Monday, 6 December 2010

Not much pleasure in these ruins

Owen Hatherley's 'A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain' (Verso,2010) is a highly readable (though depressing) and well-informed (though opinionated) account of recent architecture and development culture in this country, considered, through portraits of a dozen or so cities from Southampton to Glasgow, in the light of the changing priorities and preoccupations of the postwar decades.

If you read the annual guides to the RIBA Awards, you could get quite excited about the quality of new buildings in the UK. If you read AJ and BD each week, you can still be reasonably optimistic; Property Week is maybe a bit less inspiring. If you drive around the dystopian fringes of most cities, though, or look out of the window of any train as it leaves any city, then it's not hard to see what Hatherley is on about. You are struck by how different the real world of lumpen everyday design and build is from those glossy pictures in the magazines, and how much more prevalent it is; and it's not hard to get as fed up as Hatherley is about what we are doing to the places we redevelop, even if you think what we built in the 60s wasn't always quite as great as he does, in spite of the best intentions.

The 'New Ruins' is not for the easily discouraged, but it would make a good Christmas present for urban boosterists, or Pollyannas who think all it would take to sort out our problems would be to give more projects to talented architects - a necessary but by no means a sufficient condition if cities are to recover from the various malaises diagnosed by Hatherley.

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