18 October, 2010Issue 14.1Interviews

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The Sense of an Opening

Alex Niven

© Penguin Books Ltd.

Against the backdrop of a British intellectual culture which Owen Hatherley quite rightly describes as “pretty moribund”, his voice stands out a mile. Like one of the visionary post-war brutalist buildings it championed, Hatherley’s 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’s 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’re A Bloody Tragedy”.

Now, Hatherley’s widely anticipated second work, A Guide To The New Ruins of Great Britain, sets out to deconstruct the architectural legacy of New Labour’s 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’s interview with a brief tour of the city’s modernist highlights, from the Beehive Building at St John’s College (built in the late 1950s, it is a belated entry of the modern movement) to James Stirling’s sci-fi Florey Building on St Clements and Arne Jacobson’s showpiece of Scandinavian cool, St Catz. Hatherley’s immediate reaction is somewhat ambivalent. “I kept thinking of Pevsner’s Visual Planning and the Picturesque“, he says as we begin the post-tour interview, “of 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’s a fantastic way of building a city.

“But the problem in Oxford is that it’s 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’s 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—all these cities that are much freer about public space. Those two things strike me as being directly linked.”

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’s writing about this. The way British architecture’s written about is analogous with British football. In both cases you’ve got a basic entity that’s inflated. In football it’s inflated by the fact that the Premier League imports lots of foreign players, which gives it an importance actual English football just doesn’t 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’s 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’s 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’s 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’ve built all this stuff in the centre of cities, what’s it all worth? Partly because of the way cities were bashed in the ‘80s and ‘90s, 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’ve known better accepted it all. I thought New Labour’s 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—via private finance initiatives, luxury flats, speculation etc.—was fairly disastrous, and the architectural results, with few exceptions, were very, very poor.

And I’d obviously written this defence of modernism, or a defence of a particular idea of modernism: militant modernism. And in some ways you couldn’t understand these new developments as purely Thatcherite, you couldn’t 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’s a modernism that’s very different from the modernism that was briefly popular in the UK between the ‘50s and ‘70s. So a lot of the book is about this: the fact that we’ve 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’t 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. “Garden grabbing” is the phrase they’ve used.

But they know that their power bases are not the cities, especially with Labour’s very unexpected strong showing in London and in the north [in the 2010 general election]. So that’s 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’d love to look at contemporary Leeds or Manchester or Sheffield and say: hooray, we’ve now got these skylines and towers and we’ve rebuilt these cities! But with the exception of bits of Manchester, where it’s been done well, it’s just really poor. It’s enclosed space, and it’s very shoddy architecturally. I don’t really want to defend any of it.

None at all?

Very little. I mean, when I think of new buildings that I’ve liked, or new architects that have interested me, they’re 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’ve had foisted upon us for the last 15 years. It’s 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’m 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’t 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’re going to last for decades. And it was under a Labour government.

On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be any other game in town. I don’t 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’s 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’s 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’d like to see a thought about unionizing people who aren’t unionized, for one thing. There’s this phrase: “negative solidarity”. Since the credit crunch there’s this thing whereby someone goes on strike and people go “well, I haven’t got a pension, why should they have one?” And that shows how far things have gone. This basic sense of solidarity and almost common sense that one would’ve thought we might have acquired in the 1880s has now gone. [That is,] this basic sense that, “well they’ve managed to get better pay and conditions, maybe if we joined a union, maybe if we struck, we would too.” But people don’t 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’t think of themselves as proletarians, they are. Their pay and conditions are much worse than manual labourers. I’d like to see those people being mobilized. How one does it I don’t know.

Militant Modernism was described by Jonathan Meades as “a deflected Bildungsroman”. Could you talk a bit about your background, how you were “formed”?

(Laughs.) I could do. I’m always being told off about this by my girlfriend. I could do…

You don’t have to…

No, I’ll do it. It’s complicated. I see my background as being part of the working class, a section of the working class we’re now encouraged to believe didn’t 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—1945 most obviously—swayed the rest of the working class. And I mourn its passing enormously. But I think it’s a thing that is still in people’s memories, and it’s revivable.

And how about place. You grew up in Southampton. Did that have much of an impact?

It had a big impact. Southampton’s a strange place. No one really thinks about the industrial south, partly because there’s less of it. Places like Plymouth, Southampton, and Portsmouth, or Reading or Slough or Luton, they aren’t really thought about. But they’re there, and they’re interesting.

What about the architecture in Southampton?

There’s a place I get very excited about called Wyndham Court, a council estate just by the station. It’s an absolutely wonderful building and of course everyone hates it. I guess there’s this collective embarrassment in cities that got bombed and rebuilt themselves. You see it in Southampton, and you see it in Sheffield, and I’m sure you’d see it in Coventry. Places where most of the architecture dates from the ‘60s and it’s just loathed. You know, in some places the ‘60s had fairly deleterious effects. In Glasgow a lot of really worthwhile stuff went in favour of quite dull ‘60s 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’s brilliant, this is what makes this city special! But instead they want to pretend they’re 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’s fairly simple. It’s partly about looking at it without prejudice. I think people have a knee-jerk reaction to it that’s not very sophisticated. It doesn’t 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’s 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 ‘60s. I think after their bashing by Prince Charles and by the tabloid press, they didn’t want to talk to anyone. So it was great to see Owen Luder going on there, with all these people saying “oh it’s a bloody eyesore”. And Luder was saying, “well, it’s like this because of this, and this is like that because of that, and imagine if we did this with this.” And he was swaying people.

Because people don’t think about it. People go: it’s a concrete monstrosity, instant knee-jerk reaction. I find, especially when I’m with people, it’s 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’re one of the most architecturally illiterate societies in the world. There are certain incredibly important things that don’t turn up in the curriculum, and I find it so interesting that they’re not. No one learns about economics and no one learns about architecture, and they’re two of the most important things. At every single moment of your life you are in some way intersecting with economics and architecture. That’s what fascinates me about architecture. The fact that it’s not an autonomous art form, so you can map it politically very easily. Because the power that builds, builds.

So I think it’s partly a case of education. But that knee-jerk reaction isn’t solely aesthetic. It’s the use of concrete, but it’s also the mistakes of the ‘70s and ‘80s. On the one hand it’s a revulsion to particular materials. And there’s a labour theory aspect. I think people look at a traditional wall and think, there’s 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’s not ornamental people don’t see that. So again it’s a case of lack of education.

But also more fundamentally, we’ve 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 “Eastern Bloc”. There’s this sense that there’s something socialist about it, a sense that it’s collective. Everyone doesn’t have their own garden, everyone doesn’t have their bit of hedge, everyone doesn’t have a fence, everyone doesn’t have their obsessive defensible bit of space.

The thing that excites me about modernism isn’t Corbusian villas, it’s places like [seminal brutalist housing estate in Sheffield] Park Hill, it’s that sense of people living collectively, and making a decent fist of it. And I think that’s incredibly valuable. I think suburbia is a depoliticizing force. I don’t 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’d love to live in a place like this. I live in a Rachmanite space carved out on top of a chip shop. I’d love to live somewhere that’s 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’s a risk we might not?

I think we’re living through very dark times. I mean even the immediate future worries me. The way the financial crisis seemed like this little opening that’s closed so quickly. Very quickly it’s 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’s shocking how easily they’ve managed to do it. I think people’s solidarity was broken so much in the ‘80s and ‘90s that it’s going to be such a struggle to rebuild it. But I think it has to be rebuilt, or we’re in serious, serious trouble.

I’m 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’s 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’s this massive potential right now. I’d like to end on an optimistic note so let’s 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.