A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain
Over the last few years, Owen Hatherley has established himself as something of an enfant terrible of architectural criticism. His Militant Modernism (2009), A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (2010) and now A New Kind of Bleakhave launched vitriolic attacks on Britain’s architectural culture, and have done much to shape many people’s understanding of urban Britain and the forces to which it is subject. Hatherley’s critiques have emerged into a zeitgeist shaped by the inequities of Britain’s urban environments, whether represented by the Occupy Movement, the protests against cuts and dwindling pension provisions, the urgent housing crises of our city centres, or, most acutely, the riots of August 2011. It is capitalism and in particular its neoliberal formation of the last thirty years, Hatherley argues, which has tainted architecture and the built environment. Buildings have always been highly visible statements of power—architecture is, one might say, power made visible—yet perhaps for the first time architecture has become an agent of the system itself.
This book continues the series of “urban trawls”—essentially potted explorations of Britain’s cities—which made up A Guide to the New Ruins. Originally commissioned by the architectural paper Building Design, and first appearing in 2009, the series sought to chart the neglected post-industrial cityscapes of Britain, particularly of its northern cities, but also the often ham-fisted attempts of the New Labour government to rejuvenate these cities through the dubious strategies of rebranding and “regeneration”. New Labour’s strategy, Hatherley admits, was laudable enough in principle. Influenced by the ideas of a number of urban thinkers and architects, one of the main arguments behind New Labour’s intended “Urban Renaissance” was that denser cities were better cities. Density of buildings and habitation would create cities which worked better and would also foster the types of urban culture which made them “vibrant” (to use one of the marketing phrases) places to live.
Hatherley calls the particular aesthetic which these new developments adopted “pseudo-modernism”. This, he argues, is actually a form of postmodernism superficially adopting the forms of modernism, but stripped of its moralising force and social agenda. Like the buildings themselves (expensive-looking new housing blocks disguising shoddily built, pokey “designer flats,” a derisory number of which were (barely) affordable, as Hatherley angrily points out), the Urban Renaissance gave the appearance of regeneration while doing little more than lining developers’ pockets. In many ways, little has changed during the last two years under the coalition. These buildings are still being built and, despite their hideous and lasting costs, Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes are ploughing on with renewed vigour.
In the new book, Hatherley extends his focus from the north to cities in the midlands, the west, and southern England while also including the Welsh Valleys, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Belfast. ‘Middle England’ is brought into view and it is fitting that here, in Britain’s electoral heartland, Hatherley carves out differences in policy between the coalition and their New Labour predecessors and begins to assess the mark they will leave on urban Britain.
The cityscapes Hatherley surveys are, it would be fair to say, ones which the reader is unlikely to have visited and would, in any other work, be unlikely subjects of architectural criticism. His acerbic wit is a welcome antidote to the insipid optimism at the heart of the Urban Renaissance. It is hard to disagree with his analysis; he is an acute, impassioned observer, and most of what he argues is quite compelling. The book runs into problems, however, when he attempts to offer solutions to the current predicament, arguing that they can be found in ‘previous urban alternatives.’ Here, he betrays an ideological prejudice towards post-war modernism and the social programmes with which it was inextricably linked.
Certainly, as Hatherley passionately argues, the social architecture—public housing, new schools, libraries, etc—of the 1960s and 1970s could be and often was more humanising than much being built today. But while the best of it was truly excellent (Hatherley cites the Byker Estate in Newcastle, the Barbican, and more dubiously Sheffield’s Park Hill estate as particularly fine examples), a great deal of the housing of this period was poor, ill-thought out, badly built, and unappealing. It was also most often designed without the involvement of those who would actually be living there. This was, in the vast majority of instances, top-down, imposed architecture. The architectural excesses of the period, such as the high-handed Brutalist intellectualism of Alison and Peter Smithson, have prejudiced many people against all forms of modernism, which they perceive as being the product of arrogant architects more concerned with bolstering their egos than with such apparently prosaic concerns as designing a decent building at a reasonable cost. This populist sentiment is exactly the one Michael Gove has invoked with his repeated attacks on architects.
What Hatherley fails to see or refuses to admit is that pseudo-modernism is the logical product of this situation. No-one with money to spend is likely to buy a flat in yet another debased, discredited “concrete monstrosity,” no matter how spacious, pleasant, and well-built it might be. The logic of the market therefore dictates that the aesthetics must change, even if the differences in structure and construction between a 1960s block and one going up down the road right now are fairly minor. Marketing clichés and pseudo-modernism’s signature barcode façades mask small, shoddily built flats, which are nevertheless prohibitively expensive, despite the quota of concessions to a bizarre, relative notion of “affordability.” Yet these flats are still being bought. There are plenty of ex-council flats available which on the whole are more spacious, better-built, comparably or better located, and certainly much cheaper. And they’re cheaper for a reason: they are in lower demand. What developers and their architects have realised is that people want flats in buildings which look new, shiny and bright, untainted by the stigma of council housing. Pseudo-modernism, then, is the symptom rather than a cause. To argue that a return to Brutalist forms, however beautiful to an architectural historian’s eye, would in any way alter this situation is wholly counterproductive.
Hatherley suggests that hope may lie in three possible groups: trade unions, students, and the young unemployed. Each group has made recent interventions in urban space, each in fundamentally different ways. The new Unison headquarters on London’s Euston Roads is a decent, if unremarkable building which Hatherley reads as offering some clues to the ways in which trade unions are adapting themselves to changes in the economy and labour relations. More immediately interesting things are happening in our universities. Students have been among the strongest hit by the coalition, with huge fee increases, and have felt the rise of pseudo-modernism more acutely than most through the proliferation of shiny yet exorbitantly expensive halls of residence. Over the last few years, we have witnessed 1968-style occupations at a number of universities and several imaginative interventions which aimed to challenge the fundamental assumptions underlying our higher education system—and, indeed, society itself. Given the coalition’s rather naked attempt to “consumerise” students, the future of such student-led actions is unclear.
So far, so predictable. But it is with the third group that Hatherley strays into uncertain territory: the young unemployed’s recent urban interventions were, of course, the riots of August 2011. London has always congratulated itself that it has no banlieue, no ring of socially and racially segregated areas around a more affluent city centre. What it does have, however, are people of vastly different levels of wealth living in very close proximity, sometimes even side-by-side, yet with little if any social or economic interaction. It was during the riots and their aftermath that these two cultures came into focus. The damage caused by the young rioters, the majority of whom were born and bred in the areas they ransacked, was cleared up the following day by a predominantly white, middle-class, affluent group of people, mostly originating from outside London. Gentrification, and the reification of social stratification which it has led to, certainly played a part in the riots’ outbreak, but the broader causes, it would be fair to say, are rather more complex.
For Hatherley, though, the riots were simply the inevitable result of the urban conditions created by subsequent governments and, indeed, by capitalism itself. He rails against the Cameron mentality that the riots were “criminality pure and simple,” arguing that if we “pretend that this had nothing to do with the demonisation of the young and poor, nothing to do with our brutally unequal society and our pathetic trickle-down attempts at palliation … then we line up with those who think that looting Foot Locker is worse than looting an entire economy.” This is the type of reductive reasoning which the right so loves. But while the coalition’s equation of household finances with those of the state, for example, has, despite its false logic, masterfully brought public opinion round to their right-wing economic agenda, Hatherley’s comparison is alienating, painting him as an extremist when in many ways he is actually speaking for the mainstream and the majority.
The way Hatherley allows his ideology to trammel over his usually reasonable and well-made observations is without doubt this book’s main weakness; by marking off its author as a left-wing ideologue, it prevents the book from being as transformative as it might be. Its popularity reveals there to be huge dissatisfaction with our urban environments and an eagerness to learn how to analyse our surroundings critically. It is only through this process that alternatives can be sought. It is clear that modernism’s principal lesson in retrospect—that architecture cannot change social conditions, it can only reflect them—still holds; it cannot and should not be unlearnt. But getting people to look critically at architecture, as Hatherley’s book tries to do, will in turn lead them to look critically at the system through which it is created, and perhaps, do something about changing it.
Owen Hopkins  is a writer, historian and curator of architecture. He also works for the Architecture Programme at the Royal Academy of Arts. His book, Reading Architecture: A Visual Lexicon, was published in 2012.