A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain 08.08.11

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Owen Hatherley’s “autopsy of the urban renaissance” is fearless and funny, says Chris Hall

Owen Hatherley's A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain is an idiosyncratic and extremely well-researched tour of British cities. It begins with his home town of Southampton, includes Manchester, Cardiff, Milton Keynes, Tyneside and Greenwich, among others, and ends at Liverpool – mostly based on his Urban Trawl series of pieces for Building Design magazine. (Hatherley also contributes to Icon.)

A Guide owes something to Ian Nairn and, more specifically, JB Priestley's English Journey (1934), which Hatherley calls "a sharp, populist, politely angry account of a deliberate attempt to look England in the face".

"This book is an autopsy of the urban renaissance," Hatherley writes, "but one driven by constant surprise and fascination at just how strange, individual and architecturally diverse British cities actually are." Clearly, he hasn't just gone out to confirm his opinions but challenges them instead – and ours.

A whole load of people come in for a good kicking: Urban Splash ("the whole document is written in infantile music press cliches"); Broadway Malyan's Velocity Tower ("another glass block with absolutely nothing to do with its surroundings – aptly, as it was originally designed for another site entirely"); and Aedas ("The Bauhaus, Dessau, in 1926: 'Art and technology, a new unity'; The Bauhaus, Manchester, in 2009: 'Business and life in perfect harmony'.").

Here is someone who, for example, actually cares about the "calculatedly crap" accommodation that students are offered. "In its combination of jollity, bathos, vacancy and authoritarianism," Hatherley writes about Make's Jubilee Campus, Nottingham, "it sums up the Blairite era in three dimensions." His denunciation of the Aspire sculpture at the Jubilee Campus – "Aspire god damn you! Aim high, recalcitrant proles!" – is Hatherley as the Mark E Smith of design criticism; a rather thrilling prospect. (He notes that the North-West Regional Association has the same abbreviation as The Fall's The North Will Rise Again).

Hatherley says of his home town Southampton: "[It] knows it fucking hates Portsmouth but proclaims very little else about itself." As he says a little later, "what is really interesting in the rivalry is that the alleged historical and political reasons for the intense mutual hatred have been imposed post-facto". He talks about the failed late 1960s plan to build a "Southampton-Portsmouth Supercity" and that "rather than real modernity, we got dim-witted atavism".

He finds that Milton Keynes – "fascinating, haunting, a truly beautiful illusion, an oasis" – is still the same non-place it was planned to be: "And why not? The idea that a city should exist for youth and 'vibrancy' is a tired combination of baby-boomer nostalgia and romantic guff about the virtues of poverty's dirt and noise."

However, I found the patchy exposition maddening – "system-built" is twice explained within a few pages, while it is assumed, for example, that his readers will be au fait with Stadtkrone. McDonald's is de-apostrophised throughout the book, and Antony Gormley is misspelled even in the index. If you're going to bemoan "Cartwright Packard's moronically named iQuarter", at least get the practice's name right.

The invective, also, can be a little jejune – referring to Holy Rood Church in Southampton he mentions a "plaque dedicated to the dead of the Falklands War (rather grotesquely putting this dirty little war on the same level as the fight against Nazi Germany)" – and sometimes the pop references are ill-advised: "As it went up, curtain-walled office blocks went down, wrapped in plastic like Laura Palmer before being thrown in the sea."

This is a shame because Hatherley deserves to be widely read. New Ruins is unsentimental, serious without being earnest, and grimly funny, as the Boring Postcards-like picture captions attest. For a self-confessed "Bolshevik", he's never didactic or party line, as it were, and he has brought a welcome freshness and honesty to architectural criticism.

A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain by Owen Hatherley. Verso. £17.99.

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Chris Hall

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New Ruins is unsentimental, serious without being earnest, and grimly funny

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