(self-portrait by Djuna Barnes, 1919)
Tag Archives: modernism with a human face
by Chris Randle
Until now, Canada was spared from the worst consequences of global economic chaos; the elimination of our federal deficit in the 1990s is being touted as a model for other budget-gutters. But similar medicine awaits us too. And that raises an overlooked question: What will happen to urban architecture when “austerity” becomes involuntary?
Few polemics come recommended by both the Daily Worker and the Daily Telegraph, but Owen Hatherley’s Guide is about Britain’s built environment, and perhaps that least abstract of media allows for wider common ground. When Tony Blair won a landslide there in 1997 after two decades of Tory misrule, he asked the delirious nation: “A new dawn has broken, has it not?” His vacillation would prove telling. Blair deluded himself into believing that an advanced economy could thrive on property, finance, tourism and the “creative industries” alone, all entwined in a blurry loop of speculative greed.
Before the economic crash ended that particular fantasy, Blair and Gordon Brown promised to regenerate the cities devastated by Thatcherism. Dilapidated housing blocks or post-war concrete landmarks were razed and replaced by privately financed edifices, flashy but often built on the cheap, typically containing many more luxury apartments and many fewer spaces for the poor. Back in power and fixated on slashing spending, the Tories have no money left to alter this landscape; they want to finally cleanse the proles from inner cities instead. The “pseudomodernist Blairboxes” that Hatherley documents are the visible legacy of New Labour’s Third Way, and his architectural critique doubles as a savage, despairing political verdict.
Hatherley was born in Southampton, and the book begins there too. The city became Britain’s major passenger port in the early twentieth century, but unlike its predecessor Liverpool, there was little civic identity to draw on when the human visitors drained off to Heathrow. Surveying this blankness, the author writes: “I used to be annoyed by the way that whenever my home town was mentioned in a work of art – from Lennon’s ‘Ballad of John and Yoko’ to Wyndham Lewis’ travelogue Snooty Baronet – they never said anything about the town itself. It was only as a place to pass through.” For one famous ship that passage was terminal, so the city council is building a new Titanic Museum. Most of its doomed crewmen were local slum-dwellers whose families never got a penny of compensation.
Park Hill council estate, Sheffield, England
The relatively prosperous south isn’t Hatherley’s focus, or his true object of affection. Only one of the eleven travelogues happens in London. It’s dwarfed by his “unrequited love letters” to the former industrial cities of northern England, places where Old Labour socialists made ambitious and impassioned plans for a New Jerusalem. That trail of detritus leads to such remarkable buildings as Sheffield’s Park Hill, a huge council estate (British for public housing project) whose communal “streets in the sky” were meant to check modernism’s alienating dark side. The Human-League-quoting property developer Urban Splash is turning it into mixed-use flats. One of their employees proudly tells Hatherley what a longtime resident said: “People think we live in a slum. They don’t realize that I live in a penthouse looking out over the city.” But he can’t recall where the council has moved her now.
More dispiriting still is the chapter on Newcastle. It’s the largest city in Northumbria, or northeast England. My dad is from the next town over; his childhood home was built by the great Aneurin Bevan’s Housing Ministry. Bevan’s local counterpart T. Dan Smith, an ex-communist miner’s son, took control of the Newcastle Labour Party and then Newcastle City Council in 1958, on a platform of “massive rehousing programs.” He tragicomically declared that his town would become a “Brasilia of the North.” Smith didn’t fail half-heartedly. Hatherley notes that he almost got Le Corbusier to design the master’s only British building, and gave Newcastle the first planning department of any English council. Much of Tyneside’s physical shape today is his doing. The problem was that Smith couldn’t realize these grand dreams with the budgets and architects at hand, let alone his visionary scheme to reorganize political power in Britain and end the absurd dominance of men in ermine.
The other problem is that Smith served a six-year prison sentence for corruption. After leaving politics for private business in the late 1960s he founded a company run by the crooked architect John Paulson, later fictionalized as a capitalist monster in David Peace’s Red Riding series. Paulson’s eventual downfall ensnared Smith as well, and Hatherley makes a virtuosic attempt to reconcile the early idealism with the unconvincingly justified business links. He concludes that “T. Dan Smith appears here as the ultimate political curate’s egg: fascinating and charismatic, creator of an impressive but often despised landscape…a corrupt mandarin who intended to create a decentralized socialist Britain.” It almost sounds logical that way, though equally depressing. You could call the human contradiction of utopian socialist/dodgy accounts-fiddler a classic Northumbrian type. I’ve met a few of them.
I’m much less conflicted about A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain itself. Hatherley can get verbose – he has a weakness for double adverbs – and the production values are, well, about what you’d expect from a fiercely independent lefty publisher. But his self-deprecating wit and incongruous pop-music subplot make up for any number of small, crap photo illustrations. I just wish the residents of these places were more visible here. In a recent interview, Hatherley mentions the TV show Demolition, which features Prince Charles-damaged citizens voting on the evil modernist eyesores they want to annihilate forever. He notes that one of their punching bags, the elderly brutalist architect Owen Luder, actually turned up for argument’s sake and managed to sway several panelists. Why not make such a dialogue (or dialectic) part of his own project?
If there’s any hope to be found in Hatherley’s bleak denouement, it might be the possibility of rage giving way to greater political engagement – not just with the inane noise of horserace coverage, and not only with those who love your own monuments. That seems especially urgent in Canada right now, where our own city-loathing Tory government is preparing another austerity budget. Toronto’s new mayor is a conservative defined by his robotic repetition of talking points and his desire to run municipal government like a Kinko’s outlet. He needs to be resisted. But after finishing Hatherley’s book, I felt ashamed by how little I know about the people who influence this city’s architecture – or the lower-class suburbanites who decided to shift its politics rightward. You can always vote out a Rob Ford, after all. How do we get rid of Richard Florida?