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Book Review: A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain by Owen Hatherley

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Sometimes it helps to approach politics from a sideways direction – from a different perspective you can see the old political issues – why was the British Labour government from 1997 to 2010 so awful in so many ways (only of course to be far surpassed by our current Tory-Lib Dem nightmare)? – in new ways.

Owen Hatherley in A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain approaches from the direction of architecture, and very enlightening, if depressing, that direction turns out to be – helped by a wry, not infrequently laugh-out-loud dry sarcasm and a minimum use of professional jargon. He’s on form on the Science Centre in Glasgow – “If we really need these comprehensive redevelopment-trailing enclaves of titanium tat housing interactive experiences to patronise pre-teens (and I see no reason why we do), then this is one of the better examples.”

Despite the general lack of jargon, I did, however, learn a new term, Googie, for architecture that originated in American Forties to Sixties roadside diners and coffee shops, designed to catch the eye of passing motorists, and which Hatherley traces through “radical” architecture to the typical boring but “enlivened” by weird roof shapes and odd bits poking out or off kilter that characterises a mean and poky “luxury flat complex” that’s bound to be located near you – “its forbears are in the aesthetics of consumption and advertising, its forms designed to be seen at great speed, not in serene contemplation. It should not surprise us that a style of consumption would return under neoliberalism, but the formal affinities of Pseudomodernism with this aesthetic offers an alternative explanation for what often seems an arbitrary play of forms. By drawing on the futurism of the McCarthy era, the architecture of the equally conformist neoliberal consensus establishes a link between two eras of political stagnation and technological acceleration. It also allows us to reinterpret what purports to be an aesthetic of edification as one of consumption…. The architecture once described as deconstructivist owes less to Derrida than it does to McDonald’s.”

So that pretty well tells you where Hatherley is coming from, both politically and architecturally. He’s a fervent critic of the past couple of decades of “regeneration” of British cities, and something of a defender, if far from an uncritical one, of the aspirations of the Fifties and Sixties – and the structures built then, often poorly and carelessly, but he says with good intentions, and designs that would have held up fine had faith, and investment, been maintained.

Now instead we’ve got, he says, rightly in my view, mean and pinched, poorly built structures characterised by “vernacular” brickwork (often clearly “decorative”) and slatted wood, or even worse plastic and plasticky or metalled panelling in preschooler-friendly colours, thrown up by developers with no consideration to the environments in which they’re placed. Topped off, of course, with oddly angled or shaped roofs, which almost invariably leak. (I’m reminded of a Camden new block of flats crammed into a busy road that I visited recently – badly placed glass, odd shapes, and plaster weeping from barely finished walls to show the cheap and shoddy concrete block beneath.) And that’s without mentioning the seemingly deliberately, outright, unredeemably ugly hotels….

He sees much of the government activity – often demolition of perfectly sound buildings of little age, people’s homes – as a drive to “artificially stimulate (sorry ‘renew’) the housing market”. He quotes the case of New Labour Sheffield, which went from an abundant supply of council housing through the wide deployment of the wrecking ball to a council house waiting list that quadrupled from 2001 and 2007 to 58,706, and now may well have topped 90,000. “Mixed communities” i.e. owner occupiers, were supposed to move into new developments in the holes created – often these didn’t materialise, and where they did, those new people are now often trapped in negative equity in poky (failing to meet by a large margin the Parker-Morris standards of council days), poorly built flats, where tenants of speculative landlords aren’t trapped in the same.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.