Brexit, a rekindled interest in social housing and the centenary of the Russian Revolution have made for a fruitful literary year. Here are Owen Hatherley’s top architectural picks
Douglas Murphy, Nincompoopolis – The Follies of Boris Johnson (Repeater Books)
Anna Minton, Big Capital – Who’s London For? (Penguin)
What with Brexit, the mass murder at Grenfell Tower and an election in which most of London – and 40 per cent of the country – voted for a socialist election manifesto, there’s been a sense in 2017 of impossible tensions held in place for far too long finally coming apart. These two State Of London books outline this in very different, but ultimately complementary ways. Anna Minton’s long-awaited second book, following on from her attack on New Labour’s urban policies in 2009’s Ground Control, does not focus on architecture as such – though there is a great deal on the demonisation of council housing, the alienating effect of constant property hoardings, and a walk-on part for Patrik Schumacher – but it outlines with data, authority and harrowing first-hand accounts what happens to a city when it is transformed into an enormous investment vehicle. Douglas Murphy’s sometimes hilariously infuriated Nincompoopolis takes on the projects of the politician who has become most associated with this transformation of the capital. Murphy’s argument is that an insecurity about the capital’s ‘offer’ to a transnational capitalist class led to a series of increasingly moronic follies, where respected architects, engineers and artists covered themselves in shame through contorting their talents to cater to some idiotically conceived programmes. Happily, the worst of these, the Garden Bridge, was cancelled in 2017, hopefully a first step to making a city for the majority of the people that actually live in it.
Mark Swenarton, Cook’s Camden: The Making of Modern Housing (Lund Humphries)
Paul Karakusevic and Abigail Batchelor, Social Housing: Definitions and Design Exemplars (RIBA)
These two books both try to make a strong argument for what ‘world cities’ like London don’t do any more – the production of decent mass housing for all, provided through public investment rather than private capital. Cook’s Camden, a richly illustrated history of the famous London Borough of Camden architects department of the 1970s, under Sydney Cook, ‘our George Smiley’ (according to Peter Tabori), makes this case most convincingly. It charts plans, sections, historic photographs, interviews with the surviving architects and documentations of the (mostly very popular) flats themselves in what was the finest housing built anywhere in the world at that point, and arguably since. That housing was in an imaginative, street-based, low-rise/high-density Modernist idiom, which was, according to one of its designers, Benson & Forsyth, an extension of London’s existing structure ‘without copying or quoting’. What is most shocking in the book is the opposition this superb housing faced at the time – at Branch Hill, from Conservatives resisting council housing being built on one of the poshest ridges of Hampstead, and at Alexandra Road, from a Labour left committed to a caricature of modern architects as corrupt technocrats. The RIBA book on Social Housing uses best practices from Paris, London, King’s Lynn and elsewhere to argue that good non-market housing is still being built, and can still be of a high quality; much of it is in a high-density low-rise manner that recalls 1970s north London. For that, it is useful, though it’s worth noting that many of the schemes are based on ‘estate regeneration’ that frequently involve building private housing to offset the cost of building social – a Faustian pact-making that Camden architects and planners would have found damaging and needless.
Esther Leslie, Liquid Crystals: The Science and Art of a Fluid Form (Reaktion Books)
The quotation and sainthood of Walter Benjamin is common today, including in architectural circles, but very few writers actually try to continue his project of combining Surrealist and Marxist approaches to understanding the culture and technology of capitalism. Esther Leslie is one of the rare exceptions to this. Liquid Crystals feels of a piece with her earlier Hollywood Flatlands and Synthetic Worlds; those two tried to write histories of two things usually held in deep suspicion by Marxists – Disney animation and the German chemical industry – in such a way that their strangeness and possibility stayed constantly present, as much as their often grim actuality. This book tries to do the same with the form of the ‘liquid crystal’, splicing the production of the liquid crystal screens on which you’re reading this, Caspar David Friedrich, the ‘Glass Chain’ of Expressionist architects, Little Nemo, Hayao Miyazaki and Marx into an unstable, constantly surprising montage. The result is beautiful, bizarre, moving and unlike anything else.
Yuri Slezkine, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (Princeton University Press)
China Mieville, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (Verso)
Of the dozen or so centenary books on the Russian Revolution, these two are both the most relevant to architecture, and the best. Fantasy novelist and unorthodox Marxist, Mieville roots the Bolshevik insurrection in the staggeringly beautiful, staggeringly unequal city of St Petersburg; historian and anthopologist Yuri Slezkine grounds it in a deadpan yet lurid account of apocalyptic religion, as located in the gradual construction of – and the subsequent murder of as many as a quarter of the residents in – a massive luxury housing block, designed by Boris Iofan, boasting a swimming pool, a roof terrace, a café and a Constructivist cinema. The two books take very different positions on the revolution, but are full of fresh thinking, acute descriptions and unforgettable details of a world turned upside down.
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Elena Zaytseva/Alex Anikina, Cosmic Shift: Russian Contemporary Art Writing (Zed Books)
Tijana Vujosevic, Modernism and the Making of the Soviet New Man (Manchester University Press)
One consequence of the 1917 centenary was that I saw more exhibitions of 1920s Soviet posters, avant-garde architectural models, Malevich paintings, Grotesk fonts and heroic workers than even I could ever have possibly wanted to see. These two books on Soviet and post-Soviet art were a relief in among all the clichés. Tijana Vujosevic’s account of the intersections of architecture, art and biopolitics in the first 20 years of the USSR was unromantic and concrete, but gives full attention to the dreamlike surplus in places like the Moscow Metro. The immense anthology Cosmic Shift, meanwhile, was refreshing first for actually featuring (relatively) young Russian voices, with excellent pieces by Maria Chekhonadskih, Artemy Magun and Ilya Budraitskis that give a much better sense of what was actually at stake in the Soviet vision of Communist life than could be garnered from looking at yet another Rodchenko poster. Fascinating in a different way are the various archival texts included here from the 1980s Russian Conceptualist scene – the standout is Andrei Monastyrsky’s hallucinatory ‘schizoanalysis’ of a Stalinist open-air exhibition centre, ‘VDNKh, the Capital of the World’.
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BACU Association, Socialist Modernism in Romania and the Republic of Moldova (BACU)
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Maryam Omidi, Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums (Fuel)
There was also the usual pile-up of books on Soviet architecture, of which these were the most unusual. Maryam Omidi’s gorgeous Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums features accounts of peculiar treatments in picturesque and sublime locations across Eurasia, in mind-boggling structures by architects almost wholly unknown in the West, or really anywhere else. The Romanian BACU Association produced the photo-album Socialist Modernism and Romania and the Republic of Moldova to document their research and documentation of post-1956, pre-1991 Modern architecture in these two countries, on different sides of the Soviet border but sharing a common language. It’s part of a wider ‘Save Socialist Modernist Heritage’ campaign to raise awareness of these buildings, and perhaps accordingly, it is somewhat lacking in context or analysis, which is frustrating as, given how strange and dramatic some of these buildings are, it would be nice to be told something about the institutions that brought them into being. However, its full-scale colour photographs give a remarkably physical sense of the material reality of these buildings, the astonishing ambition of works such as the Chisinau ‘City Gates’ or the Cluj-Napoca Railway Station – and most of all, conveys the scale of their degradation.
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Alison Nordstrom/Clive Phillpot/Matthew Shaul/John Myers, John Myers, The World Is Not Beautiful (University of Hertfordshire Galleries)
James Smith, Memorability as an Image (Scopio)
Given that the Tumblrisation of modern architecture continues apace, with an increasingly tedious cottage industry devoted to seamless, idealised images of big concrete things, photography books that do something more interesting with the legacy of postwar Modernism are always welcome. James Smith’s Memorability as an Image takes its title and concept from the Smithsons, but puts it to the much more worthwhile service of an exploration of the piss-soaked complexities of Northampton’s demolished, multi-level Greyfriars Bus Station, and the uncanny mirror-glass presence of a Milton Keynes office block. The anthology of the photographs of John Myers, meanwhile, is a depiction of the outer suburban Home Counties in the 1970s, and outlines in sharp detail a landscape of comfortable hopelessness.
Boris Arvatov, Art and Production (Pluto)
Hito Steyerl, Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War (Verso)
These two books both aim at politicising art in two distinct historical periods – one, the 1920s, and the other, our own. Art and Production is the first English translation of one of the founding texts of Constructivism, and argues against Ruskin and Morris that art itself, as something divorced from everyday life, was the product of capitalist relations, and that a craft revival would only be ‘petit bourgeois’ sentimentality. As an alternative to art, he imagines a Communist future in which nobody is a capital-A artist, and because everyone has the ability to express themselves through their creative work, everybody is. Hito Steyerl’s account of the actual future, that is, our present, shares Arvatov’s attention to the relations of production, particularly through the oligarchic, structurally corrupt art world – the short account of the interactions between OMA and the Syrian government is particularly delightful in this regard. Steyerl’s collection of illustrated lectures doesn’t present a concrete alternative to an increasingly dystopian cultural landscape, but it does provide a sharp, and often very darkly funny means of understanding it.
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Christopher Wilson, Richard Hollis Designs for the Whitechapel (Hyphen Press)
A compendious – sometimes too much so – account of one designer’s work for one London gallery, this book doubles as a history of one of London’s artistic institutions, and the extremely good fit for it made by Richard Hollis’s raw but clear posters, leaflets and catalogues. The book concentrates on the 1970s and the first half of the ’80s, at which point Hollis was replaced by Peter Saville, who considered both the gallery, its designer, and their building to be excessively full of ‘corporation – what are now called “council” – values. It could be in Oldham or Manchester, or somewhere like that. It’s not sexy, it’s not the British Museum or the National Gallery’. Of course, this was precisely the point of Hollis’s designs, and Saville’s Neoclassical redesigns for Whitechapel now look like Spandau Ballet covers.
Kirill Gluschenko, Venets: Welcome to the Ideal (Gluschenkoizdat)
This wonderful book documents the architectural results of another Soviet anniversary – the celebrations of the centenary of Lenin’s birth in Ulyanovsk, formerly Simbirsk, the small city on the Volga where he was born. Told by the authorities in Moscow that the ‘door would be open’ for them to modernise their mainly wooden, one-storey, Tsarist city for the duration of the celebrations, and that they’d close it immediately when it was over, the local Party rushed to build a Museum, a Library, a Palace of Culture, housing, an Airport and the high-rise Hotel Venets before the tap of money and resources was turned off. A villa was laid on for Brezhnev, who took against the town and left almost immediately after opening the Lenin Museum, and a planned banquet was cancelled. Ulyanovsk’s supermarkets were suddenly full of quails and quails eggs. This story is told through photographs – some of them making the clean International Style lines of the buildings look rather chic, others showing them to be clunky and rushed – and most interestingly, through a proliferation of documents. We get to find out how the architects got their ideas past a hostile building industry (one designer remembers literally chiselling off unwanted tiling himself when the builders weren’t looking), how the city authorities decided to decorate the city (where to put a neon sign reading ‘Communism Will Prevail’, etc) and how a sleepy provincial town dealt with a sudden influx of foreign guests. In its first year of opening, two Poles, 70 Britons, and more than 3,000 East Germans arrived to stay in the Hotel Venets, and we get to read the inventory of difficult questions they answered (‘can we see how people live in those little wooden houses?’), and find out how hotel staff took it out on the guests. A report details ‘deficiencies in table service, unauthorised menu changes, systematically subpar preparation of coffee and tea, and disregard for many requests from tourists, even if those requests were entirely possible to accommodate’.