Originally posted on 23 December 2012, this is a longer version of my review of Owen Hatherley’s A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain (Verso, 2012) which appeared in the Oxonian Review on 4 November 2012.
Over the last few years, Owen Hatherley has established himself as something of an enfant terrible of architectural criticism. His Militant Modernism (2009), A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (2010) and now A New Kind of Bleak have launched vitriolic attacks on Britain’s architectural culture, and have done much to shape many especially young people’s understanding of urban Britain and the forces to which it is subject. A self-avowed leftist, Hatherley’s critiques have emerged into a zeitgeist shaped by the inequities of Britain’s urban environments, whether the Occupy Movement, protests against cuts and dwindling pension provisions, the urgent housing crises of our city centres, or, most acutely, the riots of August 2011. It is capitalism and in particular its neoliberal formation of the last thirty years which, Hatherley argues, has tainted architecture and the built environment. Over history buildings have always been highly visible statements of power – architecture is, one might say, power made visible – yet for perhaps the first time architecture has become an agent of the system itself.
This book continues the series of ‘urban trawls’ – essentially potted explorations of Britain’s cities – which made up A Guide to the New Ruins. Originally commissioned by the architectural paper, Building Design and first appearing in 2009, the series sought to chart the neglected post-industrial cityscapes of particularly Britain’s northern cities but also the often ham-fisted attempts by the then New Labour government of rejuvenating these cities through the dubious strategies of rebranding and ‘regeneration’.
New Labour’s strategy was, Hatherley admits, laudable enough in principle. Influenced by the ideas of several architects and urban thinkers, one of the main arguments behind New Labour’s intended ‘Urban Renaissance’ was that denser cities were better cities. Density of buildings and habitation would create cities which worked better, and also foster the types of urban culture which made them ‘vibrant’ (to use one of the marketing phrases) places to live. Like so many of New Labour’s initiatives, the private sector was the source of capital for these new ‘aspirational’ developments, yet with the local authorities often little more than giving away the land to ease them through. City centre brownfield sites dominated, or one could say, ones which were made brownfield by the demolition of swathes of 1960s and 1970s council housing. Not only were these buildings reflective of the now superseded post-war social settlement, but they simply were not dense enough. Most estates contained the civilising gestures of decent amounts of public spaces with buildings set back from one another or from a busy road, all things which were incompatible with the new project of making cities more urban, and, one can hardly ignore, developers’ need to maximise the profit potential of their plots.
The particular aesthetic these new developments (which extended well beyond housing) adopted Hatherley calls pseudo-modernism. This, he argues, is actually a form of postmodernism superficially adopting the forms and appearance of modernism, but stripped of its moralising force and social agenda which drove so many early modernist projects. Thus, we have proliferation of various forms of cladding, an often garish use of colour, ubiquitous (and hideous) green glass and pink terracotta, to give just a few examples. Irregular ‘barcode façades’ were intended to provide variety while the occasional sweeping curve or jagged roof, debasing the forms of Deconstructivist high architecture, offered the faintest nod to contextualism and the code of ‘good design’ guarded by Labour’s now defunct Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE). Like the buildings themselves – expensive looking new housing blocks disguising shoddily built, pokey ‘designer flats’, a derisory number of which were (barely) affordable, as Hatherley angrily points out – the Urban Renaissance gave the appearance of regeneration while doing not much more than lining developers’ pockets.
In many ways, as Hatherley admits, little has changed during the last two years under the coalition. Urban Renaissance-style buildings are still being built, and despite their hideous and lasting costs Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes are ploughing on with renewed vigour. Thus, in many ways this book is continuation of New Ruins both in terms of content and theme; although having already covered many northern English cities in his previous book, Hatherley extends the focus of the present book to the cities of the midlands, the west and southern England while also including the Valleys, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Belfast. ‘Middle England’ is brought into view, and it is fitting that here in Britain’s electoral heartland Hatherley does carve out differences in policy between the coalition and their New Labour predecessors, and begins to assess the mark they will leave on urban Britain, even if the ongoing recession means that comparatively little is currently being built.
While New Labour was a keen advocate of the creative industry-led ‘good design’ (despite its often bad results), the coalition, in contrast, is staunchly anti-architect. One only need read education secretary, Michael Gove’s comments on his low-cost replacement for Labour’s ambitious Building Schools for the Future programme for an indication of the coalition’s diametric opposition to Labour’s architect love-in: ‘We won’t be getting Richard Rogers to design your school, we won’t be getting any award-winning architects to design it, because no-one in this room is here to make architects richer’. If the coalition, then, is anti-architect, they are also vehemently pro-developer. The first draft of the coalition’s planning reforms took the notion of consultation to new levels; so relaxed were its restrictions, it appeared to have been written by developers themselves. Although now revised after the predictable uproar, the first draft could be read as an attempt to remove the planning system entirely, enshrining in law a presumption towards accepting whatever was put before planning committees; in essence, turning the whole country into a Thatcherite low-tax, de-regulated enterprise zone. Given Hatherley’s often harrowing depiction of the recent additions to urban Britain in this book and his last, the right-wing argument that planning regulation is somehow holding back economic growth seems quite bizarre.
If the removing of planning policy was in many ways going against the grain of traditional conservative thought, a further aspect of the Tories’ intervention into urban Britain, though not about architecture at first glance, was intended to play right into that sphere. The coalition’s reform of the benefits system and in particular the cap on housing benefit will have the effect of socially cleansing (call it what you will, but I do not believe this to be too an extreme description) our city centres, especially London. The reforms penalise those too poor to have taken advantage of the property boom who remain renting their properties at ever increasing levels (with their wages remaining stagnant or actually decreasing in real terms). The charity Shelter recently reported that in 2011 private rents rose 1.8 times the rate of wage inflation. The situation is quite desperate, with the repercussions of these policies sure to be felt, it is no exaggeration to say, for decades to come. Hatherley’s aim with this book of searching ‘for the coalition’s space … their deliberate strangling of the cities, and more than anything else evidence of the swift dereliction that has overtaken the spaces of the outgoing regime’ are, therefore, doubly urgent.
After a long introduction during which Hatherley stakes out his underlying argument, the book essentially takes the form of a travelogue, full of passion and anger at what he finds, very much (and self-consciously) inspired by the tradition of J. B. Priestley and Ian Nairn. The cityscapes Hatherley surveys are, it would be fair to say, ones which the reader is unlikely to have visited, and in any other work would be unlikely subjects of architectural criticism. Generally, the book is engaging and well written; Hatherley’s acerbic wit is a welcome antidote to the insipid optimism at the heart of the Urban Renaissance. The odd sweeping, unsubstantiated remark, betraying Hatherley’s inner Trot, jars (the quote above about ‘outgoing regime’ is a minor example), as does the odd reference to the high theory of Deleuze et al., pretentious in a work so openly journalistic. The book is, however, far too long; the origins of its episodic structure as a magazine serial are obvious. It is also rather under-illustrated. Photographs by Hatherley himself make an occasional appearance but they are small and reproduced in low-quality black and white, losing any impact they might have had. I suppose in a way it would be odd to reproduce the photographs in high-fidelity; part of what Hatherley is railing against is the glossy vacuousness of how architecture is so often represented in photography: blue skies, perfectly aligned views, no hint of actual human presence. However, some kind of compromise could have been reached, and the book would have been better for it.
Despite these criticisms, it is hard to disagree with Hatherley’s analysis; he is an acute, often witty, and impassioned observer, and most of what he argues is quite compelling. The book runs into problems, however, when he attempts to offer solutions to the current predicament. He suggests that they can be found in ‘previous urban alternatives’, and therefore, betrays his ideological prejudice towards the post-war modernism, and the social programmes with which it was inextricably linked.
Certainly, as Hatherley passionately argues, social architecture – public housing, new schools, libraries, etc. – of the 1960s and 1970s could be and often was more humanising than much of the architecture being built today. However, while the best of it was truly excellent (Hatherley cites the Byker Estate in Newcastle, the Barbican and more dubiously Sheffield’s Park Hill estate as particularly fine examples), a great deal of the housing of this period was poor, ill-thought out, badly built, unappealing then and now and most often designed without the involvement of those who would actually be living there. This was, in the vast majority of instances, top-down, imposed architecture. The considered, iterative design process for the Byker Estate, which brought local people into the fold at every stage, was the exception and is the key reason why that estate works and so many others did not. Poor maintenance was and remains a big problem, although this has been exacerbated by cheap and unsuitable construction methods. However, at the root of these estates’ failure is that in almost every regard they were far too undemocratic. Not only did those living in them not buy into the utopian ideals which at root underpinned these endeavours, but the wider public did not either. Put bluntly, without wider public support there were simply no votes for paying out significant sums for the continued maintenance and update for buildings which few had a personal stake in. Moreover, the architectural excesses of this period – one immediately thinks of the high-handed intellectualism of Alison and Peter Smithson’s Brutalism – have, one can reasonably argue, irreparably damaged the progression of modern architecture in Britain. Brutalism’s excesses have prejudiced many against all forms of modernism, which they perceive as being ugly, overbearing and the product of arrogant architects more concerned with bolstering their egos than with such apparently prosaic concerns as designing a decent building at a reasonable cost. This populist sentiment is exactly the one Michael Gove has invoked with his repeated attacks on architects.
What Hatherley fails to see or refuses to admit, is that pseudo-modernism is the logical product of this situation. No-one with money to spend is likely to buy a flat in yet another debased, discredited ‘concrete monstrosity’, no matter how spacious, pleasant and well-built it might be. The logic of the market therefore dictates that the aesthetics must change (even if the differences in structure and construction between a 1960s block and one going up down the road right now are fairly minor). The marketing is certainly objectionable, riddled with clichés about being ‘aspirational’ and ‘designer’, and the cladding and barcode façades, as Hatherley rightly identifies, mask small, shoddily built flats, which are nevertheless prohibitively expensive (even with the few concessions to a percentage of dwellings which are forced conform to some bizarre, relative notion of ‘affordability’). Despite all this, these flats are still being bought. There are plenty of ex-council flats available which on the whole are more spacious, better-built, comparably or better located, and certainly much cheaper. They are, of course, cheaper for a reason: they are in lower demand. What developers (and their architects) have realised is that what people want are flats in buildings which look new, shiny and bright. Pseudo-modernism, then, is the symptom rather than a cause of paucity of so much contemporary architecture, and arguing that a return to Brutalist forms, however beautiful to an architectural historian’s eye, would in any way alter this situation is wholly counterproductive.
In many ways this gets at the heart of where Hatherley’s book, for all its impassioned vitriol and inspired incision, ultimately fails. The long opening chapter contains Hatherley’s main argument, the succeeding chapters of ‘trawls’ are then used as evidence for his earlier assertions. There is little in the way of a conclusion or of an argument that is built up and pieced together as the book progresses, all of which would have resulted in a view which is more nuanced, easier to defend and much more convincing. What we are left with, then, is a polemic, a piece of journalism where it appears Hatherley does not wish to let anything as unimportant as actual evidence get in the way of his preconceived outlook.
Thus, the book offers little in the way of positive solutions to the problems Hatherley identifies. He does, however, suggest hope may lie in three possible groups: trade unions, students and the young unemployed. Each group has made recent interventions in urban space though in fundamentally different ways. The new Unison headquarters on London’s Euston Roads is a decent, if unremarkable building which Hatherley reads as offering some clues as the ways trade unions are adapting themselves to changes in the economy and working relations. More immediately interesting things are happening in our universities. Students have been among the strongest hit by the coalition with huge fee increases, and felt the rise of pseudo-modernism more acutely than most through the proliferation of shiny yet exorbitantly expensive new halls of residence. Over the last few years we have witnessed 1968-style occupations at a number of universities and several imaginative interventions which aim to challenge the fundamental assumptions underlying our higher education system and, indeed, society itself. However, given the coalition’s rather naked attempt to ‘consumerise’ students, the future of such student-led actions is unclear.
So far, so predictable. However, it is with the third group that Hatherley strays into uncertain territory; the young unemployed’s recent urban interventions were, of course, the riots of August 2011. London has always congratulated itself that it has no banlieue, no ring of socially and racially segregated areas around a more affluent city centre. What it does have, however, are people of vastly different levels of wealth living in very close proximity, sometimes even side-by-side, yet with little if any social or economic interaction. It was during the riots and their aftermath that these two cultures came into focus. The damage caused by the young rioters, the majority of whom were born and bred in the areas they ransacked, was cleared up the following day by a predominantly white, middle-class, affluent group of people, mostly originating from outside London. Gentrification and the reification of social stratification it has led to certainly played a part in the riots’ outbreak, but the broader causes are, it would be fair to say, rather more complex. For Hatherley, however, the riots were simply the inevitable result of these urban conditions created by subsequent governments, indeed, by capitalism itself. He rails against the Cameron mentality that the riots were ‘criminality pure and simple’, arguing if we ‘pretend that this had nothing to do with the demonisation of the young and poor, nothing to do with our brutally unequal society and our pathetic trickle-down attempts at palliation … then we line up with those who think that looting Foot Locker is worse than looting an entire economy’. Yet, on one level Cameron was right, and a lot of people agreed with him; these were acts of criminality, particular choices made by individuals. However, despite the move rightwards of the Conservative party over the last few years, even the most hard-nosed Tory would have to admit in the face of evidence that crime does have more causes than personal choice and that these can only be understood in sociological and economic terms. By equating the looting of Foot Locker with that of an economy, Hatherley is guilty of the type reductive reasoning the right so loves. But while the coalition’s equating household finances with those of the state, for example, has, despite its false logic, masterfully brought public opinion round to their right-wing economic agenda, Hatherley’s comparison is alienating, painting himself as an extremist when in many ways he is actually speaking for the mainstream and the majority.
The way Hatherley allows his ideology to trammel over his usually reasonable and well-made observations is without doubt this book’s main weakness; it is detrimental to his argument and by marking off its author as a left-wing ideologue prevents the book from being as transformative as it might be. Rather than preaching to the choir, what our current situation requires is for people to look at their surroundings and understand how they are related to and reflect the economic and political system. That the book invites the reader to do just that (though it could go further) is its great strength. Indeed, much of Hatherley’s actual argument about postmodern urban spaces is familiar, recalling, as Will Self has noted, Rem Koolhaas’ now seminal essay from 2000, ‘Junkspace’. Koolhaas essentially contends that after modernism ran its course, a caricatured modernism emerged, one which is hollowed out, turning on its head the human progress modernity was supposed to herald. This description perfectly accounts for both pseudo-modernism and the still emerging icons of high architecture. What is different in Hatherley’s case, however, is that he is a non-architect. He speaks from outside an extremely inward-looking, often navel-gazing profession, and is not concerned with promoting a ‘good design’ agenda, which is really about architects’ professional interests, but the basic material conditions of people’s lives. The popularity of his books reveals there to be huge dissatisfaction with our urban environments, an eagerness to discover more and learn how to analyse our surroundings critically. It is only through this process, I would argue, that alternatives can be sought. It is clear that modernism’s principal lesson in retrospect – that architecture cannot change social conditions, it can only reflect them – still holds; it cannot and should not be unlearnt. But getting people to look critically at architecture, as Hatherley’s book tries to do, will in turn lead them to look critically at the system through which it is created, and, perhaps, do something about changing it.
1. Merlin Fulcher, ‘Gove: Richard Rogers won’t design your school’, The Architects’ Journal, (2 February 2011), [accessed 20 October 2012]
2. ‘London Rent Watch: Rent inflation and Affordability in London’s private rental market’, commissioned by Shelter, (March 2012), [accessed 22 October 2012]
3. ‘MP calls for more affordable flats on estate’, BBC News, (25 October 2012), [accessed 26 October 2012]
4. ‘England riots: Cameron says police admit to wrong tactics’, BBC News, (11 August 2011), [accessed 26 October 2012]
5. Will Self, ‘It hits in the gut’, London Review of Books, Vol. 34, No. 5 (8 March 2012), pp. 22–24
6. Koolhaas is also interested the effect the assault on post-war public housing especially is having on our individual and collective memory. The concerted destruction of these buildings eases their erasure our memories, leaving the sense that these great projects, the result of huge communal will and collective action, are now impossible. He explored these ideas, as well as the coterminous rise of the urge to preserve in an exhibition entitled Cronocaos, first shown at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale.