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Forwards Not Forgetting: Owen Hatherley Interviewed
The Quietus , August 20th, 2012 08:11

Jamie Sutcliffe talks to the firebrand of architechtural criticism Owen Hatherley about his recent book A New Kind Of Bleak. Main photo by Agata Pyzik

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I’ve been following the work of Owen Hatherley since the publication of his brief polemic Militant Modernism in 2008, and was struck by the way that his interests in popular music, literature and the act of walking itself had found ways of inflecting his critical writings on architecture. We met at the Royal Festival Hall to talk, amongst other things, about Ballard, Blair, Broadcast and his latest book A New Kind of Bleak, published by Verso. His responses were consistently mirthful, erudite and tempered by a genuine sense of indignation.

I wanted to begin by asking you how your writing has taken shape. It seemed to emerge from a period of blogging; a kind of writing that had the brevity of the dispatch and the vitality of the polemic or communiqué. Now it’s found a more concrete form, in published book-length appraisals of contemporary British architecture. How have you come to understand this trajectory, from writing online to the eventual weightiness and substantiality of the book?

Owen Hatherley: In many ways it wasn’t that thought out. The thing that really made a difference was this - almost every year I used to go home for Christmas to Southampton where I grew up, and I would usually write some sort of, ‘What are you doing!?’ kind of thing about the new architecture they were putting up. And they’d done some atrocious stuff. Basically turning half the city into a gigantic ex-urban retail park. It was just mortifying.

Eventually, Building Design, an architectural trade magazine, took up one of the pieces and they asked if I’d like to do this for twelve cities, proposing this series of cities in the recession, evaluating what had been built since 1997 during the Blairite urban renaissance. That was a great frame. About halfway through I was in Leeds with Joel [Anderson] the photographer who was from Bradford… so of course [there was] a great hostility to Leeds… and we were just thinking, you know there’s a book in this but someone must have written it already.

We eventually realized that someone hadn’t and so pitched it to Verso and went from there. I’d also been writing a PhD all through this time. From pretty much the start of my blogging I was writing it on the side, or blogging on the side, it wasn’t really clear which was which. That in itself wasn’t massively different from writing a book, except even more difficult, as you have to justify every single thing you say with facts and footnotes, which thankfully you don’t have to in journalism.

With A Guide To The New Ruins Of Great Britain you were looking explicitly at building initiatives inaugurated under New Labour, what seemed to be the animating principle of the new book?

OH: More of the same [laughs]. No, don’t allow that. Actually do, because it’s the truth. I was doing the same series basically, and it was another twelve cities which just seemed natural, there was enough going on for another book. There were an enormous amount of stories worth telling, and an enormous amount of arguments worth making, but in many ways it sort of follows on from the first book. I guess that the big difference is that with the New Ruins I was charting the end of something. It was obvious that New Labour was over, and so you could evaluate it. You could say that here was a thing that lasted from 1997 until about 2008, and you could say that it looked like this, and this is what it built. Because they were very much a building government, they were very very keen on leaving a mark, or ‘leaving a legacy’ as they call it nowadays in relation to the Olympics. So that had a natural beginning and end.

But A New Kind Of Bleak didn’t really. Partly because the Tories are not really interested in building, apart from possibly in the outer suburbs, but even then they’ve not quite managed to do that yet. So it’s more about the absence of it, the absence of investment and the absence of building... but absence is putting it rather lightly... more like the withdrawal of money from cities, especially in the North of England, in that the North, particularly Manchester but also to a degree Tyneside and Liverpool, and Sheffield and Leeds, were getting huge amounts of money in those years, investment that I think was largely dubious. Investment in speculative development that attempted to create a property market, and in places like Manchester and Leeds a financial services market and several more-or-less serious attempts at creative cities, which for most people means an expansion of the service industry and that they get to make coffees for artists.

But other than that, there was nonetheless this investment. I may disagree with how it was used, but it was there. The second book is about the places where this spending had been cut off. And one of the points that I thought would really be worth making was the current dichotomy we have when we talk about the public sector and the private sector. The Tories have it and Labour have it. And in both cases there is this idea that there is the dynamic, business-like private sector and the public sector, which the Tories and Labour have different ideas about, and which I thought was a subsidiary element. But of course what we’ve actually seen over the past five years is the private sector being propped up by the public. However much nonsense there might be about the deficit being caused by spending money on housing benefits, we all know that what it was actually caused by was the banks needing to be bailed out by the state to the tune of more money than was spent during World War II.

So the further I worked back into that it seemed that this had been the pattern under New Labour too. You could go to somewhere like Middlesbrough, where all the new jobs were in the public sector, and you’d realise that all of these jobs were based to a large degree in quangos and development companies whose main purpose was to attract the private sector. You have this strange continuity, that they were interlinked in lots of different ways, that the role of the public sector was to try and raise money for the private, or to try and entice the private. I thought the story on Middlesbrough was especially worth telling because no one was telling it. But on the other hand A New Kind Of Bleak is much the same format, it’s going around fifteen cities and looking at them and writing about them.

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Did you feel compelled to re-visit any of the cities you’d written about in the New Ruins?

OH: Well, there’s a lot about London. With the New Ruins I avoided London as much as possible, partly because everyone always writes about London and for most architecture criticism, and most political criticism in general, the rest of the country doesn’t exist. So it was really important to me to write as little about London as possible. I’d written a chapter about Greenwich, which is where I was living at the time, and in this one there’s a lot more of London.

So there’s a revisit in that sense, with different parts of London, but there’s also a new chapter on Glasgow. It was the only place I went back to, because I’d made this argument that Glasgow was the second city regardless of what Birmingham or Manchester might think. And I thought, if I’ve got between these two books, four or five chapters on London, there ought to be two on Glasgow.

We’re sat in a recently developed rooftop pavilion of the Royal Festival Hall, a kind of concerted response to postwar conditions of austerity at the centre of 1951’s Festival of Britain. It was an event that Winston Churchill would famously describe as ‘three-dimensional socialist propaganda’. Could you elaborate on this relationship between the public and the private, specifically in relation to regeneration through cultural means?

OH: Art as a vehicle for investment, which is usually what the creative city boils down to, is always used as a Trojan horse. If you look at the New Art Gallery in Walsall, or the Baltic in Gateshead, or the Laban Centre in Deptford, you have your cultural building, and then sprouting up alongside it you get a load of luxury flats that very frequently make little design references to the original building. And so they have a very straightforward role I think, more than getting local people involved with culture, it’s one of making the surrounding area safe for property speculation. That doesn’t mean I think they’re a bad thing in and of themselves.

There was a tendency during the boom for people like Brian Sewell to go up to Gateshead and say, “This town doesn’t need a gallery as big as this, it should have been built in London.” But obviously this is ridiculous. Tyneside has a population of around 900,000 people. It can support a gallery that big; it could support several galleries that big. So that’s not really it. I don’t think you can involve yourself in communities by going there and doing relational aesthetics with them. I think that’s quite dubious.

But I always think of growing up in places where there’s not a huge amount of things like this. They are hugely important. I’m immensely grateful to the collectors of Southampton city art gallery and the fact that they somehow managed to accumulate loads of really good Twentieth Century art. And when I was growing up it was an amazing place to be in. And I’m sure that Nottingham Contemporary, which I like as a building, and MIMA in Middlesbrough, which I think is a terrible building, both have that role for people there. That they can, in a small way, be pointed somewhere else. It can make you see things in a new way. Whether, on the other hand, they are able to ‘engage with communities’, which is the Blairite phrase we’d use, I’m much more skeptical about that. I have nothing against the buildings themselves, but the fact that they’re used in very instrumental ways.

I’m interested in the idea of the writer-traveler, specifically the work of J.B. Priestley and H.V. Morton's concerns seem to generate echoes in your own. Is the writer-traveler-critic a model that appeals to you, or something that you feel the need to keep a distance from?

OH: Not from Priestley, I’d be absolutely honored to be compared to Priestley. I actually mentioned him in the introduction to the New Ruins because I was reading An English Journey at the time, not because I was comparing myself to him. I’ve never read Morton at all, but the other big influence for me was Ian Nairn whose books, apart from the two Pevsner guides he wrote, are scandalously out of print. The fact that Nairn’s London is out of print whilst Simon Jenkins’ books on British churches are in print is a scandal that all architecture publishers should publicly abase themselves for. He was easily the best architecture critic of the Twentieth Century and wrote several travelogues, the most famous of which is probably Outrage, which was his blast against 1950’s suburbia. The other one I was reading was Britain’s Changing Towns, based on something he did for the BBC’s The Listener magazine, visiting British cities that were being comprehensively re-developed - they didn’t call it regeneration in those days - places that were being transformed in the mid-60’s under Harold Wilson.

He’d made visits for The Listener in the early sixties, then returned in 1967 for the book, and the differences between the two accounts are interesting because you see something happening tentatively in the early sixties, and then he goes back later to see the finished project. So he revisits Sheffield and thinks, "This is wonderful, they’ve fulfilled their promise", and I absolutely love Sheffield, so I felt very emboldened by the fact that he’d liked that stuff at the time. He also goes back to Newcastle and Glasgow with a real horror at what they were doing to themselves. So I was very influenced by that, and the fact that he just went to very out of the way places, that he was more interested in writing about Cardiff than writing about Chelsea, or Shoreditch as it would be now.

The writer-traveler thing, I don’t know. It’s become the issue of a book I want to write about Eastern Europe where the risk of becoming a traveling dilettante is much higher. I’ve been reading quite a bit of Robert Byron and that might or might not be a good thing. But I don’t really think of it that consciously, because in a lot of places one of the great advantages of being a provincial is that you don’t feel as though you’re descending upon the rest of the country from London going ‘I’m going to tell you everything’, because I’ve always had that feeling when I am [in London] of not being from here, and feeling quite resentful towards London in various ways. So hopefully, my writing doesn’t have that patronising tone, although I know that a lot of people will disagree, or say that it does.

There’s a pronounced interest in music that accompanies your writing on architecture. In fact the lyricism of English raconteurs Mark. E. Smith and Jarvis Cocker, both of whom you quote directly, seem to provide a kind of lyrical substantiation or conceptual elaboration of your critical concerns. How do you understand the relationship between music and architecture, is there the idea of a soundscape underscoring the cities you visit?

OH: One of the things I wanted to do with the New Ruins was have every chapter named after a record I liked by someone from that city, and the reason why I didn’t do that in the end was because I couldn’t think of anyone from Milton Keynes. Which is a shame, because I thought there’d have been some great techno group, but there really wasn’t anybody, so I scrapped that.

A New Kind Of Bleak is weirdly less pop, because I was often visiting places that never really produced much in that way. Places like Lincoln and Preston. I mean, who’s from Preston, the Boo Radleys? And Teesside, again I can't really think of anyone much, although Teesside always reminds me a lot of Bruce Springsteen. It’s a world you can imagine him singing about. He could have called his album Nebraska, Teesside, and it would have been exactly the same album.

The only two I felt a real influence whilst writing about were Birmingham and Bristol. Bristol for the obvious stereotype of it being permanently stoned, it really stands up - the architecture and urbanism there does feel completely asleep and lackadaisical, as though it hasn’t been paying any attention whatsoever. That had an appropriate stoned, loping soundtrack.

In Birmingham the groups I felt made most sense of the city were late nineties bands like Broadcast and Pram who are both from there, and have this idea of Birmingham as a somewhat futurist but also sad and provincial place. There’s a lovely song of Broadcast’s called 'Michael A Grammar' about towers being knocked down in Chelmsley Wood. It’s a beautiful song that captures the air of Brum as being harsh and melancholic but also entirely ordinary, which I thought it did really well. Because one of the things you find when you go to somewhere like Sheffield for instance, Gleedless valley or Parkhill, is that they’re not ordinary at all. They’re completely bizarre, crazy things. Birmingham has always been more workaday, and I think that’s reflected in the music. But to get back to the question, I wouldn’t say I was influenced by lyrics specifically, but I was listening to lots of things.

It’s been almost four years since the publication of your first book Militant Modernism. Are those divergent agendas of Russian Constructivism and British Brutalism that you explored originally still providing pertinent strategies for your own work?

OH: Absolutely. If there’s a difference in the four years since I wrote that book, I’ve become increasingly interested in townscape, and I think that shows a lot in a the new book. Townscape was always dismissed by the Brutalists as a falling back from the permanent revolution. But I’ve become more interested in places that have actually managed to integrate with their surroundings. Not in a ‘making things in keeping’ way, which wasn’t what townscape was about at all, but producing interesting conflicts within the urban landscape, with topography too. So it’s also about place.

If you spend too much time looking at places, homogeneity becomes much less interesting, and I think one of the things I’d always liked about Brutalism was that it wasn’t the international style, and I guess I’ve become more hostile to international styles in architecture, to the infinitely reproducible thing that can be anywhere. I guess there was an idealistic thing to that, that place led to dodgy things, provincialism and nationalism and so on and so forth. I think there’s an element of truth in that, but simply, as a walker and a spectator I’ve become interested in ‘placeness’.

Other than that, it’s still mainly Brutalism and Constructivism that I get excited by, and as modes of social and architectural engagement I still think they’re much better than most of the other alternatives offered.

You’ve mentioned before a certain danger arising from nostalgic tendencies evident in your own work, specifically in relation to the notion of welfare state paternalism. Is this grappling with nostalgia something you find yourself continually contending with?

OH: Yes and no. It depends what I’m writing. If I was writing a history of post-war Britain, then I think it would be a lot less sanguine, because you’ve got to write about the fact that at the same time they were constructing the welfare state they were also torturing people in Kenya and Malaya. You’d have to see things in their totality. If you were black or Asian it would be very difficult to look at the 1960s as a golden age when the Tories could have as an election campaign slogan: ‘If you want a n*gger for a neighbor, vote Labour’. This was a much more racist era, so being straightforwardly nostalgic about the past is very dangerous indeed. But I’m not doing that. I’m walking around British cities and writing about them. And what I wanted to do with this relentless backwards-looking is challenge the idea that certain things are impossible.

Take the Olympics site as an example. If you say now, that what we should have built there - rather than an Olympic village that’s going to be sold to Qatari Diar, a Westfield shopping centre and a privately patrolled park - we could have built a council estate, a coherent neighborhood centre, and industry, people will say, "Oh god, we couldn’t do that." And so the useful thing politically, looking back to the introduction of the welfare state, is to say that at that point we were a poorer country, a less educated country, a country that had a far higher deficit, and we could do that, and we did do that. There’s an idea that it’s completely utopian to talk about all of these things, but although the word often gets bandied about, I’m quite hostile to the idea of seeing this kind of modernism as utopian because it was pragmatic. The real utopians, the Situationists and Archigram, hated this stuff, it was compromised, social democratic, and they wanted nothing to do with it.

So I want to go back and say that once, this was common sense and normal, now you think it’s inconceivable. Why? And that is the use of the past for me, a kind of index of things that could be done, an unfinished project, which has almost become a cliché in certain circles, but in many ways the interest is in what was promised. That there was an attempt to create something, and it got a certain point and was killed off, and what could have happened if it was carried on.

So I’m not trying to say the fifties and sixties were a golden age. I’m trying to say that at that point, largely due to the pressure of the trade union movement and the labour movement, and also because of the Americans being willing to fling money at us to make sure we didn’t turn communist, there was an opportunity for things. There was a moment in which a fairer society was briefly created, and that’s something we should learn from rather than dismiss. It didn’t entirely succeed, that’s obvious. But I hardly think we can look at neoliberalism now and think that’s succeeded.

The architectural critic and historian Joe Kerr described Renzo Piano’s Shard at London Bridge as an unwitting monument to terrorism. This attentiveness to the latent qualities of architectural violence inscribed in the building seems to evoke the critical legacies of J.G. Ballard, who had a tendency to read beneath surfaces in order to tease out any underlying psychopathologies. Do you see Ballard’s example as a useful strategy in any way?

OH: Well, I guess there are two parts to the question here, Ballard and the Shard, but I haven’t quite thought out what the Shard is exactly yet. I certainly didn’t want to be knee jerk about it, because it’s so easy to say that it’s a monstrosity, and usually when someone describes a building as a monstrosity my ears prick up and I think, "I might like this."

But I guess I have two things about it. One of which is that in the context of south London it’s such a grotesque imposition, just an enormous slab of city fucked into south London. It’s horrible. Walking around it, around Southwark, you do get the sense of just how monstrous it is, and of course what you have inside is a luxury hotel and spa, it’s just quite malevolent. I expect that sooner or later there’ll be some cool defence of its cultural congestion, but that doesn’t make it any less an expression of class war in glass.

And I’m sure that everyone will get up to Ballardish things in the Shard, of course they will. They’ll all have their own pathologies and the whole thing will be filled with prostitutes or someone will end up getting killed. I don’t know, in many ways I look at it and my mind goes blank, it’s such a nullity. Again it’s really interesting how you have next to it Guy’s Hospital, which was previously the tallest building on the south London shore, and the idea that at that point you could have built an NHS hospital that could be the most prominent thing on the skyline, whereas now it’s a gigantic Qatari owned centre of yuppie malevolence.

I suppose the really interesting story with the shard is that it’s a kind of end-point, just as the Olympics is a kind of end-point, of Ken Livingstone’s Faustian pact. I don’t want to slag off Ken Livingstone because I’d much rather he were mayor than the half-wit we have now, but there is a sense that this was skyscrapers for section 106 groups, letting the city do what it liked and letting developers do what they liked with the assurance that they would make 30% affordable housing or that they would fund a new bus station at London Bridge.

And I think the bankruptcy of that trickledown idea is really expressed in the Shard, by the pressure it puts on all places in the hinterland. The Shard is in a sense the reason why the Heygate estate has all of its residents chucked out, the Olympic site the reason why Newham Council are exporting 500 of their families. These things seem to be directly linked. In many cases they’re state funded as well, which gives them that extra level of evil. So I guess the political evil of the shard is so immense that I can’t really have any Ballardish thoughts about what might be going on there because it’s just too horrible to do anything else with.

But Ballard was a very big influence because it’s all about Shepperton, and that’s the thing I like about it, or one of the many things I like about it. It’s so often thought that Ballard is about dystopia, which seems to be such a shallow way of looking at things. In The Atrocity Exhibition, but especially in a book like The Unlimited Dream Company, they’re books about utopia in the most mundane places, of looking at reservoirs and stadiums and seeing incredible new landscapes.

It’s about forcing yourself to look at the world immediately around you and seeing what is new and transformative, rather than trying to slot it into some earlier idea of what urbanism should be or what human life should be, really. I guess I’m significantly more sentimental and left wing than Ballard, and there’s not much similarity in the writing, but it’s that thing of really looking at flyovers, and looking at suburbs, and looking at retail parks, rather than being automatically mortified by them.

Photo by Agata Pyzik. Illustrations from A New Kind of Bleak by Laura Oldfield Ford.

Aug 20, 2012 11:16pm

Really good read. Look forward to the new book, Owen is pretty engaging.

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Aug 21, 2012 11:30pm

Nicely pitched interview. Hatherley great. He's so good at making you look at things afresh, in the prevailing neoliberal blizzard. And he sometimes cracks me up.

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