Review: A New Kind of Bleak

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credit Laura Oldfield Ford

words Sukhdev Sandhu

Owen Hatherley’s Stakhanovite output, in his blog Nasty, Brutalist And Short and in three book-length publications beginning with Militant Modernism in 2009, has covered architecture, Marxist theory, cultural studies and political aesthetics. This range is mirrored by the number of cities across which he leaves his critical footprint as he treks through Britain raining down curses on everything he encounters that he believes to be shoddy, privatised, timorous or banal.

A New Kind Of Bleak, his latest book, is based on the Urban Trawl series he wrote for Building Design between 2009 and 2011. Think of it as a modern-day version of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). That fact-fiction hybrid is overrun by vermin, gangrene and viruses; here the plague emerges in the form of government acronyms and concepts: BSF, PFI, City Academies, Enterprise Zones, Big Society.

Brighton, Barrow-in-Furness, Croydon, Preston, Leicester: the towns and cities to which Hatherley travels represent not Premiership but Championship stature in terms of British urbanism; they’re manna to the compilers of Boring Postcards, The Idler Book of Crap Towns, and Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit? Arriving at Fishergate in Preston, Hatherley’s spirits slump: “This is the kind of high street that only England seems to be able to conjure up: miserably scaled, shabby, pinched.”

Everywhere he goes he finds pseudomodernist buildings with barcode facades and copious cladding; everywhere there are
terrible signs. Teesside University has a billboard, “Britain’s Favourite University – Sunday Times”; a station platform in Wales has an ad that reads, “London, Shanghai, Tokyo?  Nope – Newport”; in Birmingham there’s a block christened “i-Land” that Hatherley reasonably describes as “surely the definitive urban regeneration place name. It combines not only the modish nod to new media … but also the all-important suggestion that you are in an enclave, where not just anyone is allowed to live”.

Is this too earnest? Is calling Barrow-in-Furness’s Hollywood Park “brain death in anodized aluminium” extreme? It’s the kind of invective that Hatherley’s critics are thinking of when they accuse him of being pious and humourless. Personally, I find his “Here Comes The Angry Young Man’” approach a bracing antidote to the faux-chumminess of so much British cultural discourse.

Nor does his anger preclude wit or self-reflexivity. Of Boris Johnson’s Zone 5 Strategy – focusing on voters who lived on the fringes of London rather than its centre – he writes that it “proved again how successful a politician can be by appealing to the Free-Born Englishman’s age-old right to drive at four miles an hour rather than taking a bus”. On another occasion, he claims: “I don’t understand or know anything whatsoever about the countryside, generally considering it an ideological phantom wielded as a weapon against towns and cities.”

Hatherley does find a few cartographies of hope. They include the new headquarters of the Unison trade union at King’s Cross; the improvised land grabs of Occupy activists and radical students (he approvingly cites the Middlesex University students who transformed a campus building into “Transversal Space”, an alternative site of learning, to protest the closure of the philosophy department); the teenage rioters who, in August 2011, refused to “know their place” or to “Keep Calm and Carry On”.

There are other surprises: in Coventry, in Leicester, in Teesside whose cooling towers and chemical refineries, designed by anonymous engineers, Hatherley compares favourably to the work of Anish Kapoor. A New Kind Of Bleak is a rousing defence of infrastructure, public investment and British provincialism against the damaging orthodoxies of the City of London and the hegemony of south-east England. Read it alongside Patrick Wright’s On Living In An Old Country (1985) or after watching Patrick Keiller’s The Dilapidated Dwelling (2000) – both of them, like this book, caustic indictments of Britain’s feeble purchase on modernity.

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