By Alan KennyJack FarmerOwen Hatherley
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Creating cities without imagination

This article is over 10 years, 11 months old
New Labour placed great emphasis on urban regeneration, but with deeply conflicting results. Owen Hatherley spoke to Alan Kenny and Jack Farmer about his new book and Britain's ruinous architecture.
Issue 355

Owen Hatherley

How did growing up in Southampton affect your view of architecture?

In lots of ways really. One is that no one ever has anything interesting to say about it. Everyone who writes about it, like J G Ballard or J B Priestley, just says something like “and on our way back from New York we got off at Southampton and then got the train to Waterloo”. You didn’t want to walk around a bit, did you? That gets to the heart of what makes it so interesting as a place, because it’s somewhere that isn’t just crap. It has the possibility of greatness.

It’s got a history going back to the 12th century, and it’s had a couple of stabs at being a proper city, of saying we’re this hugely economically important bit of the country, let’s make a fuss of ourselves, let’s say, “Welcome to England.” It’s a place that was purportedly the gateway to empire and it’s a place where you can see the empire’s decline. It’s got this enormous grandeur and power.

In many ways Britain is a place you can understand as different ways of reacting to the absolute centrifugal dominance of London.

Other countries, especially the ones that were rising powers in the early 20th century like Germany and the US, didn’t have that. They are more multi-centric, with lots of places that have power outside the capital.

Liverpool has this sense that it wants to wrest power from London. But Southampton is an extension of London even though it’s quite far away from it. It’s like Heathrow before Heathrow even existed. The one time it had a stab at making something of itself was after the war. They built a fantastic ocean terminal, lots of council housing, because it had terrible slums – well, it still does.

You talk about how some of the best post-war architecture has been demolished or is planned to be demolished.

Certainly in Southampton it was, and quite indiscriminately. You would get 1960s skyscrapers and the art deco ocean terminal they built there was opened by Clement Attlee in about 1946. That got demolished to make way for some office blocks that were two storeys high with pitched roofs and car parks around them. In the 1980s it just gave up on being a city, on having any kind of presence, power or drama.

Southampton is really a Labour town but had two Labour wipeouts in the 1980s. There’s Southampton, Bristol and maybe Luton and that’s about it for Labour towns outside of London in the south of England. But all the things that were done to it in the 1990s, where all the ex-industrial sites were turned into a gigantic shopping mall – one of the largest in Europe – were done by a Labour council.

At the same time in the inner city there was an area with a covered market and lots of odd little independent shops. The local residents said they wanted it to be a bit like Portobello Road – we want the students to come here, we want people to come in from outside and buy weird stuff from our weird shops – a kind of petty bourgeois idea of what would make it nice.

The council levelled the place, got rid of the covered market, replaced it with a square that no one ever sits in and demolished a load of the shops and houses to build red brick little cottages. George Monbiot wrote about this in his book The Captive State. When he got hold of the Labour councillors who were doing this he said, what the hell are you doing? This is part of your constituency and you’re building a massive shopping mall and you’re destroying the area. They said, can you imagine people coming from Winchester or the New Forest to this place? That suddenly made clear what this Labour council’s function was: to bring people from the Tory shires into the city to buy stuff.

Have New Labour’s attempts at “regeneration” had any positive effects or has it just been about bringing the middle classes into urban areas?

That’s very much what it became, though I don’t think that’s originally what it was. I think this is where you’ve got to be very careful as to the precise differences between New Labour and Thatcherism, not in order to exonerate New Labour at all, but in order to pinpoint exactly where they went wrong. I do continue to think that there are people in the Labour Party who are salvageable. I’m not sure whether the party is or not.

Neoliberal urban policy under New Labour was one glib line that I think worked quite well: they tried to reach social democratic goals using Thatcherite means. They were reacting to a genuine need. British cities, apart from London to a certain extent, had been haemorrhaging populations. They had been denigrated for years and years, and had been in decline for a century in some cases. The kind of attempt at fixing them up in the 1940s and 1960s had very ambiguous results.

A Demos report called Freedom of the City was on my mind when I was writing the book. It was influential on New Labour’s urban thinking; lots of people like John Prescott were talking about it. It said we need to get people back into the cities. Let’s build in them. Let’s get people into them. But because of New Labour’s extreme political conformism they couldn’t conceive of any way of doing this other than getting the middle classes out of the suburbs and into the cities.

When Labour starts losing seats like Battersea it never crosses their mind that it’s their own fault because the entire riverside is full of stockbrokers who aren’t going to vote Labour. It’s kind of like a reverse of what Shirley Porter did in Westminster in the 1980s. They’ve almost reverse-gerrymandered and got themselves voted out somehow.

In your book, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, you also write about how New Labour were responsible for selling off housing stock. But they just replaced it with tokenism and a few show-piece projects.

The word “modernising” was used a lot by New Labour early on. It was actually a straightforward post-war slum clearance idea, condemning whole areas of terraced housing and then clearing them, but without the slightest pretence that they were building for the people who actually lived there. They were going to demolish it all and they were going to build new stuff to make the community more mixed.

The Greater London Council had to be stopped by Harold Macmillan from building council estates in Hampstead and Blackheath – they actually got so far as doing one in Richmond Park. They had to be forced by the government not to build the poor into rich areas. Now you had New Labour building the rich into poor areas or at least trying to. Mostly, even within its own very circumscribed purview, it didn’t work, with a couple of exceptions like London and Manchester.

The legacy is streets of derelict houses. I was in Middlesbrough and it was just alarming. It’s a cliche, but it looked like a bomb site. Those kinds of holes are one of the main things in the book really – charting the fact that to a large extent one of New Labour’s legacies is huge swathes of derelict properties.

What do you think is the coalition’s vision for inner cities?

New Labour had, bless their dark heart, a vision. It was quite a grim vision of the sort of country they wanted to make and in some ways they succeeded: less and less people support the welfare state, less support unemployment benefit and so on.

They inherited a situation where people were actually fairly collectivist in their ideas according to most opinion polls. But the polls have shown that people got more right wing as New Labour went on and it became a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. The more they insisted people thought like this, the more they actually did.

I think the coalition has no noticeable idea of what sort of society it wants at all really. Some of them on the fringes do and it’s pretty weird – people like Phillip Blond. I don’t think Blond is taken seriously in the Tory party any more than Will Hutton was in New Labour. You’ve got to have your intellectual guru. Actually all those early New Labour ideas, some of which would have at least made us a slightly saner country if not a particularly left wing one, were completely ignored. I think Blond has a similar role. They were the intellectual icing on the cake of something that was strikingly unintellectual. Of course they haven’t a vision for the cities because they know the cities don’t elect them. You get odd little flukes, like Boris Johnson becoming the mayor of London, through explicit appeals to the suburbs.

In the last election the Labour vote held up in all the big cities, which I don’t think anyone was expecting. I think some of the slight signs of life in the Labour Party are down to that, this sort of feeling that, shit, people still buy us, maybe we should be less appalling!

The main thing the coalition want is for history to repeat itself. In the 1980s, when building laws were relaxed under Nicholas Ridley and the planning rule book was completely torn up, there were massive bouts of urban development: shopping malls, Surrey Quays, Canary Wharf. They hope that if they relax planning laws enough that will happen again. On the other hand, the construction industry is, despite the fact that they’re all Tories, not doing terribly well. That’s what they’re banking on – a sort of reversal of this focus on the city and a return to suburbs and countryside.

Do you think it’s possible we’ll see the hollowing out of the cities and dereliction as under Thatcher?

Absolutely, it’s already happening. But it depends on where. I think certain places – London, Manchester, maybe Leeds, maybe Birmingham – will get closer to the Parisian situation where you’ve got your incredible rich heritage centre and on the outskirts property and hopefully rioting. But in cities that haven’t had that success I think you’ll see a very similar situation to the 1980s.

In Bradford and Sheffield now, for instance, that’s what’s happening. You’ve got huge swathes of dereliction, you’ve got street after street of tinned-up houses, you’ve got empty blocks of flats, empty office blocks, and there’s no sign of anything changing on the horizon.

You described your first book, Militant Modernism, as a defence of modernism against its defenders. What were you arguing against?

Modernism as chic lifestyle – wallpaper magazine modernism, a kind of home improvement, modernism as doing up your property. I suppose it’s a vague depoliticised utopia.

Modernism is coming back, but in this chic minimalist apartments form. That had always been a part of modernism, but there were also other currents that were getting downplayed.

When they were getting mentioned it was in this vague way: some of them might have been on the left, some of them came from Europe, some of them may have even come from the Soviet Union, some of them might be communist – but we all know that led to the gulag. And that was from modernism’s defenders. Its attackers were actually making the same point I was: no, it’s totally tied up with socialism and planning, post-war social democracy and communism, and I was going, “Yes, it is. That’s why it’s good.”

Is the link between modernism and revolutionary movements overlooked?

In the modernism that has been built in cities all over the UK for the last ten to 15 years it has been. When the estates, particularly, are gentrified and made into luxury flats this connection is downplayed, or ignored, or rewritten into a history of failure.

I wanted to have an argument with that narrative of failure because we can nuance this. We can talk about how, in many cases, the stuff was badly built and was stuck out on the outskirts, so it was badly connected to public transport. But the housing built up to 1945 was the best mass housing ever built in this country, and I think that has to be asserted again and again.

Are there any positive examples in Britain of recent architecture bucking the trend?

That’s a good question to ask. Architecture, more than with any other art form, is very difficult to do as a form of resistance because it’s so capital intensive. So in the 1930s when you had communist architects, by day they were usually designing houses for psychoanalysts and bosses. But they were also churning out a huge amount of utopian products. They were churning out a huge amount for the workers, though it was very much architecture for workers rather than an architecture of workers. Now of this dual thing the second one has stopped. You do the day job, but they’ve stopped doing the other thing – the dreaming. When you are dreaming it’s of very strange things – golf courses in the sky for oil millionaires.

But there are exceptions. One block that I was intrigued by was a place called Homes for Change in Manchester. That used to be a gigantic Brutalist housing estate that got demolished in the 1990s. But one group of activists stuck together through the regeneration process and when most of it was demolished, they formed a co-op and managed to convince the council to let them buy a couple of hundred flats.

They utilised a lot of the old Brutalist ideas with open space and massive walkways. They were trying to design solidarity – some sort of collectivity. They reused these Brutalist ideas in a more ad hoc, less top-down way. If this had been reproduced across Manchester I would have been very happy.

It’s great but it’s a drop in the ocean. If the council, successfully or unsuccessfully, had tried to create somewhere like that for 50,000 people, that would be really interesting. I think you need to have some sort of control over government in order to do that. To do things on that sort of scale you need to have that kind of ambition.

Owen Hatherley’s latest book, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, is published by Verso, £17.99.

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