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Pouring concrete for the proletariat
on 30 July 2010
This is probably the only book you'll ever read that's dedicated to Southampton City Council Architect's Department. Hatherley takes the modernist architecture of his home town (in particular the monoliths of the Weston Shore development - if you've caught a ferry out of Southampton, you've seen it) and uses it as a springboard into a re-examination of the modernist moment in architecture and other arts. His central thesis is that to make sense modernist architecture has to be seen in the context of revolutionary politics: that it is the product of a moment when people believed it was possible to remake society, both in terms of its built environment and of the assumptions and structures that underlie it: Auden's "new styles of architecture, a change of heart."
It's a brisk, bracing polemic - one that can be read quickly (I got through the whole thing whilst waiting for an X-ray in A&E) but whose ideas demand engagement and will stick with you. There's no question that he's right, I think, in his analysis of how modernist architecture was first opposed and vilified on grounds that posed as aesthetic but were probably as much political; and was then, secondly, rehabilitated as "heritage", with sample instances preserved again on "aesthetic" art history grounds, without reference to their ideological underpinnings. The many modernist buildings from the former Soviet Union that he restores to their place in the canon are a salutary corrective to the Cold War-era history of architecture that told the modernist story chiefly through the twin prisms of Germany and the United States; a reminder of how in the early days of the Bolshevik Revolution there was a belief that all aspects of human interaction could be remade and that architecture would both reflect this and help to drive it. Along the way Hatherley shines a spotlight on other artists and genres similarly edited out from the approved line of cultural history; Brecht, for example, whose plays are pigeonholed as arid agit-prop despite containing stories and jokes, whilst Beckett has a public image as a secular saint (Hatherley summarises it, memorably, as a cross between Zeno the Stoic and Father Ted) but is, for long stretches, essentially unreadable. The final chapter examines the "sexpol" genre in film, those works that examined the potential of the revolutionary moment to change attitudes to sexuality and to sexual relationships: the orgasm as political act ("WR: Mysteries of the Organism" is the key work here).
Hatherley's overarching thesis is, firstly, that these cultural threads have been airbrushed out of a history written as ever by the victors. I wouldn't argue with that. Secondly, and more contentiously, he argues that their time might have come again, in the era of what he calls (with a confidence I wish I shared) "late capitalism." He's certainly right about the way in which whole trends of art and thought have been swept under the carpet and written off for ideological reasons. However, Brutalist architecture could simply be brutal and fail the usability test: the sculptural sweep of the flyover on the drawing board belies the wasteland of litter and piss-stains that lies beneath it once built. The views of the proletariat that will live in Ronan Point II are rather set aside in Hatherley's argument.
So: you won't agree with it all. But it will take you on an exciting ride through the art that didn't make it to the final cut of our authorised cultural histories, the architects, authors and works who ended up on the losing side in the long twentieth-century war between ideologies. Agree with him, disagree with him; but at least do him the courtesy of reading him.