ARCHITECTURE | The Hall of Mirrors – Owen Hatherley & the European City

Europe Endless – Owen Hatherley in Tativille

Go to Europe, they said. You’ll like it there, they said. OWEN HATHERLEY used his appearance at Hyde Park Book Club to talk about his myth-busting tour of Europe and why we can’t have nice things… Review: NEIL MUDD

Where does Europe begin and where does it end? According to the Eurovision Song Contest at least as far away as Bondi Beach, it seems. Everybody needs good neighbours.

Author and architectural critic Owen Hatherley is in town to give a bit of a tragic lantern show about his new book Trans Europe Express: Tours of a Lost Continent (Penguin) published earlier this year. (There is another one out soon, though largely made up of ‘offcuts from this one,’ he tells the audience.)

Tonight’s event has been organised by State of the Arts as part of its Ideasmiths series of talks on politics, cities and culture. Created and hosted by historian and urbanist David Ellis with Hyde Park Book Club’s Jack Simpson, they have been flying the flag for modernism in Leeds for some time now.

Appropriately enough, Hatherley’s talk takes place below stairs in a space which Ellis informs us has been called a ‘Brutalist bunker,’ though its ad hoc unpainted wall partitioning and tangled vinery of extension leads is more suggestive of a Situationist squat.

Still wearing his raincoat, Hatherley slightly sags in a chair on the raised dais platform at the front and waves a black Moleskine notebook around for emphasis like some fey Jacques Tati impersonator.

He is engaging and sardonic, as befits an architectural critic. He is a far more foppish presence in real life than his robust online posturing might suggest. Hatherley once Tweeted about Leeds: ‘it is always a marvel that a city with some splendid architecture and people is always so utterly fucking horrible to be in.’

Tonight it’s the turn of our European chums across the channel to get a shoeing, though Hatherley keeps a firm weather eye on the UK’s hits (Preston) and misses (his native Southampton). He describes his new book as “praise mixed with scorn, though mostly it’s just full of scorn.”

Having castigated Britain’s cities, Hatherley’s editor sent him to Europe ‘in search of things (he) liked,’ the author spent two years on a series of city breaks attempting to define why Europe’s cities seem to have everything we lack.

Just how have European planners succeeded in making public space and urban integration work, while here in Britain we have failed so miserably at it? This being Owen Hatherley, the truth is not nearly so simple or as clear cut.

At times it is pretty unpalatable as well.

Europeanisation is the new colonialism, he argues, a doctrine which has seen former Eastern Bloc countries falling over each other to remake themselves in the image of the West.

One does not get to join the E.U. club, Hatherley says, if you are perceived as being either too Muslim or too Communist or, in the case of Albania, both. One ironic consequence has been the rise of the far right in countries like Poland as they strive to be ‘just like us’ and fit in.

There is an insidious logic to the fibre-glass clad ‘new historical monuments’ of Macedonian capital Skopje or the ethnic transformation of Greece’s second largest city Thessaloniki from a thriving integrated multi-ethnic melting pot into one almost entirely populated by Greeks in under fifty years.

Even countries like Sweden and Denmark, routinely held up as textbook examples of socially conscious capitalism,  do not escape untarnished, mired by the inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric of the present day Danish Peoples’ Party or the plight of Somali refugees shipped out to Stockholm’s outlying estates.

Here it seems, Britain has had a hand in dragging Europe towards the right, even as New Labour embraced a continental oo-la-la on behalf of a middle class liberal intelligentsia, now viewed by Brexiteers and Old Labour alike with the same suspicion.

Trans Europe Express takes a sledgehammer to some of those stone  tablets on Europe. Those who voted Leave would probably say ‘We told you so,’ but if Hatherley’s argument is to be believed, the Europe we love to hate is a mirror image of our inward looking selves. The ‘old enemy’ might just be closer to home than we think.

Owen Hatherley – Trans Europe Express: Tours of a Lost Continent is out now. The author takes part in Sheffield Modernist Society’s Modernists in Conversation this weekend. Details and tickets here.

One comment

  1. I must confess that up to now I have been a bit of an Owen Hatherley fan boy as I have five of his books and have heard him speak on several occasions in the past.

    Neil has stolen already some of the points I wanted to make summarising (better than what I could do) the talk he gave at the Hyde park Book Club. But nevertheless, I’ll have a pop.

    I was asked before hand if I would provide Owen with a difficult question but in the event, I only worked that one out on the way home. I will come to that later by way of critique.

    Anyway, three parts, the book, the performance and the critique.

    The substance of the talk was around his book “Trans Europe Express” not a totally original title perhaps. As a brief overview I would say the conceptual material in the early parts of the book are the best, what and where is Europe, what does it mean to be a European city, where is it all going in different parts of the continent and why, where does the UK experience fit in? The first two of these questions were lightly skipped over in the talk and the focus as Neil reports was more on the latter ones, the meaning and processes involved in cities seeking to become “European” and the changing nature of “established” European cities set against a benchmark of the contrasting currents of urban development in the UK.

    Read Neil for more as I’m sure you already have.

    So, what is important to recognise above all, which is the books major strength is that it is history and politics that lies at the heart of the urban form. The architecture seen and “urbanism” experienced are the outcomes of wider processes and must be read against these if any effective judgements or understandings are to be made. More about judgements later. These insights drive Hatherley’s work and explain the basic reason why I am a fan.

    The city case studies themselves are self admittedly uneven given that some of them were originally written for previous publication, the visits were longer or shorter in different places and in some probably more than others Owen was assisted by residents. If you know any of the cities in the book you may have one or several responses to what is written varying from “I know all that” to “Wow I never knew that”. You may or may not be irritated by the choice of sites and settings described or their overall assessment. Across all the various cities and the way in which they are sectioned in the book give enough cohesion to ensure that the structure of the argument is sustained. Despite these plaudits, the book resides in the “travel” section of my personal library probably because if I go to any of the cities so far unvisited I will probably copy the relevant pages.

    The performance, Neil sums this up well. Over the years I have attended Owen’s talks I have seen him become more “professional” but also more cliched. I mean aren’t surely it is hot in that raincoat and crew neck pullover? The raincoat itself also looked a bit new to me and might perhaps have looked a bit more lived in. I couldn’t see any possibly predictable moleskin note book, but I think personally a large clip board with loose sheets of paper might have been more effective as a declamatory devise. In presentation out came the tired old sardonic humour and the laid back as- it-comes- out style of declaration which emphasies the immediate authenticity of the remarks but so much indulgences your audience’ prejudices.

    More significantly the slides rather small to get the best out of but maybe this was down to the venue’s projector.

    Overall, I had a sense of an emerging replacement for the now fading Jonathon Meades – sun glasses, trilby and a raincoat might just work. Perhaps after one or two eccentric TV shows the identity of “national Treasure” might even become available.

    A little bit critique now. I think you can say broadly that Trans Europe Express represents a shift in Owen’s writings from “architecture” to “urbanism”. In the written form I think this is successful as the conceptual framework is clearly developed but in terms of the talk I thought it was much less successful. Perhaps at the end of the day you could say this was just about the need to perform to a live audience with its own expectations. For me this need opened the problem of what I came to be annoyed with- the incessant use of binaries. This is good: this is bad; I like this; this is crap; this is effective public space; this is not effective public space etc etc.

    Looking behind this rhetoric I concluded judgements like these are what architectural criticism is all about. In relation to individual buildings this might work to the degree that beyond the incessant “style wars” certain norms of tasteful and effective architecture are reasonably but not unchangingly established within some sort of canon. However, once you move into something called “urbanism” I believe the point of critique becomes much more problematical as urban usages, experiences and tastes are inherently plural. At worst this “urban talk” of oh dear “the public realm” “amenable spaces for social interaction and conversation” and “covered areas” etc becomes essentially norm driven (and I’m not going all alt-right here) – implying that the things nice people like us enjoy; we think everyone else should do so too. In practice sadly, such views accord well with those socially disciplined spaces where agencies of the state or private interests set up deliberately exclusionary practices towards others who for one reason or another they judge rightly or wrongly do not wish to or cannot share in the experience of these delights.

    What is acceptable and seen as desirable urban design by this cognoscenti seem based on an abstract universal humanism such as the space should be in some way democratic, open and well used. All of which carry with them underlying assertions and an empirical emptiness which are now seriously questioned from numerous “standpoints”. I was surprised and somewhat disappointed the talk seemed to fall into this kind of trope. To give one simple illustration of what I have in mind; I’m not sure I saw any wheel chair users in that celebrated public space in Barcelona.

    I’ll go with one other example where Owen I felt was uncritically over enthusiastic for the new urbanism of the compact city. This was the reference to the emergence of a strata of forty- year- old male Kidults with children who like to go to gigs, drink craft ale with their mates and who were assumed likely to prefer densely packed inner- city flats close to parks and cafes rather a suburban semi with a garden for the kids to play in. This may be so in Hackney, Forest Gate, Shoreditch or Nunhead but in the end, I concluded this was either demographically specific or laughingly metropolitan.

    So the question the question I had but never put revolved around a disjuncture between the macro-level analysis which I think is very effective and with which I have a great deal of sympathy and the micro-level analysis which seemed to collapse into all the things I like least about the approach of “urbanists” – that it massively under sociologised and lacks much in the way of political understanding. Two things I would not normally assume of Owen.

    So, has my fandom slipped in the course of the evening – to some extent but no doubt I will be buying Owen’s next book “The Adventures of Owen Hatherley in the Post-Soviet Space” which I was looking forward to reading before last night.

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