The Sense of an Opening
Against the backdrop of a British intellectual culture which Owen Hatherley quite rightly describes as ‚Äúpretty moribund‚Äù, his voice stands out a mile. Like one of the visionary post-war brutalist buildings it championed, Hatherley‚Äôs first book Militant Modernism provided a brilliantly egregious burst of polemical white heat when it appeared in 2008. A timely reminder of the humane, collectivist origins of radical modernist architecture, Hatherley‚Äôs debut combined crisp readings of key players and oblique intersections (Brecht, Wyndham Lewis, Soviet Constructivism, Dizzee Rascal) with the sort of curt verbiage already familiar to readers of his influential blog “Sit Down Man, You‚Äôre A Bloody Tragedy”.
Now, Hatherley‚Äôs widely anticipated second work,¬†A Guide To The New Ruins of Great Britain, sets out to deconstruct the architectural legacy of New Labour‚Äôs so-called Urban Renaissance. With chapters on 11 UK cities, New Ruins is a caustic survey of a national landscape that has undergone profound, possibly calamitous change over the past 13 years.
As Oxford is not one of those cities featured in the book, we decided to combine today‚Äôs interview with a brief tour of the city‚Äôs modernist highlights, from the Beehive Building at St John‚Äôs College (built in the late 1950s, it is a belated entry of the modern movement) to James Stirling‚Äôs sci-fi Florey Building on St Clements and Arne Jacobson‚Äôs showpiece of Scandinavian cool, St Catz. Hatherley‚Äôs immediate reaction is somewhat ambivalent. ‚ÄúI kept thinking of Pevsner‚Äôs Visual Planning and the Picturesque‚Äù, he says as we begin the post-tour interview, ‚Äúof his comparison between Oxford quadrangles and London County Council estates in Roehampton, the sense of flowing space, the sense of space under and space between. It‚Äôs a fantastic way of building a city.
‚ÄúBut the problem in Oxford is that it‚Äôs all completely private. And this is the case with many estates now: you stick in gates, you put in defensible space, you try to privatize all those flowing spaces. It‚Äôs fantastic to go somewhere like Berlin or Warsaw, where that kind of courtyard planning is absolutely everywhere, and no one stops you from using it. Despite our obsession with defensible space, we have crime rates that are far higher than Berlin or Warsaw or Brussels‚Äîall these cities that are much freer about public space. Those two things strike me as being directly linked.‚Äù
Okay, putting Oxford aside for the moment, could you outline the premise of New Ruins?
It starts with happenstance really. I was commissioned by Building Design to write a series about cities in recession. Over the course of doing this I just thought, no one‚Äôs writing about this. The way British architecture‚Äôs written about is analogous with British football. In both cases you‚Äôve got a basic entity that‚Äôs inflated. In football it‚Äôs inflated by the fact that the Premier League imports lots of foreign players, which gives it an importance actual English football just doesn‚Äôt warrant; and similarly with British architecture. Because lots of British firms work abroad, and because everyone goes to the Architectural Association or the Bartlett to study, ergo British architecture must be good. But it‚Äôs dreadful. So partly it was that. And also it seemed like something was coming to an end.
Could you say exactly what you mean by that?
That New Labour‚Äôs project could not be understood merely as a continuation of Thatcherism. It was an adaptation of Thatcherism, a kind of urban version of it amongst other things. Although under New Labour suburbia grew massively (things like the Thames Gateway, which is just suburbia on a Los Angeles model),¬†at the same time there‚Äôs a huge amount of rhetoric about the cities and the Urban Renaissance and so forth, which was in some cases backed up by money and ministerial pressure.
I wanted to say: okay, we‚Äôve built all this stuff in the centre of cities, what‚Äôs it all worth? Partly because of the way cities were bashed in the ‚Äò80s and ‚Äò90s, I think people have inured themselves to accepting things. When there are new developments, everyone thinks: well at least there will be more jobs. So a lot of people who should‚Äôve known better accepted it all. I thought New Labour‚Äôs basic premise was right. Cities are incredibly important things. We need to be building them and conserving them, building up their power and influence and independence. I think this is all true. I just think that how they did it‚Äîvia private finance initiatives, luxury flats, speculation etc.‚Äîwas fairly disastrous, and the architectural results, with few exceptions, were very, very poor.
And I‚Äôd obviously written this defence of modernism, or a defence of a particular idea of modernism: militant modernism. And in some ways you couldn‚Äôt understand these new developments as purely Thatcherite, you couldn‚Äôt understand them as purely postmodernist. Because although the Thames Gateway and the suburbs and the Barratt homes were all totally pomo, all the things that were built in the centres of cities were modernist in some sense. But it‚Äôs a modernism that‚Äôs very different from the modernism that was briefly popular in the UK between the ‚Äò50s and ‚Äò70s. So a lot of the book is about this: the fact that we‚Äôve had this shift to the cities, this shift to modernism again, and what differentiates it from previous ideas of the city and previous ideas of modernism in Britain.
Do you think there might be a more affirmative postscript to all this? Is there scope for a more worthwhile modernism to emerge in Britain?
I don‚Äôt know. I think first of all this will lead to a massive counter-reaction, which you can already see. People look at the new towers in say East London or Manchester, and the same old criticisms are coming up. The Tories have quite explicitly set themselves against density and urbanity. ‚ÄúGarden grabbing‚Äù is the phrase they‚Äôve used.
But they know that their power bases are not the cities, especially with Labour‚Äôs very unexpected strong showing in London and in the north [in the 2010 general election]. So that‚Äôs dead now. The Urban Renaissance has been and gone. The cities are going to return very much to the state they were in in the 1980s.
Counter to that, I‚Äôd love to look at contemporary Leeds or Manchester or Sheffield and say: hooray, we‚Äôve now got these skylines and towers and we‚Äôve rebuilt these cities! But with the exception of bits of Manchester, where it‚Äôs been done well, it‚Äôs just really poor. It‚Äôs enclosed space, and it‚Äôs very shoddy architecturally. I don‚Äôt really want to defend any of it.
None at all?
Very little. I mean, when I think of new buildings that I‚Äôve liked, or new architects that have interested me, they‚Äôre actually nearer to certain pomo ideas. I mean the building I give the most praise to in the whole book is Nottingham Contemporary, which I would regard as a modernist building, but not in the Terence Conran sense we‚Äôve had foisted upon us for the last 15 years. It‚Äôs quite a strange and intellectual building. The architects I find myself talking to, or that want to talk to me, are people like Fashion Architecture Taste or Agents of Change, who are basically pomo. And in both cases I like their ideas more than I like their actual buildings.
Left-wing political discourse is obviously central to your writing about architecture. What do you think of the British left in 2010?
I‚Äôm tempted by two different poles. One of which is to see New Labour as the final death of the Labour Party. Because it was just so much worse than everyone thought it was going to be. People thought that New Labour would be, at the very least, a kind of Europeanized movement, that it would be like a European Social Democratic party. It wasn‚Äôt going to be socialist, but it was going to restore some kind of European normality to the country. And instead, old corruption became more powerful than it ever was. Property and speculation, and all these pre-industrial versions of moneymaking just completely took over the country, even more than they had done under Thatcher. The results of that are going to be disastrous; they‚Äôre going to last for decades. And it was under a Labour government.
On the other hand, there doesn‚Äôt seem to be any other game in town. I don‚Äôt think any of the far-left parties are in a strong position. The Greens are middle-class lifestyle politics, which winds me up for various reasons. There‚Äôs also the fact that the Britain I write about, the Britain I have some connection to, went out and voted for Labour en masse in the election in May. And I guess lots of people think this is a huge opportunity. Everything‚Äôs been thrown up in the air, and Labour is our only vehicle.
So what would you like to see the Labour Party and the left generally doing over the next decade?
I‚Äôd like to see a thought about unionizing people who aren‚Äôt unionized, for one thing. There‚Äôs this phrase: ‚Äúnegative solidarity‚Äù. Since the credit crunch there‚Äôs this thing whereby someone goes on strike and people go ‚Äúwell, I haven‚Äôt got a pension, why should they have one?‚Äù And that shows how far things have gone. This basic sense of solidarity and almost common sense that one would‚Äôve thought we might have acquired in the 1880s has now gone. [That is,] this basic sense that, “well they‚Äôve managed to get better pay and conditions, maybe if we joined a union, maybe if we struck, we would too.” But people don‚Äôt have that thought, and I find that terrifying.
So one thing that would be good to see would be a build up of the Labour Party and the unions in places like call centres and offices, which are completely proletarianized. Even if people in those jobs don‚Äôt think of themselves as proletarians, they are. Their pay and conditions are much worse than manual labourers. I‚Äôd like to see those people being mobilized. How one does it I don‚Äôt know.
Militant Modernism was described by Jonathan Meades as ‚Äúa deflected Bildungsroman‚Äù. Could you talk a bit about your background, how you were ‚Äúformed‚Äù?
(Laughs.) I could do. I‚Äôm always being told off about this by my girlfriend. I could do‚Ä¶
You don‚Äôt have to‚Ä¶
No, I‚Äôll do it. It‚Äôs complicated. I see my background as being part of the working class, a section of the working class we‚Äôre now encouraged to believe didn‚Äôt exist. This version of the racist lumpen working class winds me up. You know, this notion of costermongers and pearly queens and gangsters who love their mums: the working class journalists like Michael Collins write about. Because my family in a quite complicated, unusual way were still indisputably members of the working class. They were products of the movement, I guess, of the Trade Unions and the Labour Party and the Communist Party. And that made them what they were, and that then made me what I am. I know it was a minority, I know that part of the working class was relatively small. But it was a sizeable minority. It was a minority that at certain points‚Äî1945 most obviously‚Äîswayed the rest of the working class. And I mourn its passing enormously. But I think it‚Äôs a thing that is still in people‚Äôs memories, and it‚Äôs revivable.
And how about place. You grew up in Southampton. Did that have much of an impact?
It had a big impact. Southampton‚Äôs a strange place. No one really thinks about the industrial south, partly because there‚Äôs less of it. Places like Plymouth, Southampton, and Portsmouth, or Reading or Slough or Luton, they aren‚Äôt really thought about. But they‚Äôre there, and they‚Äôre interesting.
What about the architecture in Southampton?
There‚Äôs a place I get very excited about called Wyndham Court, a council estate just by the station. It‚Äôs an absolutely wonderful building and of course everyone hates it. I guess there‚Äôs this collective embarrassment in cities that got bombed and rebuilt themselves. You see it in Southampton, and you see it in Sheffield, and I‚Äôm sure you‚Äôd see it in Coventry. Places where most of the architecture dates from the ‚Äò60s and it‚Äôs just loathed. You know, in some places the ‚Äò60s had fairly deleterious effects. In Glasgow a lot of really worthwhile stuff went in favour of quite dull ‚Äò60s stuff. But in Southampton and Sheffield, all the really interesting civic architecture dates from between 1945 and 1975. And I want to shake people and go: look at this stuff, it‚Äôs brilliant, this is what makes this city special! But instead they want to pretend they‚Äôre a Victorian holiday village. Or Iowa.
So how would you defend post-war architecture to the sceptics?
How long have you got? I think partly, it‚Äôs fairly simple. It‚Äôs partly about looking at it without prejudice. I think people have a knee-jerk reaction to it that‚Äôs not very sophisticated. It doesn‚Äôt take that much to convince people.
That demolition programme on Channel 4 is absolutely appalling. I mean, in no other art form would you be allowed to do that. Just imagine, “which paintings shall be destroyed, which books shall be burned?” But it‚Äôs very interesting that in the Gateshead episode, [brutalist architect] Owen Luder actually turned up and argued with them. Because none of the other architects did that. Architects are very contrite about what they did in the ‚Äò60s. I think after their bashing by Prince Charles and by the tabloid press, they didn‚Äôt want to talk to anyone. So it was great to see Owen Luder going on there, with all these people saying ‚Äúoh it‚Äôs a bloody eyesore‚Äù. And Luder was saying, ‚Äúwell, it‚Äôs like this because of this, and this is like that because of that, and imagine if we did this with this.‚Äù And he was swaying people.
Because people don‚Äôt think about it. People go: it‚Äôs a concrete monstrosity, instant knee-jerk reaction. I find, especially when I‚Äôm with people, it‚Äôs surprisingly easy to convince people these buildings are good. But no one has ever tried to do so.
So do you think its merely a case of education?
I think we‚Äôre one of the most architecturally illiterate societies in the world. There are certain incredibly important things that don‚Äôt turn up in the curriculum, and I find it so interesting that they‚Äôre not. No one learns about economics and no one learns about architecture, and they‚Äôre two of the most important things. At every single moment of your life you are in some way intersecting with economics and architecture. That‚Äôs what fascinates me about architecture. The fact that it‚Äôs not an autonomous art form, so you can map it politically very easily. Because the power that builds, builds.
So I think it‚Äôs partly a case of education. But that knee-jerk reaction isn‚Äôt solely aesthetic. It‚Äôs the use of concrete, but it‚Äôs also the mistakes of the ‚Äò70s and ‚Äò80s. On the one hand it‚Äôs a revulsion to particular materials. And there‚Äôs a labour theory aspect. I think people look at a traditional wall and think, there‚Äôs work been put into that. Even though, looking at something like St Catz today, the amount of workmanship in that is roughly on the level of your average gothic cathedral. But because it‚Äôs not ornamental people don‚Äôt see that. So again it‚Äôs a case of lack of education.
But also more fundamentally, we‚Äôve been told that what happened between 1945 and 1979 was a massive mistake that ended in chaos, and I think that totally colours the architectural reaction. You can see it by the way people always describe it as ‚ÄúEastern Bloc‚Äù. There‚Äôs this sense that there‚Äôs something socialist about it, a sense that it‚Äôs collective. Everyone doesn‚Äôt have their own garden, everyone doesn‚Äôt have their bit of hedge, everyone doesn‚Äôt have a fence, everyone doesn‚Äôt have their obsessive defensible bit of space.
The thing that excites me about modernism isn‚Äôt Corbusian villas, it‚Äôs places like [seminal brutalist housing estate in Sheffield] Park Hill, it‚Äôs that sense of people living collectively, and making a decent fist of it. And I think that‚Äôs incredibly valuable. I think suburbia is a depoliticizing force. I don‚Äôt much like metroplitan dismissals of suburbia either, because there are interesting things about it. But when I go to somewhere like Park Hill or [late-modernist housing estate in Newcastle] Byker Wall, I think: this is a fine way to live, I‚Äôd love to live in a place like this. I live in a Rachmanite space carved out on top of a chip shop. I‚Äôd love to live somewhere that‚Äôs been built with people in mind, which is not the case with the majority of buildings.
Finally, what are your hopes for the new century?
Well that we get through it, for one thing.
You think there‚Äôs a risk we might not?
I think we‚Äôre living through very dark times. I mean even the immediate future worries me. The way the financial crisis seemed like this little opening that‚Äôs closed so quickly. Very quickly it‚Äôs gone from an argument about the death of neoliberalism and bailing out the bankers to an argument about the deficit and cutting unemployment benefits. It‚Äôs shocking how easily they‚Äôve managed to do it. I think people‚Äôs solidarity was broken so much in the ‚Äò80s and ‚Äò90s that it‚Äôs going to be such a struggle to rebuild it. But I think it has to be rebuilt, or we‚Äôre in serious, serious trouble.
I‚Äôm an inveterate socialist and my idea of what the future can still look like is of a collective and industrial society. And in some ways, there‚Äôs massive potential in the changeover that will have to happen to alternative technologies. There are so many ways we can rethink technology and the city and architecture. All these things that have been so visibly rammed down our throats for the last 30 years are so visibly bankrupt [that] there‚Äôs this massive potential right now. I‚Äôd like to end on an optimistic note so let‚Äôs stop there before I start talking about the apocalypse.
Alex Niven is reading for a DPhil in English literature at St John’s College, Oxford. Alex is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.