A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain by Owen Hatherley - review by Jonathan Meades

Jonathan Meades

Bland Nightmares

A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain


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In A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain Owen Hatherley cast his exhilaratingly miserabilist eye over the Blair era’s ‘regeneration’ of cities such as Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Cardiff. The former prime minister may have gone off to spend more time with his tax advisers but the resistible fruits of the boom he presided over remain, grinning all too accessibly, just asking to be savaged. And they have been joined by the stylistically kindred, happily vacuous tectonic bling of Gordon Brown’s mercifully brief stewardship, and of what Hatherley insists on calling the ‘Tory–Whig coalition’, a moniker the dubious accuracy of which suggests either a misreading of Dave’n’Nick’s desperately dependent cohabitation or an atypically frail grasp of distant sectarianism. 

There is, then, much for this tireless traveller to scrutinise and tear apart in what is, to an extent, a second instalment of The New Ruins. Indeed, the title of the second book comes from an article he wrote about the first. He again wears his Paleolithic socialism on his sleeve, fetishises public transport, and seethes with contemptuous indignation at the shiny junk that an unregulated construction industry dumps all over Britain. He again succumbs to what Reyner Banham called a ‘sentimental Hoggartry’ towards the working class, abhors sauve qui peut Manchester Liberalism, suffers a sort of angelism, and manifests a surprisingly conservative Good Taste. Above all, he again conjures up the blandly offensive horrors of urban and suburban Britain (and Belfast) in vivid, high-octane prose that never lets up. The picture he paints is dismal, but the marks he makes are exquisite, precise and detailed: he is blessed with a Neue Sachlichkeit sensibility.

Of course, many of the places he ambles about like a furiously engaged flâneur are not new and can hardly be treated as gauges of the national temper. His chapter on Edinburgh is a candid expression of wonder, a hymn to one of the world’s finest townscapes and a modernist’s admission that neo-vernacular and neo-classicism have their place provided they are executed with sufficient conviction. He sees the point of the early twentieth-century planner, architect, sociologist, campaigner and dandy Patrick Geddes, who shunned grand projects and comprehensive redevelopment in favour of the countless small interventions that preserved the textures and labyrinthine mystery of the Old Town. Geddes’s successors have not shared his genius for the stern picturesque. With rare exceptions, they have lacked his humane theatricality and his sensitivity to urban fabric. Hatherley writes that the illiterately named St James Shopping is a ‘structure whose ability to have received planning permission even in the 1960s is truly extraordinary … a piece of pure, principle-free speculation with few redeeming features … [it] appears unstoppable, growing and morphing’. The contention that it has any redeeming features is questionable. Its latest addition is a stupidly curling bridge by Broadway Malyan, the soi-disant architectural practice that perpetrated the grotesquely boorish towers beside the Thames at Vauxhall.

On the other side of Scotland he visits Govan, a former shipbuilding quarter of Glasgow where every pub is full of ruminating Alex Fergusons and where ‘regeneration’ means, as usual, flashy museums and the ‘creative industries’. The francophile former town hall is now something called Film City, and a few hundred yards east stand the BBC’s spatially profligate new offices, where creative people can think creative thoughts in a ‘creative shed’. Really. He moves on to Cumbernauld, one of the five Scottish new towns built in the Fifties and Sixties, a place to which residents of Govan’s tenements were decanted. It is somewhat notorious for its distended, over-ambitious megastructural centre, apparently calumnised as a ‘concrete spaceship from the planet Crap’ in a telly show called Demolition, which Hatherley weirdly describes as ‘Poujadist’. His shocked and funny depiction of this ‘concrete shanty town’ is surer. He is sympathetic to the rest of Cumbernauld and astutely links its landscaping to Swedish examples; he hopes that it might be the model for further essays in urbanism by an ‘independent, leftist, intensely local Scotland’. He rues that the secessionist Scotland he wants to see come into existence would guarantee a perpetual Tory hegemony in England. Similarly he is alert to the irony that the City of London, whose piratical kleptocracy he abhors, creates the current architecture he most admires. He describes Richard Rogers’s Lloyd’s building as ‘monstrous, compelling and utterly fucked-up … the most astonishing futurist structure ever erected in the UK’. These pages on Lloyd’s are of the highest order – architectural writing that may justly be compared to that of Summerson and Nairn.

While Hatherley’s prose never flags, I suspect that his legs do. Or that public transport fails him. His bewilderingly hostile underestimation of Birmingham is very likely occasioned by his not having seen enough of it: ‘It’s hard to define anything … as being specifically Brummie or Black Country.’ Not so! Arts and Crafts architecture was, in its magical tweeness, predominantly an idiom employed in suburbs and rural settings. Birmingham is the only city in England whose Arts and Crafts architects – Bidlake, Buckland and countless Anons – successfully adapted its forms for an urban context. The streets west of Colmore Row abound in red brick and terracotta, materials previously deployed with a certain severity, a certain lack of douceness. Further out, in the car-dependent suburb of Moseley, there are sub-Voysey villas with integral motor-houses – among the earliest in Britain. But to have overlooked this work is a rare lapse in a book that gets Britain horribly right, and does so with a bracing heartlessness.

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