an A grade in big words. HOWEVER, I confess to finding the book often difficult to put down well past my bed-time. Also, I have got to the end feeling rather disappointed that its all over. So much so that Ive ordered Militant Modernism here on Amazon.
Mind you, having ordered Militant Modernism, I am still grappling with the differences betweeen Hatherley's continual references to Modernism, Post-modernism, neo-modernism, post-punk modernism and pseudo-modernism.
I recommend it because, actually behind all the verbage, not only is he often right but he's persuasive. I like being persuaded.
on 22 January 2012
This is an excellent, highly readable and entertaining book. As others have noted, the photos are poorly reproduced and reinforce the impression that the author doesn't want to give these cities and buildings a chance. It's easy to take bad photos of buildings and edge of town environments and even easier to reproduce them badly. This is a lazy way of supporting the central thesis - that almost everything built in our cities in the past 15 years is cr*p. The same criticisms were made of Militant Modernism and Hatherley should be asking his publisher to sort this out for any future publications.
Although constantly entertained I can't help feel that in his obsessive conviction that Thatcher changed everything, Hatherley is missing underlying continuities in our approach to our urban environment. He often seems to think that the redevlopments of the 60s and 70s were entirely the product of 'socialism', when in reality dodgy developers and cynical politicans were already working together in wrecking historic city centres and forcing through top-down 'urban regeneration'. The huge slum-clearance and social housing projects pushed through by Harold Macmillan's government (a Tory - shock, horror) was lobbied for vociferously (and profited from) by the big private developers.
The car-dominated, nowhere places that define post-Thatcherite Britain were already well in evidence during the 60s and 70s. Modernist planning paved the way for developers to ignore pedestrians and build huge, faceless slabs in acres of undefined space. Huge, hideous, hermetically sealed, privately owned shopping centres, obliterating indegenous streets and economies were not invented in 1979. They already had a strong presence in pre-Thatcher Britain.
With some notable exceptions, almost everything that was built in the 60s and 70s was abysmal, often commercially driven, tat - not, as Hatherley often seems to imply, some collectively inspired, socially-driven project of civic renewal. Visit central Birmingham to see what money grabbing developers and their enthusiastic collaborators in the city council achieved during the halcyon days of collectivist, 'socialist' Britain.
Despite what the author also implies, the UK was already massively over-centralised throughout the post war period. Westminster has gobbled ever more power since WW2, and it is disingenuous of Hatherley to ignore the central part that Labour and the centrally directed post-war economy played in turning London into the cultural, economic and political dominator that it is today.
While I agree with many of his criticisms of the way in which our cities have developed in recent decades, he ignores the plight they were already in before Thatcher (and Blair) turned up. The desperate attempt to attract speculators and investors of almost any type, is a reflection not just of liberal free-market orthodoxy, but that Britain's urban environment was collapsing even prior to 1979. Coincidentally, enterprise zones were invented by left-wingers like the planner Peter Hall. They only came to be seen as evil by the left when they were enthusiastically embraced and implemented by Michael Heseltine (another Tory who remains passionately interested in and concerned with the urban life of the UK).
Another grumble is that for many people Hatherley's descriptions of their own cities are unrecognisable and (which should be more of a concern to him) deeply patronising. His insistence of finding the worst in Manchester is churlish and fairly unconvincing. Yes, the place has more than its fair share of tat speculative rabbit hutches, but more than any city in the UK outside London, Manchester has maintained a sense of pride and belief that it not predestined to collapse and decline. Hatherley may dislike the route they've taken, but he ignores the limited options and lack of significant economic levers available to provincial councils in the UK. Depending on property investment and building museums and galleries is not a position that our local authorities chose - these were the only mechanisms left to them if they weren't to collapse into utter destitution. If left to Hatherley, Britain's cities would be romantic, crumbling concrete ruins, full of hipsters creating interesting records in their abandoned council blocks. Nice if you're a privileged southern journo, but perhaps less so for most others. For many people, the UK has indeed experienced a type of urban renaissance (flawed and often poorly conceived) that has encouraged people to walk through and explore their cities in a way that they perhaps have not before. That Hatherley cannot allow for the possibility that these urbanites might be engaged in activities other than shopping or (his pet obsession) fighting, is an indication of his own underlying and often suspect prejudices.
However, a more nuanced and historically accurate account of Britain's 'urban degeneration' would not have been half as entertaining. Well worth a read.
on 31 March 2014
This book can be quite amusing, although it does assume quite a high level of architectural knowledge, or at least knowledge of architecture-speak. However, it can also be completely mystifying as to what some of the prose actually means, and even more so in the choice of buildings chosen as targets of praise or blame. I am deeply familiar only with one of the cities used as case studies, Sheffield, but I know that some of the statements of fact Hatherley makes are not correct. These are not desperately important, but they spoil the overall impression, and suggest that the rest of the book is no more accurate. He also has a habit of throw-away offensive or belittling remarks about subjects outside his remit, for example suggesting that the terrorist threat to public buildings in northern cities was not serious. He knows that the Arndale centre in Manchester was actually bombed, and to suggest that authorities in Sheffield were wrong to take steps against a similar attack is unfair, especially considering that specific threats against other northern targets had in fact been made, both by the IRA and later by others.
The photos are dreadful. Tiny, printed in a grainy black and white, they often fail to show the point they are presumed to have been intended to make, or you need a magnifying glass to make it out. Several times I looked at a picture, thought "how ghastly" and then discovered Hatherley likes it. If the expense of larger clearer photos or of a competent photographer could not be met (and colour ones, Hatherley often mentions bright colours on buildings but this is lost in the greyscale photos) it would have been better to cut the number of pictures and improve the quality. I understand Hatherley did not want professional images intended to make the building look good, but to have employed a decent photographer to illustrate their shortcomings would not have betrayed this idea.
on 25 January 2011
Anyone buying this book should be aware of what they will get. The author is an unreconstructed sentimental socialist who seems to think we should all live in council high-rise flats and manufacture things, preferably out of iron. He spends a lot of space (perhaps too much) on Southampton, where he grew up, and Greenwich, where he lives. He thinks that buildings constructed of beton brut are not necessarily a blight on the landscape. He is (I think) very well informed about pop music. He requires you to know your Brutalism from your Constructivism. He quite likes Milton Keynes. His most insulting epithets are 'Thatcherite' and (even worse) 'Blairite'.
All this means that I would not have expected to like this book. But I did. I enjoy informed vituperation, and there's plenty of that. The author has a winning turn of phrase. He sees through the pretensions of (very) modern architects in a most refreshing way. As someone else has said, it's not clear what he actually favours, but he makes a devastating case against the buildings he homes in on. He is not hostile to good buildings from the past, such as Grainger and Dobson's Newcastle city centre, and the good bits of Liverpool.
I would actually have given the book five stars had it not been for the illustrations. I am afraid the photographs are unimpressive. A good book on architecture needs effective visuals, and the pictures here are small, muddy and printed on text paper, itself not very good. It's quite hard to tell what some of them represent. The book would have been even more effective if you had been able to see better pictures of what the author is criticising.
With a title like this I expected strong opinions from architect Owen Hatherley about the so called regeneration of our cities - and he does not disappoint. In fact this is more of an architectural polemic than anything - but a very readable one for all that. Hatherley takes us on a sweep of architectural dreams and disasters, with fantastic descriptions of architectural styles along the way such as Gradgrindian Gothic.
His premise is that New Labour promised a brave new world of regenerated cities and a golden age of architecture, and delivered considerably less, mainly sterile PFI hospitals, and stalled, fenced off building sites. Now whilst I am certainly no defender of the New Labour faith, I do feel that this view, whilst having some truth in it, is perhaps a little harsh.
His journey through the architecture of several of our famous cities mirrors an earlier, celebrated one by J. B. Priestley, and starts off in Hatherley's own home town of Southampton. Not having been there I can't comment on the veracity of the views stated. He continues onto Milton Keynes, whose depressing monolithic banality can hardly be placed at the door of Blair's Labour Government, but Hatherley doesn't let truth get in the way of a good polemic. And it is a good polemic, make no mistake about it. He is passionate about our urban spaces and how they work for the people who live and work in them, and for the generations to come who will inherit them. He writes from the heart, and with a fierce intelligence that is very refreshing to read.
But when it comes closer to home (to my home that is) and to Manchester, there is much to take serious issue with here. When talking about Sheffield, he can't help but take a side swipe at Manchester, saying that its music `was always more original then Manchester's increasingly dull vainglories...' This is a staggering assertion about the home of the Smiths, Joy Division, New Order, the Stone Roses, I am Kloot - need I go on?? As for Sheffield's buildings, Hatherley is fiercely critical of Bob (now Sir Bob) Kerslake's housing demolition programmes there in the name of the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders. He is also very critical of Tom Bloxham, founder of Urban Splash, whose company are in the middle of a large project to regenerate the Park Hill estate. I am not sure how relevant the fact that Bloxham used to be a member of the Labour Party Young Socialists is to his central argument, but he seems to relish making the point anyway.
I feel that Hatherley is altogether too harsh on innovative developers like Urban Splash, saying that in Park Hill they have `spectacularly..f***ed up' the project. Tom Bloxham may be an influential and powerful individual, but the credit crunch and economic downturn that has stalled the project, hopefully temporarily, was hardly his fault. Hatherley grudgingly admits that Urban Splash have `helped preserve what is, by any measure, one of the truly great industrial landscapes' i.e. the mills and industrial units of Manchester's Castlefield. He totally underplays the role of Urban Splash in breathing new life into derelict parts of many cities by bringing beautiful old buildings back to life as vibrant places to live and work. And for me, if they made some money along the way, then fair play to them for it.
Hatherley seems to have a bit of a problem with Manchester... to put it mildly. He says that `...the Situationist critique of postwar urbanism has curdled into an alibi for (new Manchester's) gentrification.' - now I am not sure exactly what all that means but it doesn't sound very complimentary at all. His thesis that the blandness of the city's regeneration has caused a similar lack of innovation in its music scene since 1995 is frankly preposterous. He romanticises the Hulme Crescents. Yes, they were very popular with students and creative types. Yes, all the families were moved out as they were totally unsuitable for their needs. And yes there was a Hulme style - mainly scruffy, unwashed with a dog on a string as an essential accessory - but you couldn't put a nail in the walls of the flats as they were made of asbestos - which is not so romantic. And you really could hear everything that the flats next door, and above and below you were doing - believe me.
He calls Manchester's New Islington - `a failed confidence trick', which is a very distorted view of what happened. He derides the demolition of social housing but neglects to mention (he probably wasn't aware) that the Cardroom estate which was knocked down was a notorious crime hotspot, was virtually impossible to police due to its ridiculous layout of one way in and out of its labyrinthine streets, and very unpopular with lots of its residents who had no choice but to live there. That does put a different gloss on things which doesn't fit with the polemic. This boiling down of reality to fit a thesis is a shame because Hatherley does have a point. In the midst of the new developments by housing associations and Urban Splash alike, are more empty tower blocks, empty for what must be at least 10 years now, and with no prospect of anything happening to them. A harsh juxtaposition indeed and a definite failure of regeneration - but not mentioned by Hatherley.
Ok I will get off my own soap box now, because I did really enjoy this book and its passion. But I just wish that Hatherley would suggest a few alternatives to the things he derides. He is spot on about the fenced off stalled building sites in the middle of beautiful cities like Bradford. He is right about the staggering lack of ambition of many buildings created in the last 20 years. And he is definitely right to start a debate about something that matters so much. I just wish he would lay off Manchester a bit - anyone would think he was a teensy bit jealous.
on 1 April 2013
Apart from being printed on bog paper,which renders the deliberately artless photos even more soulless, this passionate attack on mediocre architecture is well worth the read.
A dozen or so British cities have their modern buildings analysed , and it is largely a depressing litany of the cheap,ugly tat which is blighting our lives. It is energetic, erudite and coruscating - and very entertaining.
on 9 January 2011
This was an amazingly enjoyable book, which I whizzed through far more quickly than I expected. The writing style is very quirky and wryly humorous. I don't normally read architectural tomes, and although this book is quite specific in its use of architectural terms and names of practices etc., one doesn't need to have more than a passing interest to be able to enjoy it.
This book is not entirely a critique of the architecture and (lack of) planning of the Blair property bubble, but wanders off topic for long stretches at a time - very enjoyably nonetheless - to discuss earlier buildings, particularly the unashamed modernist and brutalist buildings of which the author is a fan. Also there are many references to pop/underground culture of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, rather than merely to architecture.
This book has inspired me to visit some of the cities described and to explore the architecture for myself.
I am only giving it four stars rather than five mainly because it doesn't entirely stick to its stated topic, the reproduction quality of the photographs is indeed poor, as other reviewers have stated, and, on a petty personal note, I strongly disagree with the author's opinions of the films Red Road and Control! But all the same, it's a first-class read.
on 25 November 2010
This is a book that looks at modern British architecture, mainly in the last decade, but with a nod to the last 100 years. However, this is its weakness in by looking at mainly buildings it misses some of the synergy that has been achieved in British cities in the last two decades. Cities, like Sheffield, that were both frightening and unpleasant have been transformed- they are now interesting. The author points out that many British cities best buildings were from, before this period, but fails to comment how much better the places have become to live in and visit subsequently. Yes, when examined the last decade following the Millennium, and totally within New Labour's purview, is decidedly shallow and the authors judgment is fair. There is also concern about gated communities and autodepedence- the Amerification of British cities. In the end though the praise of the late Victorian buildings in Glasgow, shows that the competition is biased. How can the architecture of today be compared to the that produced by an Empire? I highly recommend this book but go and visit these places, and enjoy them first, lest it spoil your visit.
on 22 October 2010
Lively text which reads compellingly, albeit rather wordy in the first introductory chapter. It is illustrated comprehensively but the quality of the photographs is appalling. They are small and printed in a sort of greyscale of the kind which would suggest at home that you were trying to save on the colour cartridge of your printer. Detail is difficult to distinguish as a result. The sad thing is that the photos are appropriate and well placed; although quite a few do look like quick snaps taken by a happy snapper rather than someone seeking to illustrate a serious critque of modern architecture. So probably 4/5 stars for text and 0/1 stars for photos.