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Two timely books on the current crisis in architecture

A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain Owen Hatherley and Architecture’s Evil Empire? The Triumph & Tragedy of Global Modernism by Miles Glendinning

Is the long overdue backlash against the abysmal state of much current architecture emerging? These books, which deal mostly with the problematic rather than the decent buildings also being produced, suggest so. Because of the present dearth of penetrating criticism, or challenges to the usual justificatory spiel, both deserve to be widely read.

Hatherley focuses on UK cities and aspects of their creative cultures and politics, while Glendinning’s canvas is more global, yet more confined to architecture and urbanism. Common themes emerge, although descriptive labels differ. Hatherley’s pseudo-modernism - a vaguely modernist vocabulary stripped of social agenda - is Glendinning’s neo-modernism, while current economic orthodoxy is neo-liberalism and neo-capitalism, respectively. Both authors hanker for an earlier modern architecture informed by social purpose before this was replaced by a crass commercialism (Hatherley) or individualism and spectacle (Glendinning). Hatherley’s book is more politically informed, seeing much dross as symptomatic of Blairite neo-liberalism while Glendinning partially blames relativist postmodern theory.

The New Ruins, expanded from articles in Building Design, takes cues from JB Priestley’s English Journey (1934) and mid-century writings of Ian Nairn. Trudging around selected UK cities, it charts their degradation (often the result of ‘regeneration’, much now abandoned for the foreseeable future), starting with Southampton, Hatherley’s home town, and including Greenwich, where he now lives.

Reflecting his familiarity with those places, these are the only chapters where this reader’s attention flagged. Otherwise, considering the often depressing or anger-inducing subject matter, the book is an entertaining read kept alive by the formidably well-informed and bolshily opinionated author’s bracingly acute, often venomous, comments and snappy stylistic classifications.

The buildings that drive architects to visit these cities are often unmentioned, and those that are, usually not entered. Instead, attention is on more typical recent construction - much of it excoriated, especially the ubiquitous barcode syncopations and bright metal panels attempting to camouflage the essentially mean and banal - and on selective buildings or areas from the past. (Hatherley admires the tough directness and inventiveness of brutalism as well as its collectivist ethos.)

The exteriors of buildings are described, their public faces, and the public (or merely residual) spaces between them - as well as the fences along these, concealing abandoned wastelands. The interiors discussed are markets and malls, a public realm of sorts, even if privatised. This is the city most see and experience, yet is seldom given due attention by architects focused on individual buildings. Here lies much of the value of the book as well as in its descriptive verve and brutally frank comments. Students, who often will not voice strong opinion, might find it liberating.

But the publisher has let the book down a bit. The many, and necessary, photographs are often smudgy and small. And reflecting the text’s origins in articles, much that is casually referred to is fully understandable only right now and by well-informed local architects. Aneditor should have ensured that such matters are explained for future or foreign readers, without which the book’s shelf life and international appeal is curtailed.

Architecture’s Evil Empire? (an unenticing title) goes beyond describing problems with today’s architecture to explain how some of these arose and to provide pointers to remedies. Instead of the tacky commercialism that fills The New Ruins, it deals with what is seen as artistically ambitious architecture, typically sculpturally excessive and extravagantly expensive public works by ‘starchitects’ commissioned by well-intentioned clients. (Gullibility, in artistic and architectural as well as financial judgement, will surely be seen as characteristic of postmodern times.)

Lamenting architecture’s lost role in conveying stability and decorum, still present in earlier modern architecture, Glendinning sees current problems as excessive individualism, a concern with spectacle and a disconnection from reality. Since the first ‘iconic’ building, the Sydney Opera House, architects have increasingly pursued metaphorical form rather than meaning. All these trends are legitimated by the relativism of postmodern theory, or New Theory, whose influence persists as post-modernism was replaced by neo-modernism. There is also a useful discussion of urban design followed by tentative pointers to amelioration, not least in returning to the planning advocated by Patrick Geddes. Although basically sound, these proposals go nowhere near far enough.

Like Hatherley’s book, Architecture’s Evil Empire? displays a good grasp of recent history yet would gain from a larger temporal perspective. Both books describe part of the larger breakdown of 400 years of modernity, with post-modern relativism as its final dissolving agent. New Theory dangerously narrowed architectural discourse, crippled criticism and ignores much useful emergent thinking so cannot deal with pressing problems such as sustainability (which is not the narrowly technical issue Glendinning assumes).

Rejecting hierarchy, it cannot prioritise; rejecting grand narratives, it ignores the grandest of interweaving narratives, such as those emerging from science: evolution, ecology, the cosmic unfolding, and so on. As 400 years or so of modernity wane, theory’s position is exactly analogous to late medieval scholasticism, arguing angels dancing on pin heads while the Renaissance burgeoned unnoticed.

Much that these books describe reflects these confusing transitional times when, unguided by relevant theory and criticism, many architects seem unsure of what better to do. The buildings decried here - Hatherley’s largely from the lower end of architectural aspiration, Glendinning’s from the top end - mostly convey an air of lost desperation. Do the starchitects actually believe much of what they say, or do they merely know they will get away with it? So what now? Will these essentially complementary books provoke debate and a search for solutions? Or must things get yet worse?

+ Excoriating criticism that’s long overdue
- Important texts let down by pedestrian publishing

A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain Owen Hatherley

Architecture’s Evil Empire? The Triumph & Tragedy of Global Modernism

Author: Miles Glendinning

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