Matthew Engel

Travels with My Set Square

Trans-Europe Express: Tours of a Lost Continent

By

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In 2006 the football World Cup was held in Germany and, in line with common practice, accredited personnel – journalists included – received free travel passes, in this case, first-class on German railways. It was not just a perk: many of us were travelling from one game to another, one city to another, almost every day.

Colleagues would meet up in those wonderfully old-fashioned (to British eyes) semi-private train compartments and chat, presumably about the football and the iniquities of subeditors, conversations that have not stuck in the memory. What I do remember is this: day after day another subject would also recur. Good God, we kept saying, aren’t these German cities beautiful? Who knew?

Sure, I had camped in the Black Forest and reported from Berlin as the Wall came down. But now we were travelling to places that in my generation’s mind conjured up only Nazi rants and the drone of bombers: Hamburg, Hanover, Stuttgart, Dortmund. Everywhere, the old buildings that survived had been lovingly conserved. The new ones were tasteful and in scale. The local transport worked. The streets were clean. Myself, I never made it to Nuremberg, the most chilling name of all, but those who did go said it was the best of the lot. Why wasn’t Britain like this?

It helped that the weather was lovely that summer. It helped having our first-class passes. It helped being on German railways, which, in one of Owen Hatherley’s many pleasing phrases, gives you, even in second class, ‘the unmistakeable feeling that you are being treated like an adult’. But the question has become ever more relevant: since 2006, English local government, especially outside a favoured handful of fashionable cities, has gone from already feeble to 95 per cent strangled. And Britain fails not just in comparison with those planetary paragons, the Germans. Across Europe one comes across green, liveable, beguiling, well-maintained cities, and not only in the obvious places. I would offer Ljubljana, Riga and Zagreb for starters.

Trans-Europe Express starts in Hatherley’s home town, Southampton, where he witheringly deplores the fate of the old Ocean Terminal, now partly given over to densely packed blocks of flats. ‘There’s no view of the estuary here in any publicly accessible space,’ he wails. ‘There’s one place you can see out to the sea and contemplate the world beyond – a hard-to-find corner, through a fence marked “RESIDENTS ONLY”.’ It is a promising start to a book, if not to a journey.

Hatherley has a remarkable set of skills: he has the architectural, historical and political knowledge and the literary gifts to make him a worthy successor to the late, great and now rediscovered Ian Nairn – and occasionally some of the passion, too. Unfortunately, it all comes together here only in fits and starts. The main reason for that becomes clear at the end, in the acknowledgements, where he admits that the book is ‘essentially an anthology’. The majority of the chapters – portraits of individual cities – started as articles, published elsewhere, mostly in the Architects’ Journal.

There seems to me to be a helluva difference between writing for architects and appealing to moderately intelligent travellers, anxious to be told what they ought to be thinking but confident enough to disagree. (I speak as someone who looks up the word ‘architrave’ at least once a year and never quite remembers the meaning.) Aside from the tone, this crossover also creates the problem of taking architects at their own estimation.

In Munich, Hatherley gets very excited about Frei Otto’s glass canopies at the Olympic Park before casually mentioning that they are not ‘functionally sensible’ as it is too hot underneath them, ‘even in December’. Which means that for most of the year they are intolerable. Some of us have had to work in award-winning modern hellholes that typify everything that’s wrong with 21st-century architecture. If a new building fails to work for the people obliged to use it, then it is a total failure, whatever it looks like.

Although the choice of cities might have made sense for the Architects’ Journal, they are somewhat odd in combination here. After an initial gallop through the cities one is most likely to visit, complete with some original judgements (he finds Paris ‘tight-arsed’. Paris? Tight-arsed? Vraiment?), he focuses mainly on lesser-known places.

Sometimes this works brilliantly. In different ways Hatherley makes gritty Lódź and poor old which-country-are-we-in-this-week Lviv sound entrancing, though with just a touch of de haut en bas: ‘Central Lviv is full of the sort of architecture tourists love, and there is nothing wrong with that in principle.’ He does a wonderful job on Vyborg, in a chapter entitled ‘Vyborg: Finland’s Second City, Russia’s 208th’. It is now firmly in Russia, which makes his rescue mission all the more useful: ‘the cobbled steps down to the sea secrete the acrid stink of history, rather than the waxy, varnished smell of heritage.’

That is great stuff. But it is hard to imagine what sort of journey one would make with this book as a constant companion: it is all too random. What, if anything, does Europe do right that Britain does wrong? It is hard to find a coherent argument or even what it is that Hatherley really wants in a cityscape and why. I am sure he has a masterpiece in him. When it comes, I hope he makes his paragraphs a bit shorter.

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