A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain

The ‘new ruins’ – poorly designed and shoddy shopping malls and mass-produced housing – are ubiquitous throughout our cities. Ken Worpole finds that Owen Hatherley is a witty and erudite gazetteer of terrible mistakes, but wonders if the acerbic author is as fair as he could be

A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, by Owen Hatherley, Verso, £18, September 2010.

The ‘new ruins’ – poorly designed and shoddy shopping malls and mass-produced housing – are ubiquitous throughout our cities. Ken Worpole finds that Owen Hatherley is a witty and erudite gazetteer of terrible mistakes, but wonders if the acerbic author is as fair as he could be.

Owen Hatherley has been blogging about architecture and politics for a number of years now with increasing effect.  The acerbic humour which underpins his writing is evident in the names of the sites on which he blogs: Sit down man, you’re a bloody tragedy (James Maxton’s famous injunction to the hapless Labour apostate Ramsay Macdonald in the House of Commons); The Measures Taken (one of Brecht’s unforgiving plays, which I once saw performed at the Duke of Wellington pub in Dalston, with intimidating musical accompaniment by Cornelius Cardew’s People’s Liberation Orchestra); and nastybrutalistandshort.

Hatherley, a self-described ‘vulgar Marxist’, is also currently speaking at a number of student occupations about the connection between architecture and politics, and his blogs are some of the best things to have pricked the self-admiring bubble of corporate architecture and urban re-development for a very long time – possibly since Ian Nairn and Outrage. This, his second book, follows in the footsteps of J. B. Priestley’s pre-war English Journey, but where Priestley was more interested in the people, the jobs they did and the lives they led, Hatherley concentrates on the sorry saga of what has happened to cities like Southampton, Glasgow, Sheffield, Liverpool, Nottingham and half a dozen of the others, as decades of redevelopment seem to have turned them all into look-alike shopping centres with some very dubious housing schemes attached. 

These are the ‘new ruins’: featureless, poorly detailed, shoddily built and superficially glamorous urban quarters, often devoid of schools, health clinics and other social infrastructure: not built to last but built to sub-let.  On his journeys throughout the UK, funded by writing a very funny column for the magazine Building Design, Hatherley has been accompanied by photographer Joel Anderson, whose flat-toned grey photographs could easily have been shuffled and re-distributed throughout the book, as it is almost impossible to tell which new building belongs to which city, such is the ubiquitous nature of the so-called International Style, which was very early on suborned by mass production techniques and cheap materials.

Hatherley knows so much, almost too much, about 20th century aesthetics, firing off broadsides (and a few squibs) in all directions, with witty and deflating references to Constructivism, Modernism, Post-modernism, and a little too much Leninist chic to my taste.  What works on a blog can, over the long haul, become a bit wearing. He is too hard on CABE, the government’s architectural advisory body, which in the response to the appalling quality of volume house-building in recent years, has produced at least three very damning reports.

The book opens with a quotation from Raymond Williams, ambiguously celebrating the shining city promised by postwar Modernism.  It is as well to remember that Williams once said that we live in a world ‘sick with criticism’. Hatherley’s compendious, erudite and witty book is more of a gazetteer to the terrible mistakes made in the contemporary planning and development of British cities, than a considered architectural guide - but he should remember that there have been improvements too. A much warmer side of this engaging figure comes out in his blogs, where he rhapsodises over the sheer intelligent comedy of TV’s Steptoe & Son, as a piece of beautifully observed English life and culture, for example, or writes thoughtfully about contemporary film. A man to watch, as I’m sure someone somewhere is already doing. (He has already been asked on his travels to delete his camera memory card several times).

Ken Worpole is a contributor to ‘Towards Re-enchantment: Place and Its Meanings’, reviewed on OurKingdom.

About the author

Ken Worpole is a writer on architecture, landscape, planning, design, and social history. He was a founder-member of openDemocracy, and is a senior professor at The Cities Institute, London Metropolitan University. His many books include Modern Hospice Design: The Architecture of Palliative Care (Routledge, 2009); Contemporary Library Architecture: a planning and design guide (Routledge, April 2013); and 350 Miles: An Essex Journey, with photographer Jason Orton (2005, still available at £7.95). His website is here