Owen Hatherley writes about architecture like Rick Perlstein writes about American political history. Both have a slightly irreverent approach, write wittily, research deeply but don’t aim for a starchy academic tone, and are interested in the way their chosen subject affects the person on the street.
Hatherley has just published, hot in the heels of his book about soviet architecture published by Penguin, a book against British ‘austerity nostalgia’, but I have been reading his earlier book about recent British architecture, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, which I had been eyeing in the library and which I noticed subsequently in their sale of withdrawn books, and which I picked up for a dollar. Although a book quite specific in its content, what he says about the poor state of British architecture can equally be applied to recent Australian architecture – the knee-jerk emphasis on juxtaposition and ‘playful’ surface, the endless variations of veneers and ‘skeins’ which are just gimmickry over dead boring hulks of concrete and glass, with a disregard for overall civic harmony, generosity and practical use. If Hatherley is Don Quixote, ‘urban regeneration’ sites are his windmills. He castigates politicians for demolishing public assets, creating waiting lists for public housing, creating false property booms, demolishing interesting modernist buildings for boring ‘aspirational’ housing (‘stunning’ developments, in the developer’s parlance ) and for allowing developers to build with shoddy materials and bad design. He suggests that it is now developers rather than the poor who sponge off governments. Conservatives bang on about waste in the arts or universities but Hatherley is angry about ‘pointless’ regeneration, the demolition of 20-year old buildings and the gifts of public land to developers. He is attuned to the falsity and lazy hype of the language used by politicians and developers – ‘stunning’, ‘iconic’, ‘sustainable communities’, ‘urban villages’.
Though this may seem depressing – and it is – his jokey but angry style is irresistible – ‘the axe of regeneration’, ‘spectacularly infantile’. He suggests that in 1960s Manchester planning managed to combine ‘agoraphobia, claustrophobia and vertigo’. He has a fascination with modernist, specifically brutalist architecture and a disdain for the ubiquity of English heritage but one cannot make easy guesses as to what he likes and doesn’t. He criticises 90s record cover designers (where one might assume an affinity), and can find elements to like in some recent buildings. What may seem nondescript apartment blocks are enthused over because of design or style that requires a second glance. None of this is mere aesthetics. The book makes a link between politics and architecture, suggesting that modern neoliberal governments have unsurprisingly discouraged ‘collectivisation’. Hatherley thinks some of the post-war developments did foster a sense of community, though an English friend suggested recently that maybe this is relative – those dominating apartment blocks were good in the sense only that they were better than sleeping rough.