If Owen Hatherley were an American critic, the effort to write his latest book would have taken him to St. Louis to lament the lost remains of the Pruitt–Igoe complex felled by dynamite and Postmodernism. He would undoubtedly have traveled to Seattle to see the still-extant Minoru Yamasaki buildings there—and would no doubt have nailed Yamasaki, as he does memorably one lesser-known British architect, as “a mediocre designer at the top of his game.” He would have toured Detroit, very probably on foot, and mourned the death of a city that, as he would see it, had the guts to build John Portman’s fearless Renaissance Center.
But Hatherley is as English as drizzle, tabloid journalism, and driving on the lefthand side of the road. And so, rather than tour the foreclosed suburban victims of the credit crunch and reflect on the aesthetics of the subprime housing sprawl, it is the Tony Blair years and their architectural history that he surveys in A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (Verso; $29.95). He claims to identify a specifically “Blairite” approach to urbanism, architecture, and regeneration.
A Blairite building, according to Hatherley, is not so much the Richard Rogers Partnership–designed dome in which New Labour celebrated the millennium—a building since given a Las Vegas–deco makeover by its current owner, Philip Anschutz. Rather, it is privately financed public hospitals, approved by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment that New Labour established, which mean Blair. Or a renewed waterfront for Cardiff, the capital of Wales, that shows nothing but cowardice in the face of the howling void left by the evisceration of an industrial city. Hatherley hates them all, characterizing this Blairite category with effective venom as infantilizing, flimsy, and cosmetic.
There are places in his narrative where a little judicious editing might have helped, as he is sometimes hasty in his judgments. Was the Blair government really the most authoritarian regime in British history? I know that former President George W. Bush’s prayer mate was keen on surveillance and suspending habeas corpus, but there were no Bloody Sunday riots in Trafalgar Square during his term in office.
But despite the number of times that Blairism is cited, Hatherley’s book is less a new look at the aesthetic politics of the recent past than a rediscovery of a familiar path for English literature: a tour around the provinces in search of enlightenment. Hatherley’s version takes the form of a melancholic tour of provincial England, with excursions to Scotland and Wales. He is fascinated by the grain of provincial life and by provincial architecture. Hatherley begins in Southampton, the town where he grew up and which he depicts as a place entirely without qualities; he then takes the reader to Milton Keynes and Cambridge, where, all too typically, he is detained by nothing that was built before 1968. Hatherley evokes the lost sense of distinctiveness that provincial cities once had. Sheffield, which he paints as a onetime socialist paradise, or Glasgow, Scotland, with its grid and the breathtaking bleakness of its high-rises, were cities that once had their own voices. He is melancholy about the lost industrial economies that once powered these cities; he is even more distraught about the lost utopias that architects of the 1960s and 1970s built to house the masses of those cities, and perhaps too quick to exculpate architects from the consequences that flowed from the badly built and hard-to-heat towers that some of them designed.
He writes exhaustively, and occasionally exhaustingly, in a manner that will be familiar to readers of Nikolaus Pevsner’s famous guides, with a quality of the colorful criticism of Ian Nairn—a figure with the same influence on a certain generation of British writers that Alison and Peter Smithson have on younger architects. Unlike Pevsner, Hatherley goes for a continuous narrative in his guide in place of individual entries. He nevertheless provides a considerable amount of the kind of detail that conservationists will one day find useful. And A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain is full of wonderful aperçus. I had never put it into words myself, but Ebenezer Howard is exactly as Hatherley describes, a curiously Victorian combination of crank and pragmatist.
The ostensible intention of Hatherley’s journey is to delineate the course of Blairism, yet he manages to avoid any mention of its most conspicuous manifestation: the march of high-rises across the London skyline that tracked the rise and fall of the markets with precision. The omission owes to an altogether separate purpose. Hatherley has managed to seize, with relish and some success, an opportunity that comes all too rarely for architectural critics—probably not more than once in every two generations—to overturn conventional wisdom. To tell us that something we had accustomed ourselves to seeing as irretrievably awful is in fact an unacknowledged masterpiece, and having told us, to persuade us that he is to be believed. In the 1950s, it was the poet John Betjeman who took credit for opening British eyes to the glories of Victorian architecture. (To be sure, the architectural historian John Summerson did the spade work.) After their efforts, that which had been seen as, at best, an amusing embarrassment became priceless heritage. Now Hatherley is trying to do the same for the Brutalists. And not just any Brutalists: his particular favorites are the previously, deservedly, obscure. Like the aesthetic distance between the Art Nouveau of Bratislava, Slovakia, and of Nancy, France, Hatherley surveys a Brutalism that is a distant echo of a metropolitan original, practiced by somebody who never got closer to Paul Rudolph than seeing a picture in a magazine and studying a floor plan of the Art and Architecture Building in New Haven, Conn.
As a result, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain reads something like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in which the action of Hamlet is seen through the eyes of two of Shakespeare’s more minor characters. Hatherley writes an account of British architecture of the past 30 years—an account in which Norman Foster, James Frazer Stirling, Denys Lasdun, and the Smithsons are reduced to walk-on parts, with the greater part of the action reserved for such figures as Owen Luder, Rodney Gordon, and Malcolm Lister. He loves their shopping centers and car parks and trade-union offices as thoroughly as he despises Blairite bar-code façades and random fenestration patterns. And as Hatherley must surely know, in another 30 years, along will come another Hatherley—to tell us just how good all that meretricious Blairite rubbish really was.