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‘Pevsner for the PFI generation’

Owen Hatherley’s latest book is an attack on the buildings that have transformed Britain’s cityscapes during the reign of New Labour. He talks to James Pallister

A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, Owen Hatherley, Verso Books, October 2010, £17.99

Writer-provacateur Owen Hatherley doesn’t have many friends who are architects. He’s an outsider, a status that he does his best to maintain. As he says, if you make friends with architects, it’s harder to criticise their work.

Yet he has also just written a book which one critic described as the ‘Pevsner for the PFI generation’, while another places him alongside JB Priestly and his English Journey and Ian Nairn’s Outrage.

Hatherley, an English literature and history graduate with a Masters and (almost) a PhD under his belt, rose to fame through his blog Nastybrutalistandshort and his first book Militant Modernism (Zero Books, 2009), a reappraisal of 20th century modernism’s utopian spirit.

His follow up, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, picks over the results of the last 15 years of development in British cities.

The book is a witty, occasionally bleak, but immensely readable foray into 12 British cities, investigating what he considers some of the less successful products of the construction boom of recent years.

Hatherley doesn’t interview architects. He reads and he walks. His writing comes from wanderings as a pedestrian and his acute sensibility to the wider socio-economic circumstances that have shaped them.

The book is aimed at the general public, he says, but the lessons for architects are pertinent. I met Hatherley in a Brixton café and asked him where he thought architects fit into his prognosis.

James Pallister Did you direct this book at architects?

Owen Hatherley Most writing about architecture is about talking to architects. And in an art form that is, more than any other, completely public, so completely unavoidable, I find that quite alarming. It should be the least insular of professions.

I’m not an architecture writer. The direction I came from this was people I’d been reading before, such as theoretical writers on the city such as Mike Davis or Lewis Mumford – they don’t really mention architects. You get the sense that there are these forces and it’s not really important who actualises them. Yet people do make decisions, people are autonomous and this stuff is created in some conscious way.

JP Do you hold architects responsible for the failures you describe in British cities?

OH I think the individual agent is fairly powerless, which is true in every profession. I’ve tried to emphasise the powerlessness in the book. But there are some things that are so monumentally crap that I sometimes think, even with a programme like that it didn’t have to be so bad.

Take the Skyplaza in Leeds. I think it’s now the tallest block in the city, a 36-storey halls of residence within a very dense, gated community by developer UNITE. It towers over the whole of Leeds.

You just think, everyone in Leeds can see this and it’s been treated like it’s a distribution shed on the M6. It’s an astoundingly bad building and while acknowledging that the architect must have been under all sorts of pressures, I can’t believe it had to be that bad. And there are a lot of buildings like that.

For me, some of the bile is directed at the architect, but a lot more at the complete failure of the public and private sector. There’s a national unwillingness to pay for good architecture.

JP If architects want to have a positive impact on the built environment, are they better off becoming involved in local politics?

OH There’s an element of truth in that. Cedric Price had a line that went ‘the solution to your problem may not be a building’. I think that’s very true. There have been moments when architects have been very closely involved with politics: the 1930s post-war reconstruction, 1970s community architecture stuff which often had quite dismal results, but nonetheless had a closeness with political activism it now doesn’t.

Most of the architects that I’ve met are left-of-centre, it’s just that there’s not much of a sense that what they do for a living impacts upon [their politics] any more than my work in a call centre impacted upon my politics at the time. There’s no real connection between the two.

JP Beyond decreased political activism across the nation as a whole, how did architects find themselves in this position?

OH There was a big prohibition of thinking outside the status quo after the 1960s – which, conversely, I think was the moment of architecture’s greatest reach.

People got their fingers burned and the narrative came out, which is still dominant now, that this was about upper middle-class people trying to change how working people – who they didn’t understand – live, while they all lived in Georgian terraces.

That frightened people. You know that as an architect the last thing you’d want to do is to be involved in ‘social engineering’. The idea came out that being involved in speculative housing was somehow more noble – the notion that Richard Rogers building an estate for Wimpey in Nottingham is somehow more noble than working for the local council.

There is simultaneously a reluctance [to engage with that kind of work] and at the same time a weird naivety in working for the private sector.

JP How might architects improve their lot?

OH Well again, if architects don’t want to be working eight-til-eight, one of the first things would be to start organising themselves – an architectural trade union would be a start, rather than this sort of war of all-against-all.

Isn’t it the profession with the largest proportion of unemployment at the moment? And you sort of think, why are they not angry? Why isn’t there a decent architects’ trade union instead of the RIBA, who’ve been fiddling while half the profession is absolutely screwed? Why are they not making common cause with people who’ve suffered from the same processes? Architects should recognise how proletariat they are in lots of ways.

JP Was there a golden age?

OH No. It’s a terrible cliché but in any given period most architecture is not very good. There are periods when we hit upon a decent standard and I think one was in the late 19th century, as well as the 1950s and 60s.

To a large degree, in terms of hygiene, services, the amount of light and air coming into the flat, the amount of green spaces, the length of tenure, the best public housing built in this country occurred between 1945 and 1970 [despite the fact that] there were some very well-publicised disasters and some very poor planning. A lot of it was mediocre, though it was good mediocrity. But compared to contemporary standards, which is below Parker Morris standards, it was vastly superior. I sincerely believe that.

JP Looking forward, would it be a good thing should fewer projects be built, given the standards you describe?

OH The response is to spend more on it, not less. What I’d like to see is a variant of a Roosevelt’s New Deal, which is something that some economists and a handful of politicians have been arguing for. That would involve an enormous amount of new infrastructure, new architecture.

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