By Kevin Orr
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 354

A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain

This article is over 11 years, 7 months old
Owen Hatherley, Verso, £17.99
Issue 354

In this bitter, witty and compelling book, Owen Hatherley takes us on a city by city, building by building journey through New Labour’s architectural legacy. He starts with his childhood home of Southampton and ends in Liverpool, “the desolate city of property and tourism”. On the way, he eviscerates the Blairite strategy of urban regeneration which used “the instruments of social democracy against its social content” leading to countless Private Finance Initiative schemes and some very poor architecture.

Hatherley’s commentary describes the decline of postmodernist architecture in the late 1990s, epitomised by the bloated confection of Terry Farrell’s MI6 building on the South Bank of the Thames, with its incorporation of some of the aesthetic features of modernism, to form what he refers to as “pseudomodernism”.

Pseudomodernism is instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the centres of Manchester or Leeds. It is characterised by “cramped speculative blocks marketed as ‘luxury flats’ or ‘stunning developments'”, glass towers with irregular panels (“barcode facades”) and buildings purporting to be iconic. Indeed, Hatherley has found at least four buildings recently erected in Hull, London and Glasgow, which even include some variant of “icon” in their name. These “range from nondescript blocks of flats to an aquarium”, highlighting the vacuity of their aspirations.

Hatherley is a caustic critic of the “Blairboxes” constructed over the past decade, like the “moronically named iQuarter” in Sheffield. He is a master of the put down: Manchester’s Beetham Tower designer is “a mediocre architect at the very top of his game”. But he also displays a keen regard for the best of post-war architecture – places such as Gateshead’s Trinity Square Car Park or Sheffield’s Castle Market, which are now under peril of regeneration (“Get there while you can: nothing like it will be built again”).

As much as the buildings themselves, Hatherley regrets the passing of the vision that created such modernist architecture which was designed for ordinary people by socially engaged, even sometimes socialist, architects, as in the case of the designers of Sheffield’s Park Hill estate. By contrast, the urban legacy of Blair and Brown is the property developers’ inane glitz, which is the architectural equivalent of Celebrity Come Dine With Me, and the unfulfilled promise of regeneration through the “creative industries”.

Hatherley’s first book, Militant Modernism, was a fierce, funny and intelligent defence of modernism and this book is similarly eclectic, erudite and enjoyable. Hatherley is as comfortable and convincing discussing the development of 20th century architecture as he is discussing the esotericism of the popular music scene in the cities he visits. In this gem of a book, Hatherley reminds us that architecture reflects its times; but above all he reminds us that good architecture can please and even thrill.

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