Verso £9.99 (371pp). £9.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, By Owen Hatherley
Friday 19 August 2011
This abrasive ramble probes the repeated failure of architects and planners, particularly in the "dispiriting exurbia of Blairite Britain", to enhance the lives of those who live and work in their constructions. It will be of particular interest for anyone living in the communities scrutinised by the energetic Owen Hatherley: Southampton, Milton Keynes, Nottingham, Sheffield Manchester, Tyneside, Glasgow, Cardiff, Liverpool, the West Riding and, "by far the bleakest and least welcoming of the cities we visited", Cambridge.
Hatherley excoriates buildings "that epitomised an age of greed and aspiration" and names the architects who had the gall to put them up. A Sixties development in Bradford called High Point is described as "utterly freakish, the severed head of some Japanese giant robot clad in a West Yorkshire stone aggregate". Yet he is by no means opposed to all "industrial cyber architecture". This is his description of the Western Docks in Southampton, which he finds "almost convulsively beautiful". He is also keen on Greenwich Town Hall from 1938, "a soft modernist complex in expertly, scrupulously detailed brick". It is "something you see day in day out... and only gradually realise is an extraordinary work of art."
Setting up his angry tour, Hatherley is equally scathing of gimcrack shoddiness and the "pseudo-modernism" of architectural stars like Gehry that reduces "the building to a logo, an instantly memorable image appreciated in movement, as from a passing car..." He sloshes Libeskind for "memorialising piety" and Ken Shuttleworth, Foster's designer on the Gherkin, for "zero interest in the expression of function or good taste".
Unfortunately, Hatherley's bracing view is dispensed in an avalanche of prose, packed with clever cultural allusions. Residents of Saltaire near Bradford may be surprised to learn that they live in a "gesamtarbeitstadt".
As a native of the West Riding, I was bemused to learn "Surely one of the many reasons [it] has produced great urban writers – among them David Pearce, Laura Oldfield, Jarvis Cocker and even the now all-but forgotten J.B.Priestley – is the presence of actual Parisian ferro-vitreous arcades in its cities." The arcades are glorious, but I don't recall them inspiring local writers as their Parisian equivalents did Louis Aragon.
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