Adventures in architectural hell

This review of books on cities by Owen Hatherley and P. D. Smith appeared recently in the Irish Times.

A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain By Owen Hatherley. Verso, 434pp. £20
City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age By PD Smith. Bloomsbury, 383pp. £25

I LIVE IN CANTERBURY, an hour from London, and the train I take into the city stops briefly at Stratford International station, slap in the middle of the Olympic Park. I’ll be making sure I work from home once this summer’s corporate folly and civic con begins, but it’s hard not to be awed by the sight that will greet rail passengers from Kent and the Continent en route to the games. On arrival at Stratford the kitsch Olympic enclave is invisible; you disembark at the bottom of a concrete-lined gorge of sublime proportions and uncompromising asperity. It feels as if you’ve detrained into a high-tech, functional ruin, a genuinely thrilling (though likely inadvertent) hint at the classically inspired sporting rigours ahead. As PD Smith puts it in his ambitious guide to, and history of, urban life, “There is no better way to arrive in a city than by train.”

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Exit this austerely inviting station, however, and you are swiftly dumped in the architectural hell that Owen Hatherley explores in his furiously detailed book, A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain. There is the Olympic site itself, with its hilarious, quasi-sculptural thing by Anish Kapoor, “a shocking pink entrail laterally curved around an observation tower”. And the huddle of speculative high-rises that passes for Stratford High Street resembles, says Hatherley, “the peripheral estates of the late Soviet Union”.

Most tellingly, he finds himself in Westfield Stratford City, a vast and crushingly predictable shopping mall designed to fleece Olympic punters and stand in for a wholly absent town centre. “On the way to the toilets,” Hatherley notes, “a wall features several photographs of old East London Markets, an appeasing of the slain ancestors that is . . . profoundly evil.”

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Stratford is neither the most dismal nor the most fake of the towns Hatherley visits in this second volume of his tour of contemporary urban Britain. The first book, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, from 2010, dealt with larger cities and conurbations, such as Manchester, Sheffield and Glasgow, as well as aspects of London that he expands on here.

The example of Stratford should not suggest that he’s against new buildings, nor even against vast, overbearing buildings. Quite the contrary: an earlier short volume titled Militant Modernism sought to rehabilitate the architecture – specifically the much-maligned brutalism – of Britain’s brief social-democratic interlude after the second World War. The target of the present book is the urban fabric born from the ashes of that optimistic and now routinely despised era: the retrograde products of a rampant speculation enabled by Thatcherism, perfected under Blair and now struggling on in phantom form, postcrash.

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Hatherley doesn’t hold back about the present crisis. “It’s abundantly clear that we neither know nor care about what makes a city into an architecturally or socially coherent thing.” The sights he details are indeed dispiriting: the “meretricious yuppie colonies” that flourish on waterfronts from London to Edinburgh, the timid and shoddy Victoriana lately appended to the once-confident modernism of a city such as Coventry, the scurf of chain stores around a new library in Brighton, which dross seemingly has to accompany every effort at civic architecture. This last is a clue to the book’s more fundamental argument. What terrifies British politicians and city planners most today is the very idea of the city itself: a place of properly communal, modern and at least aspirantly democratic living. They would rather flog what they can to the highest bidder and train CCTV cameras on what is left of “public” space.

All of which is almost comically at odds with the notion of an ideal metropolis that ghosts Smith’s book. City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age is a compendious and lavishly illustrated guide to real cities and the ideas they embody. Fittingly, it begins and ends among ruins: the first cities built by the Sumerians, 4,000 years ago, and contemporary visions of what assuredly lies in store for the places we live in today. In between is a vexed history, slightly buried by Smith’s organising conceit of the travel guide, of urban planning versus organic development.

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Smith is an engaging and curious docent to the museum of urban history: there are fascinating digressions here on the development of cemeteries, pneumatic postal services and the delirium of city walking, from Poe’s story The Man of the Crowd to the situationist dérive. But despite, or maybe because of, his interest in modernist literary responses to the city, Smith is no fan of the architecture that Hatherley equates with progressive thinking in the middle of the 20th century. He dismisses Corbusier-inspired experiments in high-rise living as glum “towers in a car park”. And though he expends some evocative pages on the monumental cities of the Aztecs, he clearly prefers the human-scale messiness championed by Jane Jacobs in her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The trouble is (as Hatherley proves) that so, often, do neoliberal planning mavens: nostalgia for the pleasing chaos of the street is easily matched to laissez-faire lack of vision.

A New Kind of Bleak and City are in some respects rather traditional projects: the structure of the tour (grand or grim) is familiar among English writers from William Cobbett and John Ruskin to John Betjeman and Iain Sinclair. Hatherley’s immediate precursors are Niklaus Pevsner and Ian Nairn: learned, opinionated guides to the successes and failures of architecture in Britain. It’s a literary form that depends on authorial voice as much as on scholarly authority, and Hatherley’s judgments are nothing if not pointed: the Lloyd’s building in London is “monstrous, compelling and utterly fucked up”, the heart of Oxford “a Harry Potter playground”. (Elsewhere he’s less of an aesthete than his architectural tastes imply – with its slangy sarcasm and frequent repetitions, the book feels at times too swiftly composed, too marked by its origins in magazine pieces and blog posts.) Smith’s exemplar, lightly invoked, is Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, wherein we learn that, with cities, “everything imaginable can be dreamed”. Or every dream dashed.

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