November 14th, 2010
Monday 22nd November
In his provocative new book, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, Owen Hatherly analyses the architecture of the neoliberal credit boom and discusses its merits with speakers including Lynsey Hanley, author of Estates.
Level 5 Function Room at Royal Festival Hall 7.45pm £7.50
UPDATE: Reader, I went. On stage were the following from left to right:-
I’m working on a transcript of the evening, see below. Chris Brown was in the audience, he asked a question after the main event, apparently OH has commented on a couple of his buildings. Having yet to read my signed copy I cannot comment further.
Good evening everyone and welcome to the South Bank Centre and to the literature program and I’m delighted to be introducing tonights event. Next year the South Bank Centre will be marking the 60th anniversary of classical britain and part of that will involve the state and monitoring analysis of Britain today so appropriately the work of the four
speakers we have today are engaged with the social and political fabric of contemporary Britain, particularly urban Britain.
There are lots of interesting connections between their work, social class capital, land ownership, regeneration, public vs private being just some of those connections. Owen Hatherley is the author of the book which provides tonight’s main focus A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. Alongside him this evening, we have the writer and journalist Lynsey Hanley, author of Estates. Charles Holland, director of the architectural practice FAT, and chairing the event this evening is Anna Minton.
Anna’s going to introduce this evening in more detail, then invite them to talk on the theme of Owen’s book before opening out into a wider discussion, and then finally she’ll take your questions towards the end of the event. Following the event, I’m sure the speakers will be happy to sign copies of their books in the foyer outside.
So just to introduce our chair, Anna Minton she’s a writer and journalist who’s worked in foreign correspondent on business and social affairs for newspapers including the Financial Times and the Guardian. Her investigative journalism as relates to longer term projects like think tanks and policy reputations and her work on gated communities, social polarisation and privatisation of public space led her to her highly acclaimed
first book Ground Control-Fear and happiness in the C21st century city.
Just one announcement to be made before we start if you have a mobile phone with you please turn it off now because it will affect the microphones on stage and now please join me in welcoming Lynsey Hanley, Charles Holland, Owen Hatherley and firstly our chair Anna Minton. [applause]
Thank you very much and thank you very much for inviting me to chair this evening it’s great to be here. Owen Hatherley’s book, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain is a brilliant book I very much enjoyed it so I’m very pleased to be here to do this debate. He describes his book as an autopsy of the urban renaissance which I think is very apt description and it’s a topic which has occupied me a great deal as well, throughout it is packed with fantastic detail.
I’ll just bring up one sentence which struck me because I think so much of the work that I’ve done, Lynsey’s done, I think we’ve all been motivated by the same sort of idea actually, I’ll just quote the leader of Vienna city council where’s he’s opening Karl Marx Hoff which is a very big estate and he says “by these stones shall we be judged” and I think that’s what you are trying to do in your book use the contemporary architectural landscape to illustrate far wider themes about where you are politically.
I really do look forward to hearing what you’ve got to say about pseudo modernism which I’m really interested to find out more about and as I said it’s a great book I agree with nearly all of what you said. One of your reviewers described you as an unrepentant modernist and I think I’ll part company there to some extent and I wonder where [inaudible] that’s going to take us today as well.
Responding to Owen is Lynsey Hanley, Lynsey first came to my attention [inaudible] with her ground breaking book Estates which was just an amazing achievement, from my perspective having tried to write about housing for years and years and finding nobody was interested in housing it’s just not one of those topics that grabs a news editors attention or a publishers attention and suddenly there was a mainstream book on the best seller shelves, which was about housing.
So Lynsey has been absolutely amazing by taking what is in fact a very interesting and vital policy area and just propel it to mainstream attention. It’s been a very successful book it’s about its [inaudible] year now and you’re still continually being asked to talk about it as if it just came out the other day but I’ll be really interested in your response to Owen because I suspect you are not an “unrepentant modernist”.
So it will be interesting to see how that works, and then also responding we’ve got Charles Holland who is director of FAT and we’ve got this panel of writers here and Charles actually does something , he actually builds buildings and he actually knows about what this book’s about. In the context of today’s discussion Owen has described Charle’s practice as “unashamedly post modernist”.
So we’ve got the pseudo modernists and the modernists and the unashamed post modernist. So yes I look forward to hearing how it transpires so yes over to Owen.
Cheers, thanks a lot. [pause while he climbs from stage to lecturn] I suppose there’s a kind of political reason for this book being written than a more practical one, the practical one was that I’d been writing a series on cities for the architectural trade paper Building Design.
I got half way through it, it was literally just this kind of like, it was almost kind of come up with by accident this idea of looking at what had been built since 1997 and trying to value it and about halfway through I just realised there was book on this and no-one had written it, although people had touched on it this kind of aesthetic had arisen under Blair and Brown hadn’t really been any given serious analysis and it seemed like the perfect time to do it because the kind of politics that came with that aesthetic was quite visibly coming to an end and the kind of attempt to create -
- I think one of the best phrases for it Jonathan Meades “social Thatcherism” this kind of caring sharing version of Thatcherism where you talk about social exclusion and all hold hands that has practically come to an end but wasn’t clear what it was going to be replaced by but lo and behold it’s been replaced with Thatcherism without the socialism which wasn’t entirely clear when it was being written but it certainly was clear that it was ending -
- and I think in addition to that it’s a kind of critique of good ideas and bad ones and the good idea of critiques, although none of us agrees with the phraseology, is the “urban renaissance” and that term of his, one that Richard Rogers came up with, Lord Rogers of Riverside I believe is his name, and Rogers you know sort of formally, probably the best architect in the country now obviously -
- not, created this astonishing building and places, he’d also spent the 80s, when he was designing, mind blowing constructivist palaces for dodgy banks, he was also a I guess a soft left activist (who goes to the RIBA and
PhilipMarquesa?) although it sounds quite difficult to imagine now, and he wrote several books in the 80s and through the 90s arguing for a kind of acknowledgement that we are an urban country,
that the kind of dreams of suburbia or the dreams of the rural are most of what people thought were overwhelmingly urban country or had been for 200 years and continued to be and that the only way to create ????? city rather than try and suburbanise it is to reinvest in the cities, build new infrastructure, and build higher.
The sort of 80s fear of Modernity and Modernism would have to be abandoned as far as Rogers was concerned, and he soon became policy advisor, ended up working on various urban task forces, compiled various Government reports along with sociologists like ????? and was particularly close with Ken Livingstone when he was Mayor of London, and I think it was very telling that when Livingstone left that although Roger’s job continued, the person who took on most of Roger’s functions was Terry Farrell designer of the MI6 building, and the ridiculous feature on top of Charing Cross station over there.
Once again we have this “architects high Toryism” has come back but what was interesting is that the aesthetic has even changed the work of somebody like Terry Farrell that Post Modernism, which roughly will define physical appearance montage of historical references, and recent references, that you would the kind of architectural games and playfulness and so on of the 80s,
which you know sometimes came from some interesting people like Jeremy Scott Brown in London generally resulting in truly astonishingly high buildings, Farrell’s MI6 being one of the main offenders, but this had really come to an end, the only people kind of designers around now who would willingly define themselves as Post Modernists are probably F.A.T. actually and a couple of other firms like ?Agents of change? and ?Mile ‘Gaulle???
What that’s really been replaced with rather than a return to the kind of idea you get the impression of when you read people like Polly Toynbee a few years ago that basically New Labour were all social democrats in their hearts, might not seem like that in practice but that’s where their heart was, the idea that architecturally throughout they were building for the modern built environment, buildings weren’t trying to be suburban, they weren’t trying to look like they were in Texas, weren’t trying to look like they were in Venice, an honesty about Modernity kind of returns.
That the aesthetic became very different, what we basically ended up with was this. This is a development in Sheffield, central Sheffield called Pinnacles, [unclear] one of the key things with this that names come up again and again, several Strata, a few Pinnacles, you have these aspirational sounding names. Aspirations is a key word.
You have a kind of return on this design, remarkably kind of on the one hand it’s desperately more friendly, on the other hand, it’s considerably cheaper, first of all in terms of space values, the sort of flats that people will be living in are usually far below Parker Morris standards, the standards established in the early 60s as minimum, which at the time incidentally were quite heavily criticised for being too small, so they’re basically below what was considered even at the time as being [unclear]
that this is the people who are allegedly moving into luxury, moving into essentially a squat, and the aesthetic you know this rather than mostly concrete buildings, concrete or block, made out of breeze blocks or concrete, you cover it in various kinds of grid, various kinds of render, you invariably have bits of slatted wood, and you have this sort of desperate attempt to look ingratiating and one of the reasons it tries so hard to look ingratiating is that every single site has to maximise the [unclear]
one of the things that Rogers argued for was in terms of density, and there were good reasons for this, try and eliminate this kind of sprawl, if you go somewhere like Dartford now you can see why density might be a good idea, but the result without them designing decent public spaces, it’s quite interesting really, that when this happens some people start describing public space as “public realm”, this grandiose pompous term, you wonder what they’re talking about this tiny little patches of square, usually with a gates on them [unclear]
this communal space, so, essentially it’s an architecture of dishonesty, pseudo Modernism, it sort of aspires to be Modernism, it’s a Modernism based concealment rather than the sort of Modernist aesthetic, whether you agree with them or not, true to materials, and objectivity where actually what you have is squalor dresssed up as luxury.
One of the things that’s quite interesting about this place, and I think some of it’s quite common [unclear] is that this is a development aimed mainly at students, and students even in the fairly grim world of inner city apartments get the shitty end of the stick, these outside of London, or Manchester, a few cities where there’s lots of money, lots of the urban renaissance has been a matter of students moving into the centre of cities, and living in these squalid conditions, this I think is the absolute epitome if anyone can find me a 60s block as grim as this I will personally give them £5.
This is a development by student developers Unite who I think recently came up with [unclear] even more dynamic and inspirational there, and this kind of squats outside Liverpool Lime Street, awful, almost taken aback one of the interesting things about Unite was that they started to use once again one of the more [unclear] elements, the system built tower block, I don’t think there’s anything as [unclear] system building that lots of you know, system building somewhere like Sweden would develop 8 stories in the UK we’d get it up to 22 and so forth, accordingly it has the tendency to be a bit rickety.
So you know this essentially the worst things about the 60s is coming back without the positive [unclear] that were built, under Brown less council housing was built than under Thatcher, any kind of social function for architecture, of affluence, and when it did exist incredibly baroque, procurement procedures usually through the Private Finance Initiative, and various other public private partnerships, where essentially the state would subsidise property developers as not far from this we’re nearer the Mersey there’s an office block by the architect [unclear] which is actually quite good, I was amazed reading a RIBA book about Liverpool this office building basically in order to try and import you know, a financial district into Liverpool, and that insisted ? housing and hasn’t built any new council housing since the 1980s, so there’s a tendency to see this in polarised terms in being about public or private sector but what we’ve actually seen is the public sector working at all levels in order to make things as easy for the private sector as possible.
So I think there’s a dichotomy of both ? that both Labour and the Tories are trying to set up ? one supporting the ? the Blairite legacy essentially, whether it’s PFI hospitals, or Building Schools for the Future, or Pathfinder, on the other hand the Tories have ? the private sector. It’s important to stress that so many of the companies behind this sort of thing are things like [unclear], literally could not exist without the state, propped up by the state, the things I always think of in terms of these basically state funded private initiatives, is ? council house like Nye Bevan in the mid 1940s when he describes the building of semi-detached estates in the 1930s as private enterprise “sucking on the teats of the state”, and they’ve been doing that particularly fiercely in the last fifteen years.
One of the other things I talk about in the book, [long pause] is culture, fair amount of surfaces, [unclear] one of the under investigated things about this has been the the close links between culture and high culture again use the state funded [unclear] the culture varies ? have become you know as in the famous line by ? the shock troops of ? and one of the examples of this that I’m showing here is around the corner from where I live is the Laban centre in Deptford in South London and this kind of fits with many of the parameters [unclear]
It’s on the riverside, post industrial site, on Creekside, it’s on a manky bit of industrial water, it’s on a former area that was, on a former industrial area and it makes reference to that former industrial context, you know there’s almost a kind of appeasing the Gods, [unclear] the actual building itself is decent, it’s by [unclear] memorably described by invariably described by gloating [unclear]
and this the interesting thing about this scheme is that you have, and the Baltic in Newcastle is even worse, that you have you know your relatively decent plot for building and around you absolutely atrocious flats, the problem about building next to the area is that [unclear] and Deptford has lots of areas, it’s South East London, it’s extremely over crowded that mass of housing [unclear] and any open space where you can build some council housing [unclear] and this is exactly what happened here, the blocks behind the Laban centre here are particularly fine because of what it advertises, there was a big billboard outside them that said “Inspired by dance”, the dance of happiness, because it’s all about dance.
One of the other things about it that was interesting was that when the banners were going up, they also complained about the fact that the buildings were being funded by RBS, we of course were [unclear] state funded entity. and the fact that you know, we all own the banks the have owned the banks for some time ? as we all know the immensity ? of it kind of exploited by the Government to do something.
To go along this culture element, there’s also and probably just as prevalent as retail, there’s two schemes here I’d like to talk about both by the same architect, [unclear] partnership one of which works quite well architecturally, one of which is fairly unspeakable, this is West Quay in the centre of Southampton and what this is essentially is some importation of the 80s suburban approach to planning into the [unclear] that after I think in the early 90s, I think it was the Major Government that did this,
essentially sort of when [unclear]Nicholas Ridley and all planning controls were lifted and 1000 Asdas on the edge of the motorway, endless business parks and ?? that was ??? under Major partly kind of squirearchy lobby, worried about being [unclear] the estates, the response to this by developers was quite a lot in the last 15 years, has been to essentially build exactly the same thing, [unclear] an out of town shopping centre, right slap bang in the middle of the city of 250,000 people,
right next to the Medieval walls, and some 60s tower blocks, the juxtaposition is not flattering and it’s also particularly militaristic, kind of architecture, sort of grand style of it, trying to look vaguely friendly, with glass sort of watch tower, kind of thing but when you go round the back it’s massive high walls, block walls and high security, massive fences and high security, you essentially have a huge swathe of the central city turned into a series of car parks, even something on the scale of the original Arndale centre in Manchester wasn’t brutal had some sort of civic qualities, so BDP are somewhat chastened ? Southampton’s ??? rival for Liverpool One.
This is an example of what we call “malls without walls” it essentially creates, it’s an attempt to create citiness of a very circumscribed sort in the city rather than just creating a gigantic[unclear] architecturally it’s reasonably successful but what I think’s interesting about it is something quite different, even Anna who wrote quite a sensitive book Ground Control that it is a completely privately owned and controlled piece of city, essentially a kind of Disneyland, there is an incredibly even though [unclear] there’s no wall, when you walk into it you know immediately you’re not walking into [unclear] you’re walking into [unclear]
and after that [unclear] quite impressed by Liverpool One, tried to do something similar, and none of them spoke to our ???? managed to create this to completion, cause the key issue now is that’s been touched on is ruination is the fact that you’re dealing with things which quite often are half finished and the coalition have no intention to do anything with this.
This was the supposed site of a “new retail quarter”, the supposed site of thing called the new retail quarter in Sheffield, I think Sheffield has 11 quarters, and they’re designated to compete with quintessential Nicholas Ridley development on the outskirts of the city and ran out of money, initially got some degree of state funding which has been cancelled by the Tories, and the other thing about this is [unclear] that the area that would be demolished in its wake after it had been built were of an extremely high architectural quality from the decade that we tend to think doesn’t have any architectural quality since the 1960s.
Sheffield I think along with London has had the best of 60s and 50s [unclear] they’re cities like Glasgow that even I ? much of an argument for ? I think Sheffield has extremely good run at it, and Sheffield you know has a kind of architectural ambition, C19th city like somewhere like Blackpool, didn’t have great civic buildings, [unclear] and they were practically all going to be demolished in the 60s, and there’s now attempts to list them which will face the trenchant opposition of the city council.
I thought what was interesting about this was that it had to obliterate an earlier and optimistic and more egalitarian version of city rebuilding in order to build this mall without walls, [unclear] but I’ve got to end on a kind of even more sort of exemplary version of this in Sheffield which is Park Hill, I could have written the whole book on Park Hill, sometimes I wish I had, it’s a large, it’s often claimed to be the largest Brutalist listed Brutalist building in the country, but that’s not true, that’s the Barbican. The contrast of its fortunes with the Barbican is interesting, the Barbican is you know, you would have to be extremely wealthy to have even one of the smaller flats in the Barbican.
Park Hill was the redevelopment of a slum area by Sheffield’s Midland station and the architects were quite keen to try and recreate some of that community [unclear] rebuilt. This has been heavily criticised, lots of umming and arring for the last 50 years about whether or not it had real streets or not and whether or not there’s a real community, but when I went there to research this book, and I went back there time and time again, one of the things that interested me about it whether it had this in the 60s or 80s or right now, it clearly has an incredibly tightly knit community, there’s a line from the Dutch writer who we were talking about post war redevelopments, said that first of all architects came into break up a block, [unclear] communities, then their sons came in, after they’d had like 30 years to establish communities, [unclear] then their sons came in to break up our communities telling us again it’s for our own good. I think that’s basically what’s happened to Park Hill, they haven’t had time to set down some roots before they get obliterated.
The manner in which Park Hill was obliterated is very interesting. There was an almost identical, very similar building by the same architects called Hyde Park just behind it, and when that was rebuilt in the 1990s, two thirds of it was destroyed and the rest of it was clad in like plastic and brickwork in order to make it look like it was on the outskirts of the M25 or in the centre of a large city.
This time because the building was listed and because enough time had elapsed to be certain [unclear] the idea was to do with the building and with the community rather than against it, at least in theory, and this was done by the property developers Urban Splash, who I guess are kind of hip [unclear] they had they were essentially given this.
There were a couple of stories in Sheffield that they were [unclear] given it as a donation from the council, an estate of 1000 people, and that was their idea of what to do with it was inspired the Governments idea that what council estates need was to become more mixed. The thing I would support that went the other way was that you start building like you did in the 1950s, tower blocks, council tower blocks in Richmond, then [unclear] essentially a social mix of 70% would be sold on the open market and about 30% would be housing association and after [unclear] went bankrupt, Urban Splash got a large bailout from the state, so once again you have the state kind of the state’s now bankrolling it’s own asset stripping, [unclear]
and kind of neatly for the architectural argument one of the things Urban Splash decided they need to do in order to make this desirable a place people would want to live and invest, [unclear] they have in many ways to turn it into a different building. One of the things they planned to do before they’ve finished is to gate off the streets in the sky so the 50 year about streets in the sky is now pretty comprehensively ended.
The other thing they wanted to do, and have done, and have done in one part of the block is take out the brickwork, as initially the building used polychrome brickwork in order to harmonise the existing polychrome brickwork around Sheffield but the idea actually was given some a Northern industrial context appealing to aspirational buyer, so they were stripped out at enormous expense and replaced with anodised aluminium panels and you and you can see the result halfway through here,
but what you can actually see, when architectural magazines publish they seldom mention this, the temping Park Hill, they got Government planning to put panels in, but not to put flats in behind, essentially in order so that the people of Sheffield can see that something is being done, but there’s nothing behind the panels, at all so it’s an empty shell. There’s no flat going to be sold until Urban Splash have claimed the market for themselves. Good luck with selling flats in a former council estate in central Sheffield in a recession.
I think that sense of when the market picks sums up everything that’s wrong about this. There’s this assumption that the market can do it. What’s key about that is that throughout this process we intensify this process the state has the market wrong because the market is not this panacea that can instantly create wealth and transform our cities for the better. It’s a deeply maligned force and the forces which should have been holding it back should have been helping it along. I think that’s the [unclear] Thanks.
Thanks to Owen for giving such an elegant exposition of what is essentially a very ironically angry argument, there’s a book called Russia: Experiment with a people by Robert Service and I think that reading the history most kind of post Victorian architecture this is where I’m going to get into trouble but most Victorian architecture has been the story of experiment on people, repeated experiments on people and that’s where the quote about people being uprooted every 30 years in order to try out some new experiment applies really but I’ve only got 5 minutes so I’ll be quick but what I want to say is that Owen has written a really important and necessary book, it’s a very necessary assessment of really of the coming forth of a lot of the apparent sort of vaguely idealistic pragmatism behind a lot of the social actions of the Labour Government and really kind of a really really strong and powerful refutation of the cunning force of Post Modernism as well really it’s an angry and that’s a really really great thing and what he said about about you know referring to those images and an architectural dishonesty I think dishonesty runs through the whole idea of for instance you know using PFI to build public services and public buildings and there’s a relationship I think between PFI and the cult of design and build is where you get a structural engineering company to plonk a building up without actually designing it first and
and there’s a brilliant description of a PFI built hospital that really kind of sums up the dreadfulness of a lot of it. This means a lot to me in lots of ways really not just in terms of the housing aspect but in terms of schools and hospitals, my former school was truly a modernist school, it was built in the late 60s and already by the time I started going there in 1987 it was falling to bits, and what replaced it in 2006 was an Academy, not a PFI building but a privately funded Academy funded by an evangelical car salesman. What replaced essentially really quite utilitarian, but utilitarian classic humanist 60s humanist basically replaced it with a shed, a white uPVC clad shed lots of the classrooms and certainly lots of the offices didn’t actually have windows, when they did have windows they couldn’t be opened, when the windows had blinds you couldn’t change the blinds.
The whole thing was just absolutely utterly depressing to witness and to know that it was taking place under a Labour Government so it’s a brilliant thing that Owen’s book is so ? to read and it’s also very eloquent and angry but I think what really gets across is the fact that Post Modernism or pseudo I mean I think there’s quite a lot of connection between Post Modernism and what Owen describes as pseudo Modernism. Post Modernism gets by on the power of bull-shitting and so really it illustrates, his book illustrates, how people are diddled time and time and time again out of the sight of the rest of us, who are more affluent part of the population and really what it also shows is the essential problem is the New Labour project is that actually permitted too much in the name of pragmatism, you know we were saying before just before we came out here that a lot of what was built and a lot of what was planned and a lot of what was intended by the Labour Government actually had a genuine kernel of idealism, a kernel of optimism at the centre of it but it just allowed too much because it basically said that you don’t need rules other than creating wealth with the idea that then it would be quietly spread about and it didn’t matter how it was done because it does matter how it’s done.
So in the sense of talking about cities that should be loved and are loved in the main by the people who live in them fundamentally the essence of Owen’s argument is that the last Government and following on from previous Governments to that basically consented to mess around with our cities and also that our landscape can yet again repeatedly in the post war period has been designed and planned according to class essentially, how deserving people are to use and to witness and to see good architecture and good planning and how deserving we are of that and whether we’ll notice if something rubbish goes up instead.
So really I think just to kind of go back to the picture of the Park Hill and the absolute … criminality of putting the surface appearance of what was supposed to be happening with Park Hill and how Urban Splash was given Park Hill as a playground to play with and I saw the brochures for Park Hill when Urban Splash first took it over and it was turned into this mixed community to abuse, it was going to be a mixed community, but it was also going to be trendy,. . . there was quotes from . . . Pulp to invoke the good name of Jarvis Cocker, you know with I think there may even, they either used the term Sheffield sex city which is the name of a punk song or they actually in bad faith quoted some lyrics from common people they effectively used this as a playground and have now, you know run off essentially, leaving good homes empty at a time when they were desperately needed across the whole country, so really again using the quote of Nye Bevan, this is very much like the quote you used at the beginning, you will be judged on what we build, we will be judged in 10 years time not on the number of homes we build but on the quality of them.
The thing I want to say about 30 odd years is that not enough going back to housing, that not enough is being built, and what has been built has been not good enough and I really really, to end on a pessimistic note unfortunately can’t see that changing at the moment but I think Owen’s kind of really ???? should show us ???? [unclear] thank you.
I have the dubious honour of being in the book not once but twice, a book with more villains than heroes I’m not quite sure which side of that I’m on, I’ve been asked to talk about how [unclear] and one of the interesting things about Owen’s book is that although it has at its heart [unclear] a kind of investigation into the forces that have shaped, and in a lot of cases, ruined our cities, over the last two or three decades it also has a deep love of architecture in it, and in some cases that love of architecture forms a sort of parallel text to it almost and so what I’m going to say, and I realised I’ve got far too many slides so I’m going to be really quick, I’ve realised that my bit is a diversion into a specific bit of architecture that appears in his book and I wanted to respond really to a few well three specific points that Owen makes about the project and context [unclear]
The project and one of the main villains, in the book are Urban Splash, who appear at various points and Urban Splash were the developers of the redevelopment of this project here which is part of an estate in Manchester which has been redeveloped [end of tape]
Sorry folks, the tape ran out at this point so that’s all I got.