A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain, By Owen Hatherley

Landscape of bricks, mortar, and misery

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The Independent Culture

You can't accuse Owen Hatherley of intellectualising from his desk. The author's A New Kind of Bleak is based on the art of the "urban trawl" and, to be fair, he trawls far and wide. In his follow-up to A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, he navigates Britain (and Northern Ireland), taking the reader to such glamorous spots as Teesside, Croydon, Lincoln, Barrow-in-Furness, the West Midlands, and, wait for it, the Thames Gateway, in his admirable bid to use "architecture and town planning" as a "way to talk about politics". But even as he does, he describes his chosen towns as "second rank".

Earnest and well-researched, the book starts out well. He wants to find a way of "rebuilding cities that is not just aesthetically superior, but also more equitable", hoping to "search for the coalition's space" in this pursuit. It makes sense that he would want to highlight the "miserable, abandoned present", before he can proffer an alternative, but be warned, there's a lot of misery. Any sense of hope is buried within his dense descriptions of dystopian architecture – made only bleaker by his black and white photos.

He warns that his second book might seem "grim", concentrating "perhaps overmuch on the gory details of some extremely unlovely places". And, on this, he is right. Page after page (there are 361 in my copy), gives light to his view that Britain's architecture remains the "exterior decoration of evil". Dartford is "desperately sad", Birmingham is interesting only for its "monstrous typicality", and even Banksy, in Hatherley's world, is neither funny nor subversive, but an indictment of "public-school japery". This doesn't make for much of a page-turner.

There are exceptions, such as Coventry, but this, too, is "flawed, tarnished by the usual neoliberal trash like everywhere else". In a moment of constructive thought, he suggests who could build a new landscape: trade unions, students and the young unemployed. But then he goes back to describing just what's wrong with every building in town. This is a book on architecture, with political asides, and it is difficult to understand for whom he is writing it, outside the confines of lefty intellectualism. A sad indictment, because here, he is also right: architecture and town planning "may perhaps, be able to offer some way out".