The Glasgow School of Art (Photo by Paul Riddle)
Artillery Row Books

Stumbling blocks

Owen Hatherley offers a vital but frequently flawed guide to post-war British architecture

Modern Buildings in Britain: A Gazetteer by Owen Hatherley

In his introduction to this book, Owen Hatherley makes it clear that there is a distinction between modern architecture and Modernism, staking a claim for the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh as the latter. “It may be useful here to explain exactly why I think they can be considered ‘modernist’ rather than just ‘modern’,” he writes before describing the astonishing upper-level galleries of the Glasgow School of Art. In so doing, he evokes the magic moment of experiencing them first and understanding that something profoundly new is happening in them. 

Modern Buildings in Britain: A Gazetteer, Owen Hatherley (Particular Books, £60.00)

In contrast to the modern, which was a chronological development, the redeployment of new resources and techniques within the existing paradigm of Victorian architecture, modernism is something else all together and Hatherley nails it well. The experience Mackintosh created in this twice destroyed building was primarily spatial; the world between the walls was more important than the walls themselves. Hatherleys introduction is a considered explanation of why the kind of civic modernism, of which he has become such an astute advocate and historian, should have taken root here — a patient explanation, which really should no longer have to be made, for why modernism, and Brutalism in particular, is not some foreign avant-garde import but (building on Victorian engineering, but with a new social mission and aesthetic) inherently of this place.

Which is as one might expect. Hatherley has been a sterling champion, not just of these better known moments of architectural revelation such as the GSA, but of the quotidian modernism on our islands and one of its most assiduous describers for over a decade. This book (I’m not sure what a “gazetteer” is, but it appears to be a guide) captures his skills in evoking the wonder of these often neglected works. In design and sheer heft, the book purports to be an authoritative tome in the manner of Pevsner guide, when in fact it is a recasting of Hatherley’s highly personal, highly politicised take on post-war British architecture.

Loch Glascarnoch (Photo by Loop Images)

The book is at its best when its author is confronted with a modernist building beyond the urban core of London or other major cities, which he made his name writing about on his blog and in his first books. Pushed slightly out of his comfort zone, he rises to the occasion. Before the Glascarnoch Dam in the Scottish Highlands, he is awed, describing it as “an epic structure — a curved concrete wall rising out of earthen mounds between hills framing looming mountains”. It evokes, he says, “the rawest, most Wagnerian sublime”.

He fulminates at the University of Oxford hiding its modernist treasures

He takes you to places, too — quite literally: I used the guide on a visit to Basingstoke and while I’d cavil at his spelling of Fanum House (Fanum being the call sign for the Automobile Association which was once its tenant), his description of the Basing View district’s strengths and its failings, how it works “with and against the city”, is spot on. He’s great, for example, on the civic modernism of Glasgow, Nottingham and Leicester, too. The problems begin — and this book, although vital in places, is frequently flawed — with the buildings he knows either too well or not at all, but which he insists on taking a swing at anyway.

To take the first, briefly. When he’s writing about the buildings he’s written about for a long time, such as Park Hill in Sheffield, he loses the plot. Those who have redeveloped and saved one of the greatest buildings of the post-war era should be had up before a judge, he writes. Hyperbole aside, it’s not clear why he’s willing to forgive the financialism of the 1990s if it funds a Richard Rogers skyscraper in Central London, but not the reconditioning and slow bringing back to life of a building he rightly calls a masterpiece. Apparently, urban densification, even of the City’s financial district, is better than regeneration.

Wolfson College, Oxford (Photo by Andy Spain)

Some of his rage is amusing. He fulminates at the University of Oxford keeping its modernist treasures hidden. Although this is correct, I’m not sure he needs to say it in every entry on that city. Distracted and irritated by the elitism of the university and all the ruddy tourists, he misses its largest and most utopian modernist project, Wolfson College by Powell and Moya: a triumphant rendering in concrete of Isaiah Berlin’s concept of positive, rather than negative liberty. These strange inconsistencies cannot simply be put aside either — there is a tone of snark in the book that can be off-putting. It can be a relief to set this book down and turn to the admittedly desiccated but at least ostensibly objective Pevsner.

The real problem is that despite his commitment to the debate as to whether Mackintosh is modern or modernist, this book isn’t just about modernism, which is very much Hatherley’s area of expertise. He attempts (in what is very much a step into the mainstream for him) to also address postmodernism, modern classicism and — this is just not an architectural style — Viennese. He goes after random pieces of contemporary architecture that grabs his eye as well, and here he is often unconvincing. In his writing on Amin Taha’s Clerkenwell Close, you can feel the gears shift as he tries to explain its relevance. Likewise in entries on other contemporary architects, who have the effrontery to build in economic, political and social conditions which Hatherley objects to. Instead of the raging, polemical tone of his early writing, too often he slips into unnecessary facetiousness.

The post-war, low-rise suburban housing estates are dead to him

It didn’t have to be this way and one can’t help but wonder who was editing this book. Reading the author’s description of one of the great civic buildings of contemporary London, Henley Halebrown’s New School in Hackney, for example, one is distracted by his dislike of the education policy that gave birth to it. In a book that purports to be a survey of architecture since WWII — and the host of political doctrines that have come and gone — this is problematic. When he’s focused on the modernism he loves though, one can accept his position, even if one disagrees with him: Hatherley the ideologue, the champion of big state socialism and high urban density. These values do take him to buildings that need to be championed. His positions provide him with an animus to the difficult job of schlepping around the country, which no one else was willing to do.

Park Hill, Sheffield (Photo by Steven Allen)

There is no real claim as to why he has covered the range of work he has, and the slippage between the clarity of his definition of modernism in the introductory essay to the use of the sloppy term “modern” for the book as a whole is odd. Personally, I’d like to read a book from him about modernism tout court, even the difficult bits. In this gazetteer, he has missed out on large parts of the country because he won’t or can’t drive. (Nikolaus Pevsner, in whose path Hatherley is often figuratively rather than literally walking, was fortunate to have a wife willing to shoulder that responsibility.) In so doing he ignores a more complicated yet ultimately more revolutionary heritage of modernism: its ongoing ubiquity in a transport system that despite the insistence of young urbanites is still very much alive.

Ignoring, or acknowledging only obliquely many of the movement’s most significant victories in terms of road infrastructure or architecture that is only accessible by that means, he creates a misleading impression of where much of the work of Modernists went. The post-war, low-rise suburban housing estates (the Tile Hills, Hill Tops and the Chelmsley Woods of this country, for example) are dead to him.

Of course Hatherley can curtail his investigation in any direction he sees fit; it’s a long haul after all. But because he expands his investigations to include architecture which is both outside his personal interest and serves a purpose he can’t help but being cynical about, this book becomes only partly as important and useful as he intended.

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