Book review: New Kind Of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain by Owen Hatherley

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FOR Owen Hatherley, current British architecture and urbanism display a “total lack of care for the built environment”, its practitioners ­devoting their talents to the “external decoration of evil”.

New Kind Of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain

Owen Hatherley

Verso, £20

Gavin Bowd

In this hugely depressing but supremely entertaining book, the radical critic sets off on a series of urban trawls, skewering the UK’s neoliberal dystopia while seeking out ­solace in the past and future.

The scene is set at Luton Airport, where countless East ­European guest workers are intimidated and processed in a filthy and overcrowded hangar before being dispersed on the worst and most expensive ­public transport system in western Europe.

There then follows the “Great Wen” of London, its ­urban space ravaged by Thatcherism, New Labour and now the “Tory-Whig” coalition, with only the “Poplarist” council estates of Tower Hamlets and the “sobriety and solidarity” of the Unison headquarters offering respite.

On leaving the capital, the bleakness does not end as provincial cities make the same misguided attempts at regeneration, dreaming of “creating Barcelona or Berlin with the methods of Canary Wharf”. Good architecture, and especially social housing, are found in unexpected places such as Lincoln, with the “Googie modernism” of its St John the Baptist church and the “self-esteem without self-delusion” of a city that still manages to manufacture things. The notorious Byker estate in Newcastle is found to be a good example of community involvement in architectural design.

It is not long before envy of the Continent kicks in: according to Hatherley, British councillors and town planners would rightly get down on their knees and weep if they could see the development of the Hamburg docks, the recreation of a capitalist city along social-democratic lines.

It is for this reason that, with a touch of naivety, the ­despairing author looks to Scotland for something better and different, or at least a “pinkish sludge” separating it from down south.

We are to be largely disappointed: Waverley Station, with its “heavy security, blaring commerce and mistreated imperial grandeur”, is typically British, just as the Tram fiasco shows our “inability to perform even the most basic tasks”.

The development of Leith’s waterfront is as bad as Thames Gateway, “one of the dark places of the earth”: the HafenCity Hamburg was “not designed by the same species that redeveloped Leith Docks”.

Despite being Europe’s oil capital for 35 years, Aberdeen has not added a single worthwhile building; instead, Union Terrace Gardens, “a model of civic life based on shelter, ­quiet and relaxation”, are destined to become yet another shopping mall. However, the Granite City’s Rosemount Gardens are celebrated as being inspired by the Red Vienna of the 1930s, while Govan’s revamped tenements give an idea of what might have been in Britain’s second city.

And, of course, there is Cumbernauld: despite the “subtopian horror” of its town centre, the northern suburbs are described as glorious with “crazy and baroque landscaping” conceived by “the Gaudi of pavements”. Strolling through these wooded districts, Hatherley suddenly feels he is back in Stockholm and has an inkling of a Scandinavian future for independent Caledonia.

Nevertheless, in the meantime, there seems little chance of an alternative space: “class cleansing” continues apace, while resistance takes the small-scale and ephemeral form of student occupations or, more nihilistically, the burning and looting of a neoliberal cityscape where organic delis and pound shops live cheek by jowl.

The state planning and democratic control Hatherley proposes as a solution seem very far away, utopian even, and with that, his idea of urban beauty. The Olympic ­village, he complains, is “a ready-made New Town just ready to be used as a post-apocalyptic film set”.

It is therefore very apt 
that the opening ceremony 
of the Games will aim to 
create a ­replica of the British ­countryside.