The politics of Britain displayed through its architecture

A shorter version was first published on Blogcritics

Sometimes it helps to approach politics from a sideways direction – from a different perspective you can see the old political issues – why was the British Labour government from 1997 to 2010 so awful in so many ways (only of course to be far surpassed by our current Tory-Lib Dem nightmare)? – in new ways.

Owen Hatherley in A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain approaches from the direction of architecture, and very enlightening, if depressing, that direction turns out to be – helped by a wry, not infrequently laugh-out-loud dry sarcasm and a minimum use of professional jargon. He’s on form on the Science Centre in Glasgow – “If we really need these comprehensive redevelopment-trailing enclaves of titanium tat housing interactive experiences to patronise pre-teens (and I see no reason why we do), then this is one of the better example.” (p. 191)

Despite the general lack of jargon, I did, however, learn a new term, Googie, for architecture that originated in American Forties to Sixties roadside diners and coffee shops, designed to catch the eye of passing motorists, and which Hatherley traces through “radical” architecture to the typical boring but “enlivened” by weird roof shapes and odd bits poking out or off kilter that characterises a mean and poky “luxury flat complex” that’s bound to be located near you – “its forbears are in the aesthetics of consumption and advertising, its forms designed to be seen at great speed, not in serene contemplation. It should not surprise us that a style of consumption would return under neoliberalism, but the formal affinities of Pseudomodernism with this aesthetic offers an alternative explanation for what often seems an arbitrary play of forms. By drawing on the futurism of the McCarthy era, the architecture of the equally conformist neoliberal consensus establishes a link between two eras of political stagnation and technological acceleration. It also allows us to reinterpret what purports to be an aesthetic of edification as one of consumption…. The architecture once described as deconstructivist owes less to Derrida than it does to McDonald’s.” (p. xxix)

So that pretty well tells you where Hatherley is coming from, both politically and architecturally. He’s a fervent critic of the past couple of decades of “regeneration” of British cities, and something of a defender, if far from an uncritical one, of the aspirations of the Fifties and Sixties – and the structures built then, often poorly and carelessly, but he says with good intentions, and designs that would have held up fine had faith, and investment, been maintained. Now instead we’ve got, he says, rightly in my view, mean and pinched, poorly built structures characterised by “vernacular” brickwork (often clearly “decorative”) and slatted wood, or even worse plastic and plasticky or metalled panelling in preschooler-friendly colours, thrown up by developers with no consideration to the environments in which they’re placed. Topped off, of course, with oddly angled or shaped roofs, which almost invariably leak. (I’m reminded of a Camden new block of flats crammed into a busy road that I visited recently – badly placed glass, odd shapes, and plaster weeping from barely finished walls to show the cheap and shoddy concrete block beneath.) And that’s without mentioning the seemingly deliberately, outright, unredeemably ugly hotels….

He sees much of the government activity – often demolition of perfectly sound buildings of little age, people’s homes – as a drive to “artificially stimulate (sorry ‘renew’) the housing market” (p. 96) He quotes the case of New Labour Sheffield, which went from an abundant supply of council housing through the wide deployment of the wrecking ball to a council house waiting list that quadrupled from 2001 and 2007 to 58,706, and now may well have topped 90,000. “Mixed communities” i.e. owner occupiers, were supposed to move into new developments in the holes created – often these didn’t materialise, and where they did, those new people are now often trapped in negative equity in poky (failing to meet by a large margin the Parker-Morris standards of council days), poorly built flats, where tenants of speculative landlords aren’t trapped in the same.

And then there’s the post-boom bailout – not of the banks, but speculative builders, definitely not Hatherley’s favourite people. “On the basis of his ‘success’ in Sheffield, in 2009 Sir Bob Kerslake was appointed chair of the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA)…. This proud demolisher of council housing is now head of the agency that intends to sponsor new social housing to help people through the property crash, although in its first few months its only activities appeared to be a vast £2.8 billion bailout of the country’s property developers, something missed by the press in the face of the even larger bailout of the banks.” (p. 97)

There’s a very strong streak of revisionist historian in Hatherley. He’s less than complimentary about the Situationists and the psychogeographers who’ve followed their lead. “Both approaches have an essentially 19th-century idea of the city as a place that should rise autonomously out of the activities of entrepreneurs and businessman… Under the influence of English writers Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd, it has come to refer to an archaeological, vaguely occult approach to the city… fiercely antagonistic to the glassy, security obsessed cities created by regeneration, they share a hostility to planning and to the planned cities of social democracy.” But Hatherley is keen on a particular Fifties Situationist vision, as in Ivan Chtcheglov’s ‘Forumlary for a New Urbanism’, “an elliptical prose-poem imagining a self-creating world of grottoes and Gothic spaces”, and Dutch architect and early Situationist Constant Nieuwenhuis’s New Babylon, a city where the problem of work has been eliminated, the most important element of which was circulation – walkways and bridges designed to create chance encounters.

Hatherley sees something of these in the now demolished Hulme Crescents in Manchester. He admits they were “vermin-ridden and leaky, as a result of costs cut during the construction”, but he finds that in the Eighties, with the families moved out, many young people found it a haven and a cultural inspiration – saying – “you can hear the ambiguous spaces created by the blocks’ enclosures; in tracks like [Martin Hannett’s] A Certain Ratio’s Flight” and Section 25 – in Friendly Fires you can hear the lightheadedness of attempting to live in crumbling edifices somewhere in the air.

On Park Hill, Sheffield, seeing it, in part through the eyes of late-Sixties critics, as “an incontrovertible success”.”The notion that it could have single-handedly preserved a working-class communal life being obliterated elsewhere is unsurprisingly unconvincing. However, there is little evidence that it ever became a “sink”, at least until the mid nineties.” He’s scathing about conservative geographer Alice Coleman, who argued that aesthetic form caused council estate poverty, arguing that the building type must likely to produce crime was tall, deck-access and concrete. (As Hatherley notes, oddly the Barbican never seems to feature in such accounts.)

As you’d expect, he’s not in love with Milton Keynes, although perhaps less scathing than you might expect, and with an interesting side angle: “The idea that a city should exist for youth and ‘vibrancy’ is a tired combination of baby-boomer nostalgia and romantic guff about the virtues of poverty’s dirt and noise, a superannuated idea that is as amenable to knock-it-up-cheap developers as are the developers’ cul-de-sacs. Perhaps after the unseemly noise and blather of the boom, the non-city’s calm, serenity and order could offer us a way out. Today, Milton Keynes feels as though it is in a weird state of suspension, its beautifully managed car economy obsolete and environmentally destructive, its retail and finance-based economy doomed. Perhaps one solution could be for it to embrace th destiny of all planned towns and become an administrative city – the capital of a sane new England, modern and rational. That is, if the diplomats don’t mind living in Barratt homes.”

But he’s concerned as much, nearly, with the use of the buildings as their form, and about broader social context. He points out, something I hadn’t really noted before, how the post-Fordist economy is marked by giant windowless sheds and warehouses, rather than the earlier sun-lit factories – “the ideology of transparency is transferred to financial capital and its shiny office blocks”. He sees the next logical development in Southampton, in “Leisure World, a ‘adaptive reuse’ of a former automated warehouse that in the late 1990s was transformed into a gigantic shed of entertainment: nightclubs, chain restaurants, and a multiplex, with lots and lots of car parking. The entrance is framed on one side by a casino, one of several in the centre, presumably meant for the cruise passengers, and on the other by ‘Quayside’, a simulcrum Victorian pub for an area which was under water in the Victorian era”. (p. 38)

There’s also interesting industry history – notably the tale of BDP, which Hatherley approaches through Southampton’s West Quay mega-mall, a truly hideous sounding structure. It began as a co-operative, “founded by George Grenfell Baines, an architect of Lancastrian working-class extraction, to unite architects,, engineers, sociologists, in a non-hierarchical Partnership which could sidestep the hoary old myth of the autonomous architect (that they became a normal private company in 1997, of all years, seems apt).” (p. 41)

If there’s one disappointment in this book it is the pictures. Certainly it is better to have them than not, but the small and mean epithet that Hatherley so often applies to buildings is also evident in these, not to mention the monochrome aspect. No doubt this is a cost matter, but it’s a pity the fine words aren’t better illustrated.

So is there any hope? Hatherley, perhaps unsurprisingly, can’t find much – perhaps the closest thing he sees comes from the giant hole in the middle of Bradford that was going to be a Westfield shopping mall – supposed to be built and finished by 2008, but by early 2010 thought to be a lost cause. He hopes for a park and public housing (although I see that as of August the shopping plan was still limping on.)

He’s only visiting existing structures, so he didn’t have time to see the new Westfield that has been built, in east London, on the site of the Olympics, so that delightfully, 70% of visitors will have to walk through a shopping centre to get to see the athletes at work. That really would have been a perfect metaphor, and symbol, for the empty, shallow hopes of the Britain that he charts.

(Ideally read with Lynsey Hanley’s Estates: An Intimate History.)

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