Book review: A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain

A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain By Owen Hatherley Verso, 400 pp, £17.99

"By these stones shall we be judged." Those words, or various interpretations of them, were famously announced in 1933 by Karl Seitz, the Social Democrat mayor of Vienna.

Seitz was opening the Karl Marx-Hof, a utopian Austrian workers' garden-city. A year later, during their seizure of state power, Austrian fascists attacked the inhabited Karl Marx-Hof with howitzers and trench mortars.

Owen Hatherley approvingly quotes Seitz's celebrated phrase, and refers to the right-wing assault on Karl Marx-Hof, in his introduction to A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. They serve as his guiding principles. History will pass verdict, sometimes alarmingly quickly, on what we build. And there will always be reactionaries waiting in the wings, their howitzers charged and mortars primed, even if in lucky Britain the artillery is usually metaphorical.

Owen Hatherley is a tyro architectural critic. He is a modernist. There are many kinds of modernists. They are as one in their scorn for Prince Charles's attempts to move the entire country into Georgian market towns, but they are united by little else. One modernist's cutting-edge residential block is another modernist's design nightmare. Hatherley is a passionate, hip, socialist, inner-city modernist. He believes, unassailably, architecture is not - or should not be - an isolated, academic practice. Where we live and work reflects who we are. Buildings matter.

A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain is a self-conscious shadow of JB Priestley's 1934 classic English Journey. There are differences. Hatherley also visits Scotland and Wales, and he devotes himself to conurbations. Priestley, even if he were writing today, would not stud his descriptions of Sheffield, as Hatherley does, with worshipful references to Pulp and the Human League.

But Hatherley is as concerned as Priestley was with the way that people are made to live by the powers which build their homes and environment. Prince Charles and the heritage industry may pretend otherwise, but the vast majority of us have lived in cities for almost two centuries, and will continue to do so. Owen Hatherley goes through selected British cities wide-eyed, witty and wondering … what are our cities for?

In his search of the answer, he zig-zags across Britain, from his native Southampton (haunted by the Titanic, even architecturally) to the functioning "non-city" of Milton Keynes; from "the mausoleum of Blairism" in renovated Manchester to the thrilling blend of old and new that is 21st-century Newcastle. Eventually, he winds up in Glasgow. It had to be Glasgow. Hatherley would never bother with Edinburgh.

He is deeply impressed. Not quite as impressed as he is with Liverpool - the only British city outside London, in Hatherley's view, to court comparison with Manhattan and Berlin. But he likes Glasgow. He likes the fact that unlike elsewhere (including Liverpool), Glaswegian tenements have been recognised as good, solid city homes, and often saved from demolition. Hatherley, we slowly realise, is an incorrigible optimist. At the Kingston Bridge in Anderston he sees an emulation of Los Angeles "in a markedly unsympathetic climate". He loves the new BBC buildings by the Clyde: "Decent, upstanding, moderate modernism, a surprising contrast to godawful recent BBC buildings in London and elsewhere".

He falls like a plumb for the buildings around Glasgow Central station. St Vincent, Union and Bothwell streets are "absolutely full of what would have been extremely advanced architecture for its date" - so much that they are, apparently, occasionally used as film set doubles for Edwardian Chicago or New York.

He points, uncontroversially, to the Hat Rack, the Lion Chambers and - of course - Rennie Mackintosh's School of Art (especially its "dizzying" library) as jaw-dropping paragons of urban design. Hatherley is less entranced by the "obnoxious" Cineworld tower on Renfrew Street and by a few other blots on the skyline. But overall he sees in Glasgow's mean streets vivid reflections of the city's civic and international socialism.

That pleases him. Like Karl Seitz in Vienna and JB Priestley in England 80 years ago, he believes that politics, not ivory tower aesthetics, are at the root of architecture. Buildings should be measured according to the living standards of their inhabitants, not by their resemblance to a Jane Austen movie set. A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain is barbed, witty and disputatious. That alone would put it among the more readable of architectural books. Owen Hatherley's shimmering idealism is a bonus.