A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain

By Owen Hatherley

The only trip I’ve ever taken across the pond was in the late 1970s, and the general impression I had of Britain then was that the cities were the ugliest I had ever seen. The patches of American rust belt I’ve experienced since have been bad, but you have to go to the source to appreciate the real depths of post-industrial blight.

And so one of the questions I brought to this book was whether things have been getting any better.

There’s a difficulty to writing about architecture that other art critics don’t have to worry about. When discussing a novel, film, painting or particular piece of music, it’s easy to assume the reader has some familiarity with the work under consideration, either first-hand or through reliable recordings or reproductions. Buildings are different. A picture or written description of St. Paul’s or Fallingwater or the Taj Mahal or Coliseum simply can’t convey to any degree of approximation how these structures are experienced, what they mean. And so Owen Hatherley’s tour guide to contemporary British architecture is a hard sell: being an account of buildings I’ve never seen (being all post-70s), and probably never will (since it’s unlikely I’ll ever go back). And despite the common Anglo-Saxon heritage, a sense of foreignness does creep in. Just what is it with all these elevated British walkways that don’t seem to go anywhere?

But I don’t think this is as big a drawback as it might at first seem. Hatherley doesn’t just visit Britain’s greatest hits (and misses) as an informed outsider (he likens himself to a Martian on the motorway to Glasgow); he writes about the generic public architecture we live and work in every day but don’t see: not signature “icons” but apartment buildings and row housing, ports and shopping malls. And in addition he also thinks about what he’s looking at, trying to fit all of the dramatic and routine ugliness into a larger political and cultural context.

In terms of the architecture itself the Introduction lays out the basic scheme. Postmodernism has been replaced by pseudomodernism, a style which emphasizes urban regeneration through what amounts to a lot of tacky cladding that isn’t suited to what it’s covering up. Pseudomodernism borrows the formal language of Modernism but turns it into muzak. It “embodies a vacuous aspirationalism; a Modernism without the politics, without the utopianism, or without any conception of the polis; a Modernism that conceals rather than reveals its functions; Modernism as a shell.”

Pseudomodernism is not, however, empty of political meaning. It is the house style of neoliberalism, and reflects the shift in Britain’s economy away from industrial production to services, the financial sector, and consumption. And it carries a message. From luxury apartments to social housing, “taste and aesthetics are almost invariably determined by the unspoken matter of class.”

Class, however, expresses itself in ironic ways. If the essence of pseudomodernism is that it “conceals rather than reveals” by way of a cheap facelift, the resulting grotesqueries only draw attention to a debased and diminished reality. Luxury apartments, Hatherley notes, may actually be smaller than the legal standards set for public housing. And the propaganda of “creative cities” can’t paper over the fact that the creative class has fled from places like Manchester, leaving only the corporate headquarters of the media industry. One can’t help but think of New York City. A nicer place to visit now than it was thirty years ago, to be sure. But . . . empty. Hatherley’s despairing envoi to Manchester is worth quoting at length:

After the crash, we can see it as the ultimate failiure of the very recent past, a mausoleum of Blairism. But what can be done with these ruins? The sheer stark strength of the remnants of the postwar settlement in the unforgiving light of the late 1970s inspired something equally bracing and powerful. How do you react to something which already tries incredibly hard not to offend the eye, or respond critically to an alienated landscape which bends over backwards not to alienate, with its jolly rhetoric, its “fun” colour, its “organic” materials? How do you find an atmosphere in something which tries everything to avoid creating a perceptible mood other than idiot optimism? It’s difficult at first to imagine what the ruins of New Labour could possibly inspire – but in places like the Green Quarter of Salford Quays you can almost hear the outline of it, the sound of enclosure, of barricading oneself into a hermetically sealed, impeccably furnished prison against an outside world seldom seen but assumed to be terrifying. We await the Joy Division of the dovecots with anticipation.

And here is Greenwich/Hell:

a more astounding failure of vision is difficult to imagine. If there is a vision here, it’s of a transplant of America at its worst – gated communities, entertainment hangars and malls criss-crossed by carbon-spewing roads; a vision of a future alienated, blankly consumerist, class-ridden and anomic.

As always in such cases of cultural/political criticism I was left wondering how much of this is being driven by a corporate agenda and how much by consumer choices. One of the defining characteristics of this architecture, like so much of modern culture, is how cheaply it can be produced. The resulting buildings are crap, and Hatherley describes some of the newer ones already falling apart. Of course the yuppies are being ripped off (just look at the recent fad for overpriced “loft” condominiums around these parts), and it’s troubling to see such a large part of the economy being driven by people with more money than taste, but real quality can be hard to identify and it’s easier to just go with what everyone else is having. Furthermore, if we go back to the days pre-pseudomodernism I’m not sure things were much better. Hatherley hates playful and twee pseudomodernism and admires the raw power of earlier Brutalist architecture, but raw power was the only thing Brutalism had going for it. Living in Toronto in the 1980s I experienced a fairly high dose of this shit first hand and it was awful. Those concrete blocks didn’t make for a comfortable or efficient way of warehousing either people or books, and they were painful to look at. Given a choice, I’d opt for one of today’s yuppiedromes. In much the same way the alienating and eye-offending Manchester of the late 70s may have been inspiring for musicians, but my guess is you wouldn’t want to live there.

In any event, this too shall pass, as the paradox in Hatherley’s title makes clear. Despite its bulky physical presence, architecture is the least resilient and enduring art. And it seems likely that the tatty facades and barnacles of pseudomodernism will suffer a particularly speedy erosion through the processes of urban regeneration and renewal that they have thus far been able to exploit.

I don’t await our post-prefix culture with any hope or anticipation.

Review first published online February 27, 2012.

%d bloggers like this: