Monochrome cityscape

Book review: ‘Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances’ by Owen Hatherley

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Finding a home in the ruins of modernism.

Ever since I was asked to review his book ‘Landscapes of Communism’ in 2015, Owen Hatherley has been one of my favourite authors. I have read most of his books – from ‘Militant Modernism’ (described by The Guardian as an "intelligent and passionately argued attempt to excavate Utopia”) to ‘Red Metropolis’ and the less well known ‘Across the Plaza: The Public Voids of the Soviet City’. ‘Trans-Europe Express’, his comprehensive and witty guide to European architecture, has been my faithful travel companion on a number of trips.

These days, as I find myself in the middle of researching a book on the Utopian settlements of Britain, some of Hatherley’s works are proving helpful, eye-opening and simply indispensable and are likely to be among my own book’s most quoted sources.

The scope of Hatherley’s architectural interests has always been astonishing – from the Bauhaus quarter of Tel Aviv to the monstrous bulk of my own alma mater, the University of Kharkov in Ukraine. His latest book, ‘Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances: Finding a Home in the Ruins of Modernism’ (Verso, £18.99, ISBN 9781839762215), reflecting many of the above, spans 15 years of writing, “from the final re-election of Blair to the election of Boris Johnson,” as he puts it.

One thing that comes through clearly in most of Hatherley’s books and essays is his seething, almost Orwellian, hatred of what I would call ‘architectural brutality’ (not to be confused with brutalism) – all those massive, ugly structures that distort the face of many a British and European town and city. He seems to be still cherishing the unshaken belief in Winston Churchill’s famous pronouncement that we shape the buildings first and they then shape us.

It’s not just the buildings that alert Hatherley’s sharp eye and evoke his legitimate anger. One of the punchiest essays in the collection is about the local authority’s enforced standardisation of the once versatile and interesting shop signs in the High Street of Walthamstow, one of London’s most proudly multicultural areas. They all had to be designed to one and the same pattern, which immediately made the once colourful street look depressing and dull. “The remodelling of the shop signs of Walthamstow is an anal-retentive mistake driven by a total misunderstanding of what makes London interesting,” writes Hatherley with characteristically bitter simplicity.

As a former Edinburgher (or Dunediner) I very much enjoyed the essay on the thoroughly messed up architectural scene of the modern Scottish capital; ‘Edinburgh’s Golden Turds’. The recent “hideously cheap and nasty” slipshod reconstruction of the famous Waverley train station has only exacerbated the situation. Hatherley’s conclusion is scathing: “Edinburgh’s architectural problems are British problems. Its inability to plan coherently, its chaotic, hobbled attempts to bolster public transport, its neglect of social housing, its hulking speculative office blocks... these are all specific to the UK and the grim reluctance with which it faces architecture and urbanism.”

I agree with everything in the above emotional tirade, except for the public transport situation which is better in Edinburgh than perhaps anywhere else in the UK, with the recently opened speed tram line to the airport – albeit costly – a welcome addition to the already well-functioning network. Yet in general I applaud the portrayal of Edinburgh, which seems to be – just like Warsaw in the essay ‘My Kind of Town: Warszava’ and many other 20th century cities – “a little ashamed of itself.”

A city ashamed of itself is a typical metaphor for Hatherley, who tends to personalise places by assigning them human faces and souls. I remember how baffled I was several years ago on discovering that Hatherley, who grew up in a family of devoted Labour party supporters, described himself repeatedly (see his Wikipedia entry) as a confirmed socialist and even a communist, for I would safely qualify most of his writing as extremely pro-democracy, anti-totalitarian and hence – on my scale of values – rabidly anti-communist!

Having read most of his books, however, I came to realise that his notions of socialism and communism were largely idealistic, based on the works of Marx and the Communist Manifesto (as he himself acknowledges), whereas mine had been shaped by 35 years of living (or rather surviving) in the oppressive and stagnating atmosphere of the USSR – a Stalinist state as distant from the original communist ideals as the Earth is from the Sun. Hatherley can call himself anything - a communist, a Zoroastrian or a Rastafarian - but his books, including the latest, are all thoroughly anti-totalitarian in their essence. To me, that means anti-communist, too.

‘Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances’ will fit nicely in my bookcase shelf with Hatherley’s earlier works. There’s still plenty of space, but the author has only just turned 40, so hopefully there are many more to come.

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