It hits in the gut

Will Self

  • BuyMilitant Modernism by Owen Hatherley
    Zero, 146 pp, £9.99, April 2009, ISBN 978 1 84694 176 4
  • BuyA Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain by Owen Hatherley
    Verso, 371 pp, £9.99, July 2011, ISBN 978 1 84467 700 9

‘Architecture,’ Owen Hatherley states in his essay ‘The Brutishness of British Modernism’, ‘unlike the other arts, can’t be ignored, can’t be passively consumed, not if you have to live in it.’ His published writings thus far have been a stinging lash across the back of current architectural criticism – a necessary corrective to its supine state. However, the extent to which he succeeds in assessing contemporary British architecture actively – as someone living and working within it – remains debatable. Hatherley is ostensibly a critic in the mode of Reyner Banham: freewheeling, spinning out ideas, theories and evaluations that may have their origin in the stony core of the built environment, but which spread to encompass most other aesthetic realms as well. Aesthetic but in Hatherley’s case also political: for it is the great strength of his writing – as well as its besetting weakness – that he aims for an explicitly politicised critique of all the gimcrack cladded office blocks, giant Venetian-blind-slatted ‘luxury flat’ developments and parametrically designed waveform rooftops that clutter up the contemporary British cityscape. Hatherley did this first in Militant Modernism, a quartet of essays published in 2008 – of which ‘Brutishness’ is the first – that forms a prolegomenon setting out his theoretical stall. Then in 2010 came the far heftier A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, which extends his methodology to produce a sort of catalogue raisonné of the contemporary architecture for which he has coined the descriptor ‘pseudomodernism’. There is considerable overlap – and even repetition – between the two books, so it seems reasonable to treat them as a single discontinuous entity.

Across both texts Hatherley scatters autobiographical fragments that explain the shaping of his consciousness of architectural and social history. Let one epiphany sum up his attitude to the former:

I was born in the heavily bombed port of Southampton in the early 1980s and the city’s postwar modernist buildings would have been finished at least a decade earlier. I can recall looking at its mainly 1960s skyline from the walkway of a bricky pomo Asda, thinking how excitingly modern it all seemed by comparison, a shabby version of the glittering towers of science fiction.

And one for the latter:

I lived in a large estate when growing up, and it was by no means a modernist one … The place in question was a ‘cottage estate’; one of those built on the outskirts of cities by councils in the 1930s in woolly, vaguely vernacular fashion, with real homes featuring gardens and pitched roofs … This didn’t stop it from being one of the more impoverished, violent and desolate places in Southampton.

Key to Hatherley’s vision therefore is a spirited, autobiographical rejection of the narrative that Brutalism brutalises, on which the consensus about postwar British urban development now rests. In his persistent remembrance of those ‘excitingly modern’ things past, Hatherley hasn’t merely equivocated about the architecture of such notorious concretised dark stars as London’s Thamesmead and Robin Hood Gardens, or Sheffield’s Park Hill: he has been a passionate proselytiser. Thamesmead’s isolation and the GLC’s policy of dumping tenants on the estate may have been a strong impetus to downward mobility, but nothing should detract from the fact that ‘this is basically a working-class Barbican, and if it were in EC1 rather than SE28 the price of a flat would be astronomical.’ Hatherley waxes eloquent on its central ‘unbelievably long interconnected block’, praises it for being ‘flood-proof and still architecturally cohesive’, and pours scorn on those ‘hack directors’ – Stanley Kubrick prominent among them – who have made it their ‘urban decay set of choice’. If he has one caveat about the aesthetics of the development it’s that it was ‘always shockingly urban for its outer-suburban context’.

Robin Hood Gardens in East London

Hatherley is even more ensorcelled by Alison and Peter Smithson’s béton brut behemoth, Robin Hood Gardens in East London (shown above). For him the Smithsons are the real heroes, and a half-century on he reprises Reyner Banham – with dialectical knobs on – by placing them and their fellow New Brutalists in the creative vanguard of the cultural revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s: ‘If their opponents were Stalinist, Brutalism was Trotskyist: while opposing the practice of the “masters” of “classical” modernism, it supported the original theory in toto and regarded itself as the fulfilment rather than the abolition.’ Elsewhere he is still more millennially utopian. Brutalist architecture was ‘a political aesthetic, an attitude, a weapon, dedicated to the precept that nothing was too good for ordinary people’. The Smithsons’ aim was to create ‘streets in the sky’, gallery access flats that replicated traditional patterns of working-class habitation, but with added glamour. Robin Hood Gardens is, he writes, ‘fortress-like, daringly sculptural, with its gradated concrete gleaming golden in the sun.’

Park Hill, designed by the Smithson-influenced architects Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, is now the largest listed building in Europe, and as he trolls about the Sheffield streets Hatherley is struck again and again by the ‘sublime scale’ of this humungous housing development and the way the stepped blocks slip-slide away over the contours of the hillside. Overall, of the 12 cities and conurbations he surveys in The New Ruins, Hatherley cleaves most strongly to what he calls ‘the Former Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’. It is here, as he sees it, that Socialist Brutalism’s promise was most nearly fulfilled – and most comprehensively betrayed. Hatherley singles out Bob Kerslake, chief executive at Sheffield City Council from 1997 to 2008, as the villain of the piece, seeing his implementation of a policy of demolishing council housing to create Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders as emblematic of New Labour’s twin-pronged approach to urban development, the other tine being the bogosity of ‘heritage’.

We can quibble about the béton brut blood on Kerslake’s hands – strictly speaking, as a civil servant he was only doing his political masters’ will – but what’s undeniable is the justness of Hatherley’s contempt for the Pathfinder scheme, which, when rolled out across Northern British cities was, is and always will be a programme of class-cleansing as much as of urban renewal. The housing erected on these demolished ‘slums’ – many of which were in fact perfectly serviceable housing, albeit in need of renovation – was not to be, as with other major clearances of the past, re-let to the former inhabitants, but instead marketed as ‘aspirational’, the clear aim being to attract the right sort of tenants, namely those who were willing to buy into an ever bulging asset bubble.

The kind of domestic architecture mandated by the Pathfinder schemes might be said to be the reification of Brecht’s observation that ‘the masses’ bad taste is rooted more deeply in reality than the intellectuals’ good taste.’ The cut-rate versions of that proper Prince Charlie’s Poundbury, and the cookie-cutter Queen Anne of these new suburban cul-de-sacs are of a piece with the plastic-mullioned fake sash windows and panelled doors now implanted in the Brutalist blocks Hatherley adores, both evidence of the fact that the masses are now privileged with the bad taste of the lumpen bourgeoisie – for are we not all middle class now?

Much of Militant Modernism is taken up with pre-empting the obvious criticism of his Brutalist edifice complex: that in its own way it is just as much a form of nostalgia – of heritage even – as the heritage industry he despises. To long for a social-democratic – or even outright socialist – Britain, with an architecture that would truly serve the commonweal, while also enacting a thrilling and avant-garde urbanism is perfectly laudable. What isn’t so reasonable is a steam-punk retrofitting of the past to create an embolism of what might have been. Hatherley understands the dangers of this ‘nostalgia for the future’, but unfortunately he’s already too far gone in its surging rhythms to pull out.

With his near frame by frame analyses of such libidinal – if not exactly libidinous – examples of film didacticism as WR: Mysteries of the Organism, a Wilhelm Reich-inflected romp that was an arthouse hit in the early 1970s (I remember being both aroused and bamboozled by the Tube poster on my way to school), Hatherley crosses the frontier into a never-could-be land of bare-breasted, agitprop-spouting Yugoslav lovelies with orgone boxes in their kitchenettes. That WR is slapped against a backdrop of the Brutalist architecture he adores must be more than half the attraction, but while you can know a man by what turns him on, you can only really understand him by what turns him off.

Accordingly, pseudomodernism is ‘postmodernism’s incorporation of a modernist formal language’, and it comes in three equally hateful forms: first the ubiquitous blocks of ‘luxury flats’ Hatherley describes as possessing an ‘attenuated, vaguely Scandinavian aesthetic’; then ‘the glass towers whose irregular panels, attempting to alleviate the standardised nature of such buildings, have been dubbed “barcode façades”’; and finally the ‘iconic’ works of the starchitects – Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind et al – who, Hatherley sneers, ‘manage to combine formal spectacle and moralistic sobriety’. Such is the bagginess of pseudomodernism that there’s room not only for former ‘deconstructivists’, but also for such painful postmodernists as Sir Terry Farrell, artificer by appointment to the court of Margaret Thatcher. Hatherley is initially spot-on with his demolition of Farrell’s newish Home Office building on Marsham Street in London (‘With its combination of Weimar Republic curves and De Stijl patterns with eager-to-please colour – which here is provided, as per the Blairite fetish for the “creative industries”, by the artist Liam Gillick’), but then swerves into donkey-jacketed ranting: ‘It provides a calm, ostentatiously friendly face for the most illiberal administration in the history of British democracy.’

Really? I’m afraid this is merely the high-flown equivalent of shouting: Terry, Terry, Terry! Out! Out! Out! It gets us precisely nowhere. Nonetheless, for page after page Hatherley produces nicely turned phrases that auger their way into the sheetrock and MDF of our tacky cityscapes. And as a sort of anti-Pevsner, skilfully directing its readers towards an ephemeral built environment of genuine tackiness, The New Ruins is engaging and even stimulating. Hatherley skewers the late capitalist trick of erecting buildings that are ‘both logo and icon’ in search of the ‘boosterist cliché’ of the Bilbao effect, and tears at the ‘regeneration’ that masks the transmogrification of working-class areas – of work and habitation – into those of bourgeois colonisation. For him it all climaxes in the meshing of architectural form and socio-political function: ‘The many schemes where 1960s council towers have been replaced with PFI blocks are to urban planning what pseudomodernism is to architecture.’ He singles out the architecture of the new city academies, ‘where each fundamentally alike yet bespoke design embodies a vacuous aspirationalism’, as the quintessence of ‘a modernism without the politics, without the utopianism, or without any conception of the polis … Modernism as a shell.’

This is the framework that Hatherley applies to cities as various as Liverpool, Glasgow, Newcastle and Cambridge. With some exceptions, the judgments he makes become increasingly predictable as he works his way around the country. Since Brutalism is his gold standard for both the aesthetic and the political, even the peccadilloes of Tyneside’s dodgy geezer T. Dan Smith can be forgiven on the grounds that his Tammany Hall tsarship coincided with the erection of Gateshead’s Trinity Square Car Park. For Hatherley its screeching decks are ‘one of the most visceral architectural experiences available in Britain, in terms of sheer physical power, architecture that both hits in the gut and sends shivers down the spine’. Despite Smith’s undoubted corruption, Hatherley can’t help but admire his stated desire to build a ‘Brasilia of the North’ on top of the Newcastle town centre laid out by Richard Grainger in the 1830s.

It is urbanity in and of itself that attracts Hatherley. On his road trip to Glasgow he remarks (one assumes the humour is unintentional) that the first thing he notices in the purlieus of the motorway is ‘space – sheer, useless, unused space, a spectacular reproach to the notion that the island of Great Britain is overcrowded, bursting; “Britain is full,” as the Daily Express and the BNP erroneously put it.’ And although when he embarked on his round Britain tour he professed himself pretty much ignorant of the architecture and layout of the cities he would visit, this doesn’t stop him machine-gunning opinions from the hip. As I say, much of his vitriol is well directed and satisfyingly acidic; however, the place it comes from is the literal utopia of an unreconstructed badge-wearing Trotskyite. Hatherley’s aesthetic is so heavily ideological that its architectural superstructure is forever collapsing into its political base. In some cases this is actually a political bass: he expends quite a lot of space reversing Goethe’s dictum (‘Architecture is frozen music’) and reading cities in terms of their popular music. Manchester’s redevelopment of the past two decades – as he tells it, masterminded by the late Tony Wilson, cod-Situationist and Factory Records supremo – is castigated as much for its failure to produce good electropop as for its vaulting PFI pseudomodernism.

For any reader born much before 1980, Hatherley’s meditations on the urbane genius of such techno DJs as Leeds’ Nightmares on Wax will fall on already deafened ears, but they do indicate the extent to which it is his relative youth, as much as his belief in permanent revolution, that channels his enthusiasms towards such phenomena as the ‘Germanophilia’ rife in Hulme in Manchester in the early 1980s, where a post-punk community of Brutalist flat-dwellers, listening to Bowie and Iggy Pop while necking amphetamine sulphate, forged a ‘self-creating urbanism’ among the ‘labyrinthine complexity of the blocks’. Hatherley concedes that this could be seen as ‘a sort of slumming’, undertaken in zones of alienation from which families had ‘long since decamped to more hospitable areas’, but judging from the paean in his essay ‘A Hole into the Future’ to the ‘social condenser’ buildings designed by Constructivist OSA (Organisation of Contemporary Architects) in the Soviet Union of the late 1920s, he has little enthusiasm for the bourgeois institution of the nuclear family.

The OSA’s Narkomfin Building was divided into K-Type duplexes with space for children and cooking, and F-Types ‘that were “fully collectivised”, assuming that the children would be brought up in the collective block and the tenants would eat in the adjoining restaurant’. It is these – mostly lost – jewels of Soviet modernism that Hatherley wistfully describes as the proletarian and inclusive prototypes ‘for every Ballardian Docklands block with its roof gardens, services and sexual experimentalism’, neglecting – as so many do – the profound ambivalence of Ballard’s urbanism. At one point Hatherley does acknowledge the difficulties presented by high-rises for people – largely women, one assumes – who might be wrestling with a pram, but on the whole he seems to ignore the exigencies of everyday proletarian byt (Russian for ‘mode of living’) in favour of the Yugoslavian lovelies in their kitchenettes. It’s a mono-generational – and hence timeless – view that leads him, once he reaches Merseyside, into a sort of spluttering indignation in the face of what some Trots actually built when, in their guise as the Militant Tendency, they crept up the necrotic backside of Liverpool’s Labour Party in the 1980s and took control of the council.

Commenting that Militant’s policy was ‘perhaps the widest-scale attempt to give people what most (if not all) always said they wanted – a house and garden, close to their place of work’, it’s the qualifier ‘always said’ that stands out. Presumably these folk were labouring under some false architectural consciousness because ‘as a result of this policy, whole swathes of inner-city Liverpool look utterly ridiculous. One moment you’re in Berlin, the next in Basingstoke.’ ‘It’s not dignified for the city centre to mimic the ’burbs,’ Hatherley concludes, sounding perversely like a maiden aunt rather than an ideologue of F-Type free love. And then, promenading on, he hymns the delights of Liverpool One, a gated development of chain stores and luxury flats, presumably out of sheer relief at being back among the bright lights and the shiny, happy, unencumbered people.

The problem for Hatherley, as I see it, is that he cannot quite cope with the deep-seated – and philoprogenitive – nature of the masses’ bad taste, any more than he can with their unwillingness passively to consume Liverpool tower blocks (scores of which were demolished by the amusingly named Housing Action Trust in the 1990s and early 2000s, something he seems quite unaware of). His own ethic is shaped by a sort of urban reductionism: all that matters is the city – so let’s condense it more. This is a reasonable corrective to the flabby sentimentalising that flaps around the British countryside, but unless his aim is simply to fill up all that ‘useless’ space with concrete it’s not clear to me what his cities are really for. At one point, visiting an exhibition dedicated to reindustrialisation at the Glasgow Lighthouse, he seems to flirt seriously with the notion that this is a real and present possibility: ‘I don’t think one falls into nostalgic neo-entrepreneurialism in thinking this a marvellous idea.’ But if there were to be a steely new Britain capable of lodging its Stakhanovites in matching muscular buildings, who would it sell its stuff to? Hatherley’s aesthetic thus becomes synoptic, ticking off the elements that fulfil his programme, but not necessarily even noticing those that are irrelevant to it.

On Christmas Day, being in the locale, I did a whistle-stop tour of a couple of the developments Hatherley surveys in A Guide to the New Ruins. The infamous Red Road Flats in Springburn in north-east Glasgow, a series of huge steel-framed towers and ‘slabs’, are clearly visible from the M8 as you drive into the city. Unlike Hatherley I felt no ‘sense of shame’ about visiting the place ‘camera in hand’: nothing I can do, say or survey will make it any less miserable an environment. The burned-out playground and other derelict facilities that stud the lumpy forecourts of the blocks could not, in my estimation, ever have compensated for the wilful inappositeness of these structures: there’s always been enough brutality in Glasgow to go round, so Brutalism seems excessive. He rightly notes that one of the anomalies about the Glasgow tower blocks is that they don’t respond to the city’s dramatic topography, but he refuses to press this insight forward to its logical conclusion: all cities exist in a landscape that – unless civilisation becomes geological in its duration – will always retain a formal primacy. (Incidentally, contra Hatherley’s view that the Thames littoral is edged with light industry and warehousing all the way from Thamesmead to the North Sea, there is, of course, plenty of ‘useless space’, including the Hoo marshes, where Pip met Magwitch and where Boris Johnson wants to build an airport.)

The proof of this is to be found in Ruchill, a couple of miles to the west of Springburn, where Hatherley decries a ‘truly perfect example of pseudomodernism’: a ‘Mondriaan’ development by Holmes Partnership. There is indeed something tacky about these low-rise blocks – but they’re really not that bad, unless, that is, you’re wedded to the inverted snobbery of describing almost everything you dislike as ‘Basingstoke’. Their true weakness is that their landscaping, rather than responding to the adjacent canal by opening out and incorporating it in promenades or playgrounds, turns the blocks’ backs to it. I’m not disputing that pseudomodernism is a genuine and lamentable tendency in contemporary architecture; but I’m neither convinced that Hatherley got there first when it comes to characterising this sorry mishmash, nor that he understands its true ambit.

In his essay ‘Junkspace’ from 2000, Rem Koolhaas prefigures many of Hatherley’s observations, writing that ‘the built … product of modernisation is not modern architecture but junkspace. Junkspace is what remains after modernisation has run its course, or, more precisely, what coagulates while modernisation is taking place.’ He goes on, using a few thousand words of dithyrambic prose-poetry to nail-gun contemporary corporate architecture to death:

A fuzzy empire of blur, it fuses public and private, straight and bent, bloated and starved, high and low, to offer a seamless patchwork of the permanently disjointed. Seemingly an apotheosis, spatially grandiose, the effect of its richness is a terminal hollowness, a vicious parody that systematically erodes the credibility of architecture, possibly for ever.

It must be something of a problem for Hatherley that Koolhaas, to whose actual buildings he refers dismissively in his own writing (which is fair enough), nonetheless manages to anticipate so much of his critique – including the understanding that junkspace/pseudomodernism is often the product of those who are themselves former dirigistes. Koolhaas, unencumbered by Hatherley’s historical materialism, can also fully open himself to the significance of the low spec embodied in junkspace/pseudomodernism, noting that ‘there is already more junkspace under construction in the 21st century than survived from the 20th,’ which is his way of saying that most of this tat will crack, buckle and spall within less than half a century. I suppose Hatherley might say that the maximal fifty-year specs of most pseudomodernist buildings are implied by his title, ‘New Ruins’, although it seems to me that his more telling remark, in Militant Modernism, is apropos of the new electronic media and web-based broadcasting: ‘That the majority of what is produced by these forms is utterly inane is not necessarily always going to be the case. Capitalism always mistakes its conditions for eternal ones.’

To which the only possible rejoinder is that he too has mistaken a historical moment – the baggy Butskellism that produced the mass social housing programmes of the 1950s and 1960s – for an eternal condition, but then I suppose it’s only a short step from belief in a permanent revolution to belief in a timeless one.