A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain

Will Self writes:

‘Architecture,’ Owen Hatherley states in his essay ‘The Brutishness of British Modernism’, ‘unlike the other arts, can’t be ignored, can’t be passively consumed, not if you have to live in it.’ His published writings thus far have been a stinging lash across the back of current architectural criticism – a necessary corrective to its supine state. However, the extent to which he succeeds in assessing contemporary British architecture actively – as someone living and working within it – remains debatable. Hatherley is ostensibly a critic in the mode of Reyner Banham: freewheeling, spinning out ideas, theories and evaluations that may have their origin in the stony core of the built environment, but which spread to encompass most other aesthetic realms as well. Aesthetic but in Hatherley’s case also political: for it is the great strength of his writing – as well as its besetting weakness – that he aims for an explicitly politicised critique of all the gimcrack cladded office blocks, giant Venetian-blind-slatted ‘luxury flat’ developments and parametrically designed waveform rooftops that clutter up the contemporary British cityscape. Hatherley did this first in Militant Modernism, a quartet of essays published in 2008 – of which ‘Brutishness’ is the first – that forms a prolegomenon setting out his theoretical stall. Then in 2010 came the far heftier A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, which extends his methodology to produce a sort of catalogue raisonné of the contemporary architecture for which he has coined the descriptor ‘pseudomodernism’. There is considerable overlap – and even repetition – between the two books, so it seems reasonable to treat them as a single discontinuous entity.

(LRB 8 March 2012)

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