Powerful testimony on politics and architecture

I haven’t time now to provide a full account of Owen Hatherley’s A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain, which is a pity, since his unique form of exploring politics through architecture, as shown in his previous A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, is well worth time.

But I will note a strong testimony to the Green Party, and particularly Caroline Lucas, in it. in his chapter on Brighton, noting that it is the first city to elect a Green MP, Hatherley says: “It would be churlish and sectarian for anyone on the left to object to this: as a parliamentarian, Lucas has proved herself far more of a Social Democrat – hell, far more of an Opposition – than practically anyone in the Labour Party.” (p. 150)

There’s also lots of personal interest to me, both about my own political work, and more broadly as a resident of Camden.

I often cycle past the dreadful Central St Giles in Holborn – or what the marketers are trying to awfully call “Midtown”. This is Hatherley’s take: “… an atrocious botch-job, a bunch of extremely dense, stocky and inelegant blocks crammed into the site, with a grim postage stamp of public space in the middle; in order to distract attention from this act of violence, Piano decided to colour the entire thing in lurid yellows, oranges and greens”. (p. 346) Couldn’t agree more!

He also draws attention to a (sadly lost) campaign to which I devoted a lot of time and energy, including testifying to the Commons Science and Technology Committee, against the then UKCMRI (UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation), now Crick Institute, behind the British Library. He describes Somers Cross and King’s Cross as an area “undergoing severe gentrification”, noting that the Crick “was fiercely opposed by local campaigners who pointed out that the site was zoned as social housing”. (p. xxxvii) Yep – we were fiercely opposed indeed – and with it just getting out of the ground now, its full horrors have yet to be revealed.

But he’s vert positive, interestingly, about the new London headquarters of Unison, just around the corner from me. I agree with him in quite liking the office building that fronts Euston Road – it has a sense of calm, stability and permanence not found in most of the corporate, clearly temporary and cheap glass horrors being thrown up all around. And as he notes, it has “impeccable environmental credentials” – and it sounds as though, unlike another building labelled with that epithet, which it was my misfortune to briefly inhabit, the workers are enjoying the experience.

I’m less positive about the residential part of the development – “aggressively gated from the street”, of which I’m not a fan, and not just because it makes like difficult for leafletting – but also with the social and private elements pointing in different directions. Surely a union could have insisted on “pepperpotting” – mixing the social and the private together, so as to create a properly mixed community?

Hatherley’s also very interesting on the relationship between the dreadful private student housing blocks that are now rearing up all around the ward of St Pancras and Somers Town, and the “student riots” last year:
“Students were encouraged under New Labour to be an ideal combination of indentured serfs and aspirant yuppies; the actual conditions of students’ existence in the 2000s, from the poverty of their housing, to their catastrophic debt, to their part-time jobs in call centres, to their years of unpaid intern labour, were bleak indeed; but all was hidden by an oxymoronic language of inclusivity and privilege; you might be living in a cupboard but it’s a cupboard with a plasma screen TV; you might see to be underpaid, overworked and tithed; but you were constantly reminded how lucky you were to be able to enjoy the hedonistic student lifestyle. Suddenly, under the Tory-Whig coalition, one half of that bargain – the expansion of education that accompanied its part-privatisation – in mind when you consider the dozens of occupations of universities and public buildings that were such an important part of the student protests. Implicitly or explicity, this is the kind of space they are reacting against. A protest against the coalition, to be sure; but it’s also a magnificent regection of the fear, quietism and atomization that was the result of earlier policies.” (p. xxxix)

One comment

  • david ware
    October 1, 2012 - 9:42 pm | Permalink

    While at the local public library (this is central Arkansas, remember!) last night I came across Hatherley’s new book and took it home. I’m not familiar with Unison, but his discription of its new HQ made it sound interesting. I fear that for most in this country his charaterizations of British politics may be a little obscure–but even for those of us with little acquaintance with such things, his confident critic’s eye reads loud and clear. His text cries out for high quaklity, clearly labelled ilustrations…but these would probably have punted the purchase price too high for the market.

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