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Saturday, 6 November 2010

Books - A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain - Owen Hatherley

Star rating – 8/10

With a title like this I expected strong opinions from architect Owen Hatherley about the so called regeneration of our cities – and he does not disappoint. In fact this is more of an architectural polemic than anything – but a very readable one for all that. Hatherley takes us on a sweep of architectural dreams and disasters, with fantastic descriptions of architectural styles along the way such as Gradgrindian Gothic.

His premise is that New Labour promised a brave new world of regenerated cities and a golden age of architecture, and delivered considerably less, mainly sterile PFI hospitals, and stalled, fenced off building sites. Now whilst I am certainly no defender of the New Labour faith, I do feel that this view, whilst having some truth in it, is perhaps a little harsh.

His journey through the architecture of several of our famous cities mirrors an earlier, celebrated one by J. B. Priestley, and starts off in Hatherley’s own home town of Southampton. Not having been there I can’t comment on the veracity of the views stated. He continues onto Milton Keynes, whose depressing monolithic banality can hardly be placed at the door of Blair’s Labour Government, but Hatherley doesn’t let truth get in the way of a good polemic. And it is a good polemic, make no mistake about it. He is passionate about our urban spaces and how they work for the people who live and work in them, and for the generations to come who will inherit them. He writes from the heart, and with a fierce intelligence that is very refreshing to read.

But when it comes closer to home (to my home that is) and to Manchester, there is much to take serious issue with here. When talking about Sheffield, he can’t help but take a side swipe at Manchester, saying that its music ‘was always more original then Manchester’s increasingly dull vainglories...’ This is a staggering assertion about the home of the Smiths, Joy Division, New Order, the Stone Roses, I am Kloot – need I go on?? As for Sheffield’s buildings, Hatherley is fiercely critical of Bob (now Sir Bob) Kerslake’s housing demolition programmes there in the name of the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders. He is also very critical of Tom Bloxham, founder of Urban Splash, whose company are in the middle of a large project to regenerate the Park Hill estate. I am not sure how relevant the fact that Bloxham used to be a member of the Labour Party Young Socialists is to his central argument, but he seems to relish making the point anyway.

I feel that Hatherley is altogether too harsh on innovative developers like Urban Splash, saying that in Park Hill they have ‘spectacularly..fucked up’ the project. Tom Bloxham may be an influential and powerful individual, but the credit crunch and economic downturn that has stalled the project, hopefully temporarily, was hardly his fault. Hatherley grudgingly admits that Urban Splash have ‘helped preserve what is, by any measure, one of the truly great industrial landscapes’ i.e. the mills and industrial units of Manchester’s Castlefield. He totally underplays the role of Urban Splash in breathing new life into derelict parts of many cities by bringing beautiful old buildings back to life as vibrant places to live and work. And for me, if they made some money along the way, then fair play to them for it.

Hatherley seems to have a bit of a problem with Manchester... to put it mildly. He says that ‘...the Situationist critique of postwar urbanism has curdled into an alibi for (new Manchester’s) gentrification.’ – now I am not sure exactly what all that means but it doesn’t sound very complimentary at all. His thesis that the blandness of the city’s regeneration has caused a similar lack of innovation in its music scene since 1995 is frankly preposterous. He romanticises the Hulme Crescents. Yes, they were very popular with students and creative types. Yes, all the families were moved out as they were totally unsuitable for their needs. And yes there was a Hulme style - mainly scruffy, unwashed with a dog on a string as an essential accessory – but you couldn’t put a nail in the walls of the flats as they were made of asbestos – which is not so romantic. And you really could hear everything that the flats next door, and above and below you were doing – believe me.

He calls Manchester’s New Islington - ‘a failed confidence trick’, which is a very distorted view of what happened. He derides the demolition of social housing but neglects to mention (he probably wasn’t aware) that the Cardroom estate which was knocked down was a notorious crime hotspot, was virtually impossible to police due to its ridiculous layout of one way in and out of its labyrinthine streets, and very unpopular with lots of its residents who had no choice but to live there. That does put a different gloss on things which doesn’t fit with the polemic. This boiling down of reality to fit a thesis is a shame because Hatherley does have a point. In the midst of the new developments by housing associations and Urban Splash alike, are more empty tower blocks, empty for what must be at least 10 years now, and with no prospect of anything happening to them. A harsh juxtaposition indeed and a definite failure of regeneration – but not mentioned by Hatherley.

Ok I will get off my own soap box now, because I did really enjoy this book and its passion. but I just wish that Hatherley would suggest a few alternatives to the things he derides. He is spot on about the fenced off stalled building sites in the middle of beautiful cities like Bradford. He is right about the staggering lack of ambition of many buildings created in the last 20 years. And he is definitely right to start a debate about something that matters so much. I just wish he would lay off Manchester a bit – anyone would think he was a teensy bit jealous.

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