The new ruins of Owen Hatherley’s book are the recent buildings constructed in the name of urban renewal, many of which have fallen into disuse and decay since the financial bubble that financed their construction has burst. Hatherley’s approach is twofold: he is concerned with both the architectural and the political. Accordingly, he attacks both the New Labour regeneration schemes that often failed and the frequently uninspired buildings that these schemes gave rise to.
In order to carry out his survey of the state of British urban architecture in an era that is now very much post-economic boom, Hatherley visits 12 urban areas and evaluates the successes of their redeveloped areas. The sites of redevelopment he considers are not confined to those of the past decade or so; any area that has been consciously redeveloped is within his purview. He also takes in the other significant buildings of the cities on his itinerary. Therefore, the scope of his architectural analysis is wider than that of his political critique.
Hatherley is always entirely clear about his personal standpoint, so his criticisms never seem unjustified. He is a socialist and a modernist. As such, he is very much an admirer of Le Corbusier’s vision of the cities of tomorrow and a proponent of the social housing in which this vision has at times been partially manifested. Unfortunately, the council estates that draw on this kind of modernist influence, with their concrete edifices and labyrinthine walkways, are often considered to be failures, regarded as sites of crime and deprivation.
A commentator like Hatherley, who defends the principles behind these estates while verbally demolishing (and presumably wishing for the actual demolition of) the more recent apartment blocks of the UK’s cities, may therefore seem controversial at first. However, while the architecture of the concrete complexes that Hatherley often admires will always have many detractors, his politics is less divisive. The problem, he reveals, is that although new developments are often marketed as ‘mixed communities’ offering a mixture of social housing and homes for more affluent buyers, this vision fails to materialise. The result is the same kind of ghettoisation that was produced by the estates of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
In Sheffield, Hatherley visits the enormous Park Hill estate, which was completed in 1961. Part of this estate is now being renovated by the developer Urban Splash. The most visible result of this is that the brutalist structure has been covered in the multi-coloured cladding that Hatherley despises. However, the more serious underlying consequence is that a large chunk of this former council housing will now be sold to private buyers. In the current climate of redundancy and repossession, is this really what we need?
This book includes many examples of abandoned social housing, empty buildings and repossessions. In Greenwich, south-east London, Hatherley comes across one block in which 82 out of the 84 flats had been repossessed. Not far from here is the costly folly of the Millenium Dome, which lay empty for a few years before being rebranded as the O2 Arena. Elsewhere there are developments have been put on hold, as funding dries up.
There is therefore a rather bleak undercurrent, which is tempered by Hatherley’s often witty observations and easy-going prose style. He finishes his tour of Britain’s ruins in Liverpool, once the country’s second city, now its poorest. Liverpool is a particularly good example of redevelopment; after it was declared European Capital of Culture in 2008 there was extensive construction work. The city’s most significant recent project is Liverpool One, an open urban mall that is designed to flow into the rest of the city centre.
Shopping centres are another of Hatherley’s pet hates. He dislikes their status as symbols of capitalism and the fact that they have the capacity to turn cities into centres of consumerism. However, he approves of the architecture of Liverpool One, if not the sentiments behind it. Having grown up in Liverpool myself, and remembering the huge and ugly plot of wasteland on which Liverpool One was built, I was impressed by the development on a recent visit to the city.
But Hatherley rightly points out that this shining mall contrasts depressingly with other areas of the city, particularly the derelict docklands to the north of the centre, where vast warehouses – one of which is apparently the largest brick building in the world – lie abandoned. The shopping centres and apartment blocks of the 21st century may be Britain’s new ruins, but these old ruins are surely more potent symbols of economic decline. Hatherley disagrees, so disheartened is he by the form that urban regeneration has taken.