4 January 2011

Review: A Guide to The New Ruins of Great Britain

Owen Hatherley's recently published book, 'A Guide to The New Ruins of Great Britain', has been much praised in the architectural and design literary circles, after all, as Hari Kunzru is quoted on the jacket sleeve, "Hatherley steps forward as the Pevsner of the PFI generation." I have to admit that I came at this book having already read a few of Hatherley's 'Urban Trawl' pieces for Building Design and had originally reacted rather negatively to reading his piece 'Manchester: Heaven knows it's miserable now' - I had seen it as an attack my adopted city but now realise that my initial anger/protectionist-stance had clouded my judgement (surely an easy mistake to make when sat in an office, working for one of the firms who get's a kicking in the piece). What the book (as are the original articles for the weekly 'paper') is in fact is a well considered pieces of architectural, political and cultural criticism. I may not have always agreed with what was being written but it is impossible to argue that Hatherley has failed to put together a thorough critique that leaves you asking - how could we have got it so wrong?

A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (Verso, 2010)

Hatherley is the author of the blog nastybrutalistandshort which led to him being commissioned to write Urban Trawl however he (in an interview with the Architect's Journal) doesn't describe himself as an architecture writer. Instead the English Literature and History graduate comes from a similar direction as "theoretical writers on the city such as Mike Davis or Lewis Mumford" but as "they don't really mention architects, you get the sense that there are these forces and it's not really important who actualises them." Hatherley is right when he says that "people do make decisions, people are autonomous and this stuff is created in some conscious way."

The book begins with an interesting anecdote about a Flickr group set up by the Labour party to highlight 'The Change We See', new additions to the built landscape. A quick look at the images uploaded  from across the country and we quickly see that this book is tackling a landscape "produced in the chillingly blank private finance initiative (PFI) of clean lines, bright colours and wipe-clean surfaces." Equally important to the accounts that follow are the "baroque procurement methods" (design and build as just one example) which are implied as being the preferred system post 1997 and "an ingrained preference for the cheap and unpretentious" - only a few pages in to the Introduction and it is clear that Hatherley won't be pulling any punches. However, whilst the book has been acknowledged by its plaudits for tackling PFI Britain, Hatherley himself declares the book in fact examines two Britain's: (i) Post-War (ii) Post-1979 (Barratt Homes, Science Parks and the like). Post-1997 Britain then is just part of a far more complex history of failures.

Twelve cities are covered in the book, all with humours 'sub-titles' to accompany the city name, with colourful and amusing metaphors scattered through out it's pages. The majority of the photographs were taken by theatre photographer Joel Anderson who accompanied Hatherley on his journey around the country. The grey-scale images, with the grainy texture of the paper coming through, add to the miserable conditions that the text often elaborates on. 

In homage to J.B. Priestley's 'English Journey' the book opens at Southampton, coincidentally Hatherley's home town. There are two chapters on places that Hatherley has called home, Greenwich being the other, and it was these two that I found most difficult to read; perhaps by having lived in those places a degree of objectivity is lost (much the same as I found when reading Urban Trawl for the first time). Hatherley doesn't defend these places, on the contrary he puts the foot in just as cleanly as with other cities, but the tangents seem much looser here and harder for someone who hasn't visited these places to pull together.

As I have already hinted at the book is not solely a piece of architectural criticism but examines the consequences of various political decisions along the way. There is a strong feeling of this book being 'political' (the publisher labels it as Politics/Architecture), you can feel the disillusionment of socialist ideals particularly in the chapters on Sheffield ("The Former Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire") and Glasgow. Personally it made me question my own political ideals more thoroughly, questioning that relationship between politics and architecture. Whilst I would like to think I am not ignorant enough to consider architects/architecture as apolitical I haven't read a book that implicitly linked the two together before.

Architects and developers are all held to account for the part they have played in creating the landscape we see today - the usual suspects are, often deservingly in my opinion, 'named and shamed' - BDP, Urban Splash, Capita, Broadway Malyan, Carey Jones, Aedas are all part of an (unfortunately) extensive list. Hatherley does also give praise to firms when he feels it is warranted. Of note here is BDP who at times are chastised and at others applauded (although most of this falls on earlier work before they became a private company and Liverpool One), being the only practice to get an apology directly in the text. Politicians, of the modern era, are not criticised as directly as perhaps they should be instead the part they play is usually implied, not stated (Hazel Blears being one of the exceptions).

Of worthy note also is the disdain Hatherley reserves for two particular building typologies, hotels and student halls of residence. The latter resonated personally with me, having spent two years in a particularly drab block, dressed of course in the 'vernacular', Victoria Halls. The proliferation for housing "undergraduate inmates" in these examples of "reliably awful British architecture" (that can transform a city skyline as witnessed in Leeds) reflects the importance of the knowledge economy in the post-industrial city. As Hatherley observes it must be that developers are "unbelievably tight fisted" and faced with a captive audience that lets them get away with it.

Ultimately I think it is a little early to say that this book offers a definitive account on any sort of 'PFI generation', it is part of the story perhaps but I have a feeling that there is more (even worse?) to come. The book did leave me feelling pangs of guilt though, a guilt of not knowing enough about our cities or recent history that it has begun to address. Here I will fall back upon, a little cowardly I'll admit, the 'ignorance of youth' so please excuse me - my 'living memory' doesn't extend back far beyond 1997. I have grown up in PFI Britain and only ever really knew what it was like to live under the Blair/Brown government; I am always a little sceptical of nostalgic hankerings back to the utopian visions of the 1950s and 1960s (as the book often does), yes there were success stories but also catastrophic failures (or so I have been told). 

This is a book then about potentials left unfilled where the witty language (surely a 'Postmodern' trait), romantic prose and bitter over tonnes leave you questioning how well exactly do you know a place?


Hatherley, O. (2010), A Guide to The New Ruins of Great Britain, 1st Edition, London: Verso
Architects Journal (No Date), 'Pevsner for the PFI Generation' [Online] [first accessed 4th January 2011]