A New Kind of Bleak

Journeys Through Urban Britain

by Owen Hatherley

6 September 2012

Photo found on Creative Lancashire.org (photographer unknown) 

Garden Festivals as Crystal Palaces

There is, I admit, one positive proposal on which the leaders of both of the main parties seem to agree. It is expressed in different ways, and with different degrees of sincerity. For Ed Miliband, it’s a question of rewarding the ‘producers’ in industry rather than the ‘predators’ of finance capitalism; for George Osborne, ‘we need to start making things again’. Yet there’s no doubt that both the Conservative Party (from 1979 to 1997) and the Labour Party (from 1997 to 2010) presided over a massive decline in industry and ‘production’; both of them favoured finance and services over industry and technology. Yet here is an apparent change of heart. What does it mean, this stated divide between producer and predator, industrialist and speculator, this seeming desire to turn the long-defunct workshop of the world back into a workshop of some sort? Is it plausible?

Answers might lie in a book published thirty years ago, which was once a fixture of British political debate – the historian Martin J. Wiener’s 1981 polemic English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit. This book was on Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher’s notorious ‘reading list’ to the Tory Cabinet of the early ’80s, and ministers were each handed a copy. Most of that list consisted of the classics of neoliberalism – defences of raw, naked capitalism from the likes of Friedrich von Hayek or Milton Friedman, the books which are often associated with an economic policy that decimated British industry. Wiener’s book was different. Not an economic tract as such, it was more of a cultural history, and its manifest influences were largely from the left. A short analysis of English political and literary culture, the centrality it gave to literature evoked Raymond Williams; its insistence on the sheer scale of English industrial primacy showed a close reading of Eric Hobsbawm; and by ascribing industrial decline to England’s lack of a full bourgeois revolution, it had much in common with Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson’s famous 1960s ‘thesis’ on English backwardness. In fact, Wiener seldom cited right-wing sources at all. He invited us to imagine a Tory–Whig coalition that didn’t feel the need to ‘reterritorialize’.

Wiener claimed that British industrial capitalism reached its zenith in 1851, the year of the Crystal Palace, whose proto-modernist architecture was filled with displays exhibiting British industrial prowess. After that, it came under attack from both left and right – in fact, Wiener argues that the left and right positions were essentially indistinguishable. Whether ostensibly conservative, like the Gothic architect Augustus Welsby Pugin, or Marxist, like William Morris, opinion formers in the second half of the nineteenth century agreed that industry had deformed the United Kingdom, that its cities and its architecture were ghastly, that its factories were infernal, and that industrialism should be replaced with a return to older, preferably medieval certainties. Wiener claims the foundation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings as one of this movement’s successes – an unprecedented group of people who, in his account, honestly believed that their own era had no valuable architectural or aesthetic contribution to make.

This horrified reaction to industry, and most of all to the industrial city, affected middle-class taste (and Wiener has it that working-class taste invariably followed suit). The ideal was now the country cottage, and if it couldn’t be in the country itself, then the rural could be simulated on the city’s outskirts, as in the garden suburbs of Bedford Park or Hampstead, followed by the ‘bypass Tudor’ of the early twentieth century. The real England, insisted commentators of left, right and centre, was in the countryside – despite the fact that since the middle of the nineteenth century, for the first time anywhere, a majority lived in cities. One of Wiener’s sharpest anecdotes concerns a book of poetry about ‘England’ distributed to soldiers during the First World War. Not one poem even mentioned the industrial cities where those who fought had overwhelmingly come from. By the 1920s, competing political leaders posed as country gents, whether the Tory Stanley Baldwin, marketed rather incredibly as a well-to-do farmer, or Labour’s Ramsay MacDonald, who presented himself as a simple man of the dales.

This sounds far from a Tory argument. Britain’s industrial and urban reality was ignored or lambasted in favour of an imaginary, depopulated countryside, and its industrial might and technological innovation suffered accordingly – what could the Conservative Party possibly find to its taste in this? That becomes clear in the third of Wiener’s points. British capitalism, he argues, had become fatally ashamed of capitalism itself. It was embarrassed by the muck, mess and noise of industry, shrank from the great northern cities where that was largely based, and cringed at being seen to be ‘money-grubbing’. Wiener, like many a leftwinger, argued that this came from the English middle class’s love affair with its betters, the usually fulfilled desire of every factory owner to become a country gent, a rentier rather than producer. But he also suggested it came from a misplaced philanthropy, and a pussyfooting discomfort with making a profit from making stuff. In the form of the City of London’s finance capitalism, it had even found a way to make money out of money itself.

Now the book starts to sound like the Tory–Whig consensus we know today. British capitalism, it argues, needs to rediscover the free market, the profit motive and the ‘gospel of getting-on’ that it had once disdained. Wiener’s adversaries here are the same as Thatcherism’s punchbags – the BBC, for instance, an institution of paternalist arrogance which haughtily refused to give the public the money-generating entertainment it really wanted; or the Universities, devoted to the lefty talking shop of the ‘social sciences’ rather than robustly useful applied science. Enter current universities minister David Willetts, and his war against academia.

English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit divided the Tory Party between those who welcomed this new, swaggering capitalism – the heir to nineteenth-century Manchester Liberalism – and the true conservatives who were horrified by this scorn for the countryside, old England, conservation and preservation. The former faction won, but in its rhetoric the contemporary Tory Party still tries to balance these two impulses, rather ineptly – Grant Shapps praises garden cities and Philip Hammond raises the speed limit, Cameron advocates concreting over the green belt and Gove slates modernist architecture.

Yet if the book fell into obscurity, it’s because Wiener’s central thesis was so resoundingly disproved. He predicted that in bringing back ‘market discipline’, Thatcher would rejuvenate British industry and the ‘northern’ values it inculcated; instead, the industrial centres of Tyneside, Clydeside and Teesside, South Wales and South yorkshire, Greater Manchester and the West riding all faced cataclysm, on such a scale that most have still not recovered. Wiener might have praised cities and industry, but the former usually voted Labour, and the latter implied strong trade unions. Neither point was to endear them to the new, swaggering capitalism. The cities were even further emasculated, their organs of local government defeated and destroyed, their economic bases of coal, steel, shipbuilding and textiles downsized or simply wiped off the map. How did this happen? Perhaps because of that politer, more reliable way of making money – the City. Wiener scornfully quotes one Rolls-Royce executive in the 1970s who tells him that he is in the motor industry for pleasure, not for profit; if he just wanted to make money, he says, he’d be in the City. And from Spinningfields in Manchester to Canary Wharf in London, former industrial sites now house the trading floors of banks that had to be bailed out like the lame-duck industries of the ’70s. And where industry really did transform rather than disappear, it took new, discreet forms – the exurban business park, the BAE Systems airfield, the container port, all safely nestled far from public view, enabling the fantasy of old England to continue unimpeded.

Wiener’s heirs are those, sometimes to be found on the left, who try to separate out finance and industrial capitalism, as if they could be prised apart. Britain is more obsessed than ever with an imaginary rural Arcadia which bears less and less resemblance to the places where we actually live, yet the profit motive has been strengthened in the process, not limited. It seems amazing at this distance to imagine anyone could have thought otherwise – a counterfactual Thatcherism which revived industrial, urban Britain. The Garden Festivals that Michael Heseltine bestowed upon Liverpool or Ebbw Vale, with their enormous exhibition hangars, were presumably the new Crystal Palaces. But what is especially bizarre about the current orthodoxy – from which none of the main parties are exempt – is that Wiener’s attack on all but ‘useful’ moneymaking activities is continued, without the concrete industrial products or technological advances that there was once to show for it. There is a counter-theory, which has it that neither speculators nor small businesses are the real ‘wealth creators’, but rather the masses who have nothing to sell but their labour. Their voice wasn’t heard in Wiener’s book, and it is scarcely heard in the current political debate.

Society against the Big Society

There is an awful impasse in contemporary Britain, a failure of imagination or intellect, producing a manic-depressive society locked into what Ivor Southwood calls ‘Non-Stop Inertia’, while the free-market ideology that seemed to be mortally wounded by the bank bailouts has managed, somehow, to thrive and become even more extreme. This is a book about architecture and town planning, or at least a book about architecture and town planning that uses these as a way to talk about politics (or vice versa). It might be thought that these areas of reflexion and practice, based as they are on positive proposals for space and place, might have some contribution to make. They may, perhaps, be able to offer some ways out.

One suggestion made by some on the libertarian, anarchist end of the left, recognizing the manner in which the Tory–Whig coalition has inadvertently used ideas not massively different from the anti-state-planning ideas of anarchist architect Colin Ward (although radically against their original intent), entails using the Big Society against itself; taking literally the notions of ‘localism’, voluntarism and ‘community-driven’ development against quangos and government agencies. This is perhaps not as implausible as it might sound. To take one, highly-charged example, we could look at the change in management in a council estate in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The Byker Estate, designed by a team led by ralph Erskine, begun in 1969 and abandoned, unfinished, in 1981, has long been both an architectural and social cause célèbre. Looked at coldly, it’s hard to see why. First, it’s a council estate, and a big one, the product of post-war comprehensive redevelopment, and the comprehensive demolition of terraced housing. No ‘mixed tenure’ here. Second, it’s full of winding paths and walkways, some of them in concrete; there are no ‘streets’, not much in the way of the privately-monitored ‘defensible space’ now considered indispensable in all housing estates. There’s a lot of communal in-between spaces – parkland, squares – which have no clear ownership. Architecturally, it’s hardly ‘in keeping’, with bright colours, abstract forms, and a modernist sense of sublime scale. It’s as poor as it is ‘iconic’ – it even had its very own famous crime case, the duct-living miscreant ‘rat Boy’. It breaks every conventional rule for house-building and town planning in the UK over the last thirty years.

It’s not too far, in fact, from Sheffield’s gutted Park Hill, which was redeveloped under New Labour into a ‘creative class’ showcase, with its council tenants expelled and forgotten. But instead of Byker’s tenants being the object of class cleansing, they have just been given effective control over the estate through a ‘Community Land Trust’, and the debt the estate has accrued over the years has been written off. Housing Minister Grant Shapps has hailed this as ‘the Big Society in action’. So what’s the difference? Walking around it, the differences are a matter of upkeep, planting and care, rather than architecture. The bright, inorganic colours of the original scheme are still present and correct; the communal areas are lush, not scrubby; there ’s no sign of any ill-considered or stingy later additions to the estate. It looks coherent, confident, totally modern. Maybe that’s a legacy of the extraordinary care taken in the planning and design of the estate itself, with residents involved from the start. Development was famously incremental, with tenants’ reactions to each phase influencing the next – but even so, by the 1980s it had attained in local hearsay as fearsome a reputation as any big estate. But somehow, those ideas haven’t gone away. The estate is now run by a charitable body, entirely controlled (in theory) by its tenants, which surely means the foundational principle of residents’ active participation has produced a real legacy.

There’s little doubt that lack of democratic control and management was a reason (if not the sole reason) for the failures of some high-profile estates. But whether or not the new Community Land Trust will grant that control or not, the real irony is that this place is being hailed by the housing minister at the exact same moment that all its ideas are being destroyed, all over the country. This sort of giant city-centre estate is the very thing that the coalition’s Housing Benefit proposals aim to eradicate. Its careful, slow, bespoke (and expensive) state planning is the antithesis of the Enterprise Zones and the Free Schools. Perhaps, the anarcho-Big Society contingent might argue, we should demand many Bykers, spaces owned by the Community in which we could develop anti-state and anti-capitalist forms of urbanism. It falters on an obvious point, though – that a place can be taken into real public ownership in this manner, but no new space can be created using these methods; all that can happen, at best, is a situation where some older spaces are radicalized. During an acute, national housing crisis, where there are millions on the council waiting list, it can only be a holding operation.

Architecture and/or Revolution

Architects have not been conspicuous, lately, in coming up with new planning ideas. That’s not too surprising, as they were the hardest-hit of any profession during the Great recession – unemployment of young architecture graduates was at one point running at 75 per cent. The solution many resorted to was moving abroad, often to ‘emerging markets’ in the Middle East and South East Asia, where British firms have made a killing; this has led to embarrassing moments, such as when the Libyan crisis caught all of the main British firms with their finger in Gaddafi’s city planning schemes. However, the architectural orthodoxy of New Labour has been very definitely challenged, at least on architecture’s conscientious fringe. The buildings built in that era, often encouraged and abetted by the rulings of CABE, were all about the cladding. Stuck-on aluminium balconies, stapled-on slatted wood, brightly coloured render, clipped-on covering materials such as the ubiquitous industrial material Trespa, green glass tacked on at random, metal extrusions that look like they serve some sort of screening purpose but which are really just a form of ornament, wavy or tilted roofs, staggered ‘barcode façades’ which hide the basically regular proportions, wild and crazee angles with no apparent rationale, wonky pilotis holding up the whole thing… Underneath there was usually either a concrete frame or a load-bearing wall of breeze blocks, while the dwellings themselves were tiny, single-aspect flats. This created, as if by accident, an entire new architectural style, which elsewhere I’ve tried to describe as ‘Pseudomodernism’, for the way it reverses the old function-over-form morality of modernist architecture while rejecting the direct traditionalism of ‘vernacular’, neo-Tudor, neo-Georgian or neo-Victorian styles. That era has ended, at least in architectural design, although its products are still limping to completion. The fashion, at least, is changing. There are material reasons for this. Go to Clarence Dock in Leeds, or the flats just off Broadway Market in London, to see ‘luxury flats’ less than a decade old which are already in a state of advanced disrepair because of their delinquent cladding.

There have been two architectural alternatives since then; both existed during the boom, but there was always a sense that they were just biding their time. The new style, appropriately, has been largely used for social housing, or the little of it that gets built. The charitable Peabody Trust, once major sponsors of metal-balconied Pseudomodernism, have gone in their most recent work in Pimlico, Central London, for a heavy stock-brick style that speaks of solidity, continuity and coherence, courtesy of respected architects Haworth Tompkins. Barking and Dagenham Council have taken a similar approach in their very small new council housing scheme, designed as low-rise brick terraces by architects Maccreanor Lavington, with input from one-time fans of Big Brother House aesthetics, AHMM. It sounds a little pat, this move from cladding to masonry, like a simple reversal of the boom’s architectural values; and yet this new brick severity is notable for its seriousness, robustness, and social programme, all of which were absent from Blair-era architecture. However, with even Housing Associations unlikely to build much over the next decade, this will remain a marginal movement, confined more probably to luxury schemes such as Accordia in Cambridge. A similar movement can be found at the more scrupulous end of ‘signature ’ architecture, the stuff that makes it into the magazines. rather than the instantly consumable, instantly impressive and instantly forgettable logos that were expected, architects such as David Chipperfield and Caruso St John have designed provincial art galleries of sobriety, complexity and intelligence, often with great local specificity (albeit usually to the horror of the local press). Something like the site-specific concrete pavilions of Chipperfield’s Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield exemplifies this intensive, highly thought-out, cliché-avoiding approach.

Then there’s the second, more obviously provocative new architectural movement, christened by its advocates ‘radical Postmodernism’, to differentiate it from the commercial tat that 1980s ‘pomo’ is best known for. The architects involved in this are London-based firms like muf, Agents of Change (AOC) and most of all, Fashion Architecture Taste (FAT): note the jazzy names, most unlike the usual approach for architectural firms (proper name or corporate name or solicitor-style brace of surnames). All share an interest in the social, and especially in taking seriously the idea of design input from, and very close collaboration with, the future users or residents of their buildings, pointedly refusing to discard their ideas or suggestions for reasons of metropolitan ‘good taste’. They show an interest in researching the patterns of life, collectivity, privacy and interaction in working-class and suburban areas without judgement or condemnation. Their accompanying embrace of spectacle and jokiness, with trompe l’œil effects, nostalgic motifs and an épater les bourgeois approach to decoration and ornament, might seem to put them closer to Blairite styles; in short, unlike Chipperfield or Haworth Tompkins they still produce the sort of architecture that looks great on the cover of a regeneration brochure. That’s deceptive, maybe, as there is a sophistication and intelligence in the new postmodernism which marks it out from the vacuous iconists and solutionists of the ’90s and 2000s. Nonetheless, the most obvious architectural development of the Great recession has been the ‘pop-up’, the temporary, often developer-sponsored use of a dormant development site, a way of papering over the cracks and pretending everything’s ok, of bellowing ‘Move along now, nothing to see here’. Architects can’t work without clients, after all.

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