Book review: ‘Trans-Europe Express’ by Owen Hatherley

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A trip across the continent that explores how modern architecture mirrors social change.

‘Trans-Europe Express: Tours of a Lost Continent’ (Allen Lane, £16.99, ISBN 9780141988320) is the second book by Owen Hatherley that I’ve had the pleasure to review for E&T. The previous one – ‘Landscapes of Communism’ – remains one of my favourite reads on urban landscape and is rubbing shoulders (or rather spines) on my bookshelf with the works of Ian Nairn, Britain’s greatest architectural writer of the 20th century.

Like Nairn in the 1950s and 1960s, Hatherley is a regular contributor to Architectural Review, but their similarities do not end there. The main common trait of these two brilliant writers is that they both not only make modern architecture look meaningful, exciting and full of life, but also regard it as a mirror of cultural, political and artistic trends in a society.

In all his works, including ‘Trans-Europe Express’, Hatherley promotes the view that architecture reflects social politics better that any other form of industry and art. He is merciless in his condemnation of some British conurbations, victimised by irresponsible city planner in the 1970s and 1980s, dismissing them as “a miserable collection of introverted, pitched-roofed housing complexes in cul-de-sacs and vaguely Postmodernist office blocks surrounded by car parks...”. And although he applies this particular description to some uglier parts of Southampton, it can be used to describe the very similar urban layouts in Stevenage, Dundee, Birmingham, Inverness and countless other British cities and towns.


On the other hand, Hatherley praises the architecture of Hull for a correct sense of proportion which gives some of the buildings “immense power in the townscape” – a feature that makes the city’s public spaces look more European, by which he probably (bearing in mind the book’s rather unusual epigraph from Lars Iyer’s novel ‘Spurious’) means more ‘gentle’ and ‘quiet’.

Dozens of European cities and towns are competently, incisively and colourfully described in this book. I particularly liked the bits on Dublin, with its striking post-Georgian ugliness, about which I have written myself (having lived and worked in the Irish capital for a couple of years); on Paris, with its Haussmann streets reminiscent of “the Stalinist boulevards of Moscow” (here I couldn’t help remembering ‘Nairn’s Paris’); on the architecturally and geopolitically divided Russian-Estonian border town of Ivangorod-Narva; on Arborea – “the fascist garden village”, originally known as “Mussolinia”, and many, many other.

Not trying to conceal his genuine admiration for “a European City”, Hatherley asks rhetorically whether British cities can match it and talks contentedly about a certain ‘Europeanisation’ of British urban spaces that he believes is already under way.

Whether you agree with his strong opinions or not, ‘Trans-Europe Express’ is an illuminating read. The book’s compact format would allow inquisitive travellers to carry it in their hand luggage while exploring Europe – something that I am definitely going to do myself, and would encourage E&T readers to follow my example.

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