Ballard vs Baudelaire
By Richard Marshall.
A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, Owen Hatherley, Verso 2010
Richard Hoggart wrongly thought that Italian-styled Formica café/coffee bars of the 1950s were “full of corrupt brightness, of improper appeals and moral evasions… a sort of spiritual dry-rot amid the odour of boiled milk.” The great site Classic Cafes introduces itself with Hoggart’s error.
There’s a class attitude in the error, a deferential cringe that is the default position of a certain type. It is a reactionary impulse. For some working-class thinkers, culture is capital that raises them up out of their class. Richard Hoggart was one of these, using culture to lecture the working classes and tell them they need art to stop being working class. For middle-class thinkers it justifies their superiority to working-class people. For upper-class thinkers it justifies their superiority to the middle classes. Bourdieu wrote that “[taste] functions as a sort of social orientation, a ‘sense of one’s place,’ guiding the occupants of a given…social space towards the social positions adjusted to their properties, and towards the practices or goods which befit the occupants of that position.” Stewart Home agrees and so trashes culture.
When thought of like that, the dynamics of conflict are different from those identified in the ‘Rational Choice Theories’ of, for example, Gary Becker, Milton Friedman, Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman and Kenneth Arrow. It denies the idea that conflicts are situated only within economic relationships, as Marxists and Thatcherites think. It gains traction from theorists such as Weber, Norbert Elias, Husserl, Panofsky. A significant theorist currently working in sociology developing work he did whilst collaborating with Bourdieu is Loïc Wacquant. His work on urban inequality, anti-ghettoisation and the development of punishment as an institution aimed at poor and stigmatised populations is currently working in the ghettos of South Chicago, the Paris banlieue and the jails of the USA and Brazil.
‘Banlieue’ is the French name for ‘suburb’ but also connotes social housing projects. So the middle-class suburbia of the ‘faubourg’ embedded in the word can be transmuted into ‘the Projects’ of the USA, familiar from The Wire, and the ‘housing estates’ of the UK. Versailles Le Vésinet, Orsay and Neuilly-sur-Seine are examples of the middle class banlieue. Clichy-sous-Bois is an example of a working class banlieue. It had the seventeen night riots of October 2005. From the 1990s onwards the Franco-Maghrebi angry youth of the Parisian banlieue have been used by extreme right wing politicians to justify tougher law enforcement and immigration laws. Racism is an essential part of this development. La Haine, the great film by Mathieu Kassovitz makes the link between the site of its action and the hatred towards its inhabitants that unifies French affluent society.
A character in La Haine models himself on Travis Bickle in the film Taxi Driver to justify killing a cop and the film is better than Scorsese’s in showing the power conflicts that motivate the characters. Scorsese gives us a brilliantly psycho De Niro performance that might mean that Bickle is boringly just a nut-job American taxi driver, whereas the La Haine character Vinz, played by Vincent Cassel, is looking for respect as a gangster and the film gives a political, cultural and economic as well as a psychological motivation. Vincent Cassel later played Jacques Mesrine in the two films about the French gangster made in 2007 and 2008.
Kassovitz made his film when he read about the killing of Makome M’Bowole who was shot by French police at point blank range whilst handcuffed to a radiator. The policeman who shot him said he was annoyed by what M’Bowole said to him and so executed him. Marginalised groups such as Muslims and immigrants are used by the police forces of the affluent to maintain solidarity in the face of ‘the alien.’ This is a context for the work of the Berlin speedcore band Gabba Front Berlin of Steffen Reinecke (Roose), Ralf Schwarzenberger (Mad / Axel Asher) and Stephan Seidel (Dago). Their official website says that: “Gabba Front Berlin was founded in 1994, when some guys and girls regularly went to gabba-parties at the famous club ‘Bunker’ in Berlin. Being just a crew of party people for a while, in 1996 two of them – Mad and Roose – started to produce harder music under this name too and established a band, which was joined by Dago in 1997. The trio produces music in a wide range of the harder electronic styles and is well known for intelligent terror and speedcore. Since the late nineties GFB were playing a few live sets at underground parties at well known events across Europe like: Fuckparade, Speedrazor, Raving Nightmare, Nordcore, Resident-E, Tresor.core, Hell or Heaven, Klangkrieg and Mayday.” Their speedcore anthem ‘Lacrimosa Mosa Est’ uses a German translation of the film’s opening lines (“Dies ist die Geschichte von einem Mann der aus dem 50. Stock von einem Hochhaus fällt”, in the English version “Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? …”).
Vincent Cassel, the actor in La Haine and the two Mesrine, signed a deal with L’Oréal in December 2008 to advertise a male fragrance, ‘La Nuit de l’Homme’ which was produced by L’Oréal. L’Oréal’s head office, the ‘Beauty Factory’, is located in the banlieue of Clichy, Hauts-de-Seine. In 2005 Nils Klawitter of Der Spiegel said “the building, with its brown glazed façade of windows, is every bit as ugly as its neighborhood.” Klawitter added that the facility “gives the impression of a high-security zone” due to the CCTV cameras and security equipment. Liliane Bettencourt is a leading shareholder of the company, the daughter of its founder Eugene Schueller, and is one of the richest people in the world with a fortune of about 20 billion dollars.
Her father was a Nazi collaborator during World War II and supported and funded the violent fascist group La Cagoule. Liliane married a member of the fascist group, the politician André Bettencourt, in 1950. They lived in rue de Delabordere in Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1951 in a 1930s Streamline Moderne house. This architecture is the architecture of speed and aerodynamics, science and machines, is the style of Raymond Loewy of the Shell and BP logos, the Greyhound bus, the GG1 and S-1 locomotives, the Lucky Strike cigarettes logo, referenced by Tom Waits in ‘Kentucky Avenue’ when he sings of “half pack of Lucky Strikes” and in the TV series Mad Men who have Lucky Strikes as one of their major clients and seminally in the first two series of Miami Vice where they are smoked by Sonny Crockett; it is the style of Walter Dorwin Teague who designed the iconic porcelain-clad Texaco gas stations of the forties, the Beau Brownie Kodak cameras and all the passenger aircraft interiors for Boeing since 1946; it is the style of Gilbert Rohde, who was directly influential in the development of mid-American Modernism, influenced by Bauhaus and Surrealist style whilst experimenting with industrial materials like Plexiglas, Lucite and Bakerlite; and is the style of Norman Melancton Bel Geddes whose daughter was Barbara Bel Geddes who was Miss Ellie Ewing in the TV soap Dallas, Jo Ann in The Long Night with Henry Fonda and Vincent Price, and Midge in Vertigo opposite James Stewart. Bel Geddes designed the General Motors Pavilion Futurama at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and he thought that “there should be no more reason for a motorist who is passing through a city to slow down than there is for an airplane which is passing over it.”
Liliane Bettencourt is also a major shareholder of the Swiss based company Nestlé, a company that promoted infant formula breast milk substitutes that the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action think caused unnecessary death and suffering to the babies of the poor, in 2008 put melamine in China milk, was accused of buying milk from illegally seized farms in Zimbabwe operated by Robert Mugabe’s fascist second wife and typist Grace, has been linked to deforestation in Borneo in order to produce Palm Oil plantations and in June 2009 caused an outbreak of e-coli 0157:H7 in 29 states of the USA.
The UK Headquarters of Nestlé is in the 1960s built St George’s House in Croydon designed by Ronald Ward and Partners who also designed the Millbank Tower in Westminster, a Grade 2 listed building used by the Labour Party in 1997 for its successful General Election campaign and which has been since 2006 the campaign headquarters of the Conservative Party. The Pevsner Guide says it is “one of the few London office towers to have won affection.” Amicus Productions made Vault of Horror from the EC Comics written by Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines partly on location in the Millbank Tower in 1973 and this seems apt as a summary of this Bettencourt trailer.
Which returns us to Bettencourt’s L’Oréal where we can read about both sexist and racist issues in Wikepedia: “On August 11, 2005, the Supreme Court of California ruled that former L’Oréal sales manager Elyse Yanowitz had adequately pleaded a cause of action for retaliatory termination under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, and remanded the case for trial. The case arose out of a 1997 incident in which Jack Wiswall, then the general manager for designer fragrances, allegedly told Yanowitz to fire a dark-skinned sales associate despite the associate’s good performance. When Yanowitz refused, Wiswall pointed to a “sexy” blonde-haired woman and said, “God damn it, get me one that looks like that.” Wiswall retired as president of the luxury products division of L’Oréal USA at the end of 2006… In July 2007, the Garnier division and an external employment agency were fined €30,000 for recruitment practices that intentionally excluded non-white women from promoting its shampoo, Fructis Style L’Oréal is reported as saying the decision was “incomprehensible”, and would challenge the measure in court.”
The ugly building in Clichy-la-Garenne therefore links Parisian gangster Mesrine, who was born there, with the L’Oréal headquarters housed there via an actor who advertised a perfume for men made by L’Oréal who also played Mesrine in two films and a wannabe gangster in a great film that placed public housing in the centre of discussions about power, racism, class, elitism, style, design, architecture and everything mixed in with what I labeled Hoggart’s error and which the work of Loïc Wacquant interrogates.
Wacquant thinks that there is a link between material and symbolic planes so when he analyses the increase of prison populations, architectural figurations that buckle up material and symbolic space are important. In a recent interview when discussing black American subproletariat trajectories after the riots in the 1960s which, between 1975 and 2000 saw a fivefold increase of people in prisons to over 2 million inmates, he says, “How are we to explain this carceral hyper-inflation?”
The first response, given by dominant ideology and official research, is to assert that it is linked to criminality. But the trend-line of crime had stayed flat from 1973 to 1993 before falling sharply, just when imprisonment was skyrocketing. And there is a second mystery: whereas the proportion of African Americans in each “cohort” of criminals decreased steadily over these two decades, their share of the carceral population increased rapidly and continually. To resolve these two enigmas, one must get out of the “crime and punishment” schema and rethink the prison as a political institution, a central component of the state.
And then you discover that the surge of the penal state is the result of a policy of penalization of poverty that responds to the rise of social insecurity and the collapse of the ghetto as a mechanism of control of a population doubly marginalised on the material and symbolic planes. His book Urban Outcasts looked at a new regime of urban poverty coming post 1970s. He has a theory of ‘advanced marginality’ because it inscribes the poverty into visions of the future in order to ensure capitalist deregularisation continues. In Punishing the Poor he analyses the idea of new governments of ‘social insecurity’ where joblessness, homelessness, criminality, drugs, idle and enraged youths, school exclusion, familial and social breakdown are recognised as acceptable side-effects that require policing.
Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward wrote Regulating the Poor which also pushed this idea that new deregularising government linked assistance and welfare with control and punishment regimes. Ethno-racial division is also encouraged in order to lubricate the expanding state’s role in forming the connection between social welfare and the punishment of poverty. Wacquant’s brilliant book Deadly Symbiosis describes this neo-liberal Panopticon state. When he looks at Paris and Brazil the same over-incarceration is found. He talks about the increased militarisation of urban cleavages in the dualising metropolis which makes clear that the urb is the battleground.
Social housing projects such as the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, Bobigny in Paris, Moss Side in Manchester, Tensta in Stockholm, São João de Deus in Porto become symbols of dishonour and defamation. Wacquant went native researching these territories; in Body and Soul he examined the link of boxing to the ghetto, a sort of village study like those of the British anthropologists of the 1940s, substituting the village for the gym and its extensions, taking participation observation to its limit by almost abandoning his studies and turning professional in the style of Jeanne Favret-Saada’s Les Mots, la mort, les sorts. This might be thought to be traced to the intellectual model of Carlos Castañeda and his Yaquí sorcerers but he denies this explicitly.
He does this by drawing attention to his European roots, and in particular the French root he thinks Christophe Charle scrutinised in his book Birth of the Intellectuals (Naissance des “intellectuels” 1880–1900) which located that birth to the novelist Emile Zola and his role in the Dreyfus Affair. He thinks that “for this lineage, which runs roughly from Zola to Sartre, and then from Foucault to Bourdieu and others, the intellectual is a cultural producer who by definition engages his specific competency in public debate.”
This is an edgy, sexy and politicised intellectual, often of the left but at other times, as is the case with the nutty French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy accurately ventriloquised by Alain Badiou, who gets off with rubbish like “there is no good headscarf” to force Muslim women not to wear a hijab, not. Badiou’s Henri Lévy screams, “[the] hijab must be banned; it is a sign of male power (the father or eldest brother) over the young girls or women. So, we’ll banish the women who obstinately wear it. Basically put: these girls or women are oppressed. Hence, they shall be punished. It’s a little like saying: ‘This woman has been raped: throw her in jail.’ … Or contrariwise: it is they who freely want to wear that damned headscarf, those rebels, those brats! Hence, they shall be punished… Either it’s the father and eldest brother, and ‘feministly’ the hijab must be torn off, or it’s the girl herself standing by her belief, and ‘laically’ it must be torn off. ‘There is no good headscarf’. Henri Lévy takes the role of the affluent police spokesman, lubricating the ethnoracial divisions and stigmas to ensure that deregularised economic policies are thoroughly enmeshed with the institution of the prison and its processes of regulating the marginalised, poor and stigmatised.
Henri Lévy is the acceptable face of extreme right wing politics, an example, on a small scale, of Wacquant’s thesis about the evil neo-liberal politics of policing and regulating the poor and segregation using systems of punishment and threat enmeshed with welfare. But the difference between Henri Lévy’s position and French fascist NF leader Le Pen’s, is that Henri Lévy is more extreme. Wacquant thinks urban problems can’t be solved thinking that they are ghettos. They are not ghettos but have populations that are ethnically mixed and increasingly heterogeneous; so their capacity for collective organisation is diminishing; their frontiers are porous and routinely crossed by residents who rise in the class structure; and they have proven incapable of producing a collective identity, other than ones that are territorial and negative.
Wacquant thinks the cause of the problem is the deregularised state’s acceptance of unemployment, work insecurity and salient discrimination. Acceptance, note, not need. What this suggests is that there is a political belligerence and obscene laziness in the position, that modern societies have given up even trying to imagine how to progress without causing misery and vast inequality. The anxieties and xenophobic reflexes of ordinary people are deliberately being created. They are what the policy intends.
Which is where Owen Hatherley‘s brilliant book interjects, spooking up new ghosts, new energies from this vault of horror. Following in the footsteps of Priestley, Hatherley has written a scintillating book about the crisis of our neo-liberal existence. Hatherley looks at architecture as reified symbolic decision making. Buildings have semantic inter-constraints, so it is possible to read them as consistent or not. If symbol-man can’t be gynecological then social regeneration can’t repudiate the content of the social but still use the term.
The deracination of image in the new-politics adds up to the discomfiture of identified contradiction. The heroic nobility of council housing projects has been subjected to po-mo end-of-history assaults leaving those former glories rebooted as villainous squat pads for the deserving poor, sites governed by welfare policies intimately linked to punishing poor people. Unlike the UK’s strung-out but just surviving National Health Service, seen as a communist incursion by Republicans in the United States, and no doubt soon to be trashed by the Tory/Lib Dem Alliance government, the grandiose spirit-warmth that brought social housing schemes into being has all but narrowed to a shrive. Hatherley fetches out his riposte to absolve no one.
He gets on with Modernism, but is fast to link his Modernism to a strong politics of the left and so has written a book that at least in some sense gets a grip on the return of class warfare. This is a relief. Recent modish chatter on Modernism has not gripped the politics of its pronouncements and fads, in particular the connection of some Modernism with the vicious right. Marinetti, Mishima, Spengler, Evola, Sorel, Pound, Heidegger, D’Annunzio, Henry Williamson, Hamsun all attached themselves to stupid extreme racist right wing politics. The avant-gardism like the Futurism of Marinetti, which inspired Constructivist movements in the USSR and Vorticism in England, was intimately attached to nasty ideology and silence on this matter is always worrying. Architecture and art was part of a rebel yell but we had Modernist wars too and, unlike the fascists, I for one don’t get off on the beauty of warfare.
So in fascist Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto we read about a new beauty of “…speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of an explosive breath-a roaring car that seems to ride on grape shot is more beautiful than the victory of Samothrace.” And we get, “We will glorify war-the world’s only hygiene-militarism, patriotism the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, the beautiful ideas that kill, and scorn for women.” And, “We will destroy the museums libraries academies of every kind, will fight moralism feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice. As long as the war lasts let us set aside our verse, our brushes, scapulas, and orchestras!… The red holidays of genius have begun! There is nothing for us to admire today but the dreadful symphonies of the shrapnels and the mad sculptures that our inspired artillery moulds among the masses of the enemy.”
Of course the thesis that Modernist and avant-garde theories of art and culture were central to fascist discourse – in particular the mythologisation of violence – is well known but it keeps needing to be said. Andrew Hewitt’s Fascist Modernism, Romy Golan’s Modernity and Nostalgia, Mark Antliff’s Inventing Bergson: Cultural Politics and the Parisian Avant-Garde, Fascist Visions: Art and Ideology in France and Italy and Avant-Garde Fascism: The Mobilisation of Myth, Art, and Culture in France, 1909-1939, and so on all espouse this well known view.
It shouldn’t be ignored that Futurism and its manifestos remains vibrant within right-wing political enclaves. An example of this is where the repulsive Friends of Oswald Mosley web page (with links to other ultra right wing saddos such as The British Union) talks about an “…example of a contemporary cultural movement paralleling Futurists … New Slovenian Art, which like Futurism embodies music, graphic arts, architecture, and drama. It is a movement whose influence is felt beyond the borders of Slovenia. The best-known manifestation of this art form is the industrial music group Laibach” whilst going on at a fair old goosestep about the achievements of Marinetti. The point is simple and marries up with Joe Kennedy’s sassy comments in his review piece The Raconteur against Recuperation on Žižek’s latest where the idea of the end of history and the idea that action and acting were indistinguishable are given short shrift by the Elvis of the intellectuals: “any attempt to deny that stories still happened could be nothing but the self-pitying, even callous, lament of the uninventive. Now, the problem of what contemporary history amounts to is a particularly pertinent one.” This is just one of many examples of how extreme right wing political groups are still taking Marinetti and his mates at face value and offer no distance of time and space to ignore the fascist connotations of their message. Pure aesthetics it ain’t!
Wacquant thinks that modern social reality has taken many of the Modernist tropes and applied them in a distinct way that accepts, and therefore transforms, the working class and their material spaces. They are reproduced as criminal and unstable, disconnected from identities that are acceptable and therefore by definition are groups requiring containment and policies that require them to always strive to exit from this enclave of marginalisation. The banlieue is where they live and so that fascinating urban setting is a place of nightmare for the policy makers of Wacquant’s neo-liberal police state.
Hatherley is a working class lefty who knows all about this. He imaginatively uses architecture to reassemble a counter idea about the banlieue. He has sniffed out that suburb is a useless term these days as cities sprawl and mutate and though he doesn’t use the term, it’s a book about the monstrous banlieue as much as it is about anything else. Whatever it is, it’s a book using architecture to speak to politics. He says up front, “this book uses architecture in an unashamedly subjective fashion to illustrate politics and vice versa, and aims to awake in the reader an attention to their urban environment, in the hope that they will see it as something consciously made, something formed, rather than as a more-or-less irritating backdrop to the daily commute, a possible investment or a series of monuments and eyesores.” His model and hero is Bradford’s J. B. Priestley who in 1934 published a travel book English Journey that was so widely read it took on mythical proportions and “won the ’45 election for Labour”, a book which for Hatherley was “… a sharp. Populist, politely angry account of a deliberate attempt to look England in the face, from Southampton to Newcastle.” His summary of Priestley’s book works for his own too.
He has a clear agenda, which is encapsulated by the idea of urbanism. He thinks the countryside is a dead end – he points out that even by the 19th century the UK was the only country in the world to have more people living in its cities than in its countryside and points out that even now “around 90 percent of us live in essentially urban areas, and although around 70 percent of the landmass is still agricultural land, only 300,000 people actually work on it.” Hatherley works his pitch around the idea of five Britains, adding two new ones to Priestley’s three. Priestley has the countryside – a parasite on urbanism that “long since ceased to make its own living,” the Industrial Revolution, and a third, the commercial world of “arterial roads, Tudorbethan suburbia, [and] art deco factories and cinemas.” Hatherley adds a fourth, the post-war settlement of “council estates, Arndale Centres and campus universities” and a fifth, the “post-1979 England of business parks, Barrett homes, riverside ‘stunning developments’, out-of-town shopping and distribution centres.”
It is the politics of the fourth and the fifth that really drives the book. The post-war settlement is in ruins and there are ambiguous and conflicting pulls in it, some of it good and some of it bad. Hatherley’s real contempt is for the fifth Britain, the one that he sees as an attempt to wipe out all traces of its socialist predecessor. He makes this explicit: “I attempt to treat Britain five with much the same retrospective contempt as it shows for its predecessor, largely for the reason that I find its neo-liberal politics every bit as repugnant as it does its socialist forbear.”
The architecture is made to speak directly to this political argument, which in itself is an anti-neoliberal strategy. Through architecture we are suddenly given voices to speak of class divisions, of class war, of North-South divides, of the wide dimensions of movements like the Countryside Alliance and the issue of foxhunting. Foxhunting in the UK was never about foxes but about toffs, about a vague sense that there was something too odd, alien, strange and parasitically draining about the countryside and this was the law – a ban on foxhunting – to make that very point. Even the idling Tom Hodgkinson is caught up in his flow. Anti-urbanism is a sign of toff snobbery, so “British cities are… the Crap Towns The Idler compiled books about whilst its founder Tom Hodgkinson retired to the countryside to play at being a gentleman…” Ouch!
But Hatherley has a broader point. He thinks the yawp of relentless anti-urbanism broke local mettle and resulted in acquiescence to any kind of renewal by the 1990s. This cultural cringe explains towns becoming places they weren’t, ignoring their extraordinary “mess and montage” that characterised, for instance, a vibrant multiculturalism found nowhere else in Europe. The attitude that created a default anti-urb position was a meme implant that allowed the phony, cheap renaissance of Britain five, what Hatherley describes with all his teeth showing as “a systematic regeneration formula of ‘stunning riverside developments’ and post-industrial leisure in the urban core and outside it a sprawl of giant distribution shed, retail parks and what Patrick Keiller described as ‘reduced versions’ of the houses of 150 years ago.” Hatherley writes in deadly bombing raids. It’s a blast to read.
Keiller is an interesting name to reference too, for the book can also be read as a kind of poetic critique, a dream landscape charted out of the fierce anger and disappointment that drives its verve and churns its gut. Hatherley thinks that in Keiller’s works, especially in the two Robinson films, there’s a “desperate yearning … for a true metropolitanism, a Baudelairean modernity” and what he finds instead is a London “strangled by a ‘suburban government’,” and ports like Southampton and Liverpool just weird, without people and without the glamour and cosmopolitanism of what international trade should bring. It’s just an “internationalism confined to the automated space of the container port.”
This is the oddness of Liverpool explained, the ignorant cliché of insularity and the ultra-sentimentalism of its population, a hive of Lennons aptly sentimentalized in the kitsch film Of Time and the City that Colin McCabe strangely applauded in the recent edition of his Critical Quarterly. It should be what it was, a fertile and sexy stew of grand expansion and multi-cultural exchange. Hatherley’s chapter on Liverpool dreams it back again, out of the prejudicial flex, notes that Liverpool isn’t the stuff to compare with Leeds, Manchester, Bristol but is a real city like Berlin, Hamburg and New York, “the most wholly thrillingly urban environment in England outside of London.” Hatherley wants that back.
The city retains a Metropolis feel: Hatherley broods on Peter Ellis’s 1868 Oriel Chambers, the 1906 Cotton Exchange, C.H. Reilly‘s steel-framed towers, Bradshaw Rowse and Harker’s former HSBC building from the sixties, “a Czech Cubist experiment in black glass”, its telecommunication tower “a Canadian or German would find entirely normal but the English faintly hubristic”, and the Georgian terraces and “competing Cathedrals”, but then he seems to wake from the fix and reminds us that it died as a port, supplanted ‘easily’ by Southampton because people “don’t seem to want cities, even one as good as this.”
The countryside pull, the Prince Charles effect, it culminates in this destructive urge to forget the last 150 years and build into the green neverworld that is the same deliberate forgetfulness that characterises the neo-liberal spaces created by successive governments from Thatcher onwards. Hatherley equates the willfulness of this process with the politics, a ‘new’ regenerated politics that denies the last 150 years and asks us to believe that everyone is middle class now and wants to live in Milton Keynes. The sinister undertow of the politics excavated by Wacquant flows like a sewer into this mix, gives it deeper relief.
The new New Labour phase of all this is a version of Jonathan Meade’s ‘social Thatcherism’. Hatherley is biting as he examines this phase and turns some nifty phrases to hurt his targets. “Most former postmodernists are now pseudomodernists.” He thinks that “the icon is now the dominant paradigm in architecture” and also that “one thing that remains of postmodernism is the idea of building as sign… strongly opposed to the formal rigours and typological complexities of ‘high’ Modernist, especially its Brutalist variant.” He links icons with logos, thinks both are prevalent but the architecture produced are merely “failed icons,” more Millennium Dome than Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim.
He thinks Thatcher’s renewed interest in suburbanism led to extending the notion of the suburb to the city leading to projects such as the regeneration Salford Quays and the architecture of Daniel Libeskind. The porous urbanisation of suburbia paradoxically results in the uselessness of the term suburbia. The attempt to destroy the idea of the city accomplished the strange mutational architecture of the banlieue, allowing for the economics of deregularisation to thrive and produce the anti-ghettoisation carceration politics aimed at criminalising poverty.
Hatherley sketches a fascinating distinction in architectural idioms contrasting European with American variants of Modernism. He introduces the Pulp Modernist idiom, a 1950s style associated with Googie burger bars, car washes, coffee shops and suburban sprawl that Richard Hoggart snobbily dismissed at the start of this article, the architectural prototypical design of the “classic café”. Alan Hess puts it in direct opposition to the high Modernism of Mies van der Rohe, the classist glass-skyscraper.
Hatherley writes: “What’s interesting here is that in the American context, where Modernism was not associated with social democracy or state socialism as it was in Europe, the debate was purely aesthetic.” A mere matter of taste. Post-Modernism was a response to a paternal American Modernism of depoliticised and classicised Mies van der Rohe, Skidmore Owings & Merrill, Seagram or Lever. And so America ignored the crass neon-lit commercialism of the Berlin department stores and cinemas and the socialist fervor of the ‘New Building’, an anti-architecture for a new society. In so doing America used aesthetics to deny both socialist and fascist political enthusiasms that informed projects elsewhere.
Hatherley thinks Googies pulp Modernism links a critique of classicist Modernism with Post-Modernism. Googie starts in the 1950s and links with Deconstructivism which in turn is linked with Derrida and Russian Constructivism. However, the architecture of Libeskind’s Googie has for Hatherley more to do with diners than the Bauhaus. Its vocabulary of the non-orthogonal, the exaggerated and the audaciously engineered as found in Gehry’s Experience Music Project in Seattle and Nigel Coates’ defunct Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield exemplify the idea of the mad and crazy iconic building design that has proved popular in the last twenty years. For Hatherley it links to the Disneyfication of museum cultures in cities and owes less to Derrida than McDonalds. Googie is the signature wing of his pseudomodernism.
It is a style that links itself to the newly created heritage and creativity industries and explains the ubiquity of logo names for institutions in this area such as Urbis in Manchester, The Public in West Brom and FACT in Liverpool. This style is best seen outside of representative democracies because it aims at replacing social use with spectacle and forgetfulness. So it is highly popular in places where populations are required to replace politics with amazement such as Russia, China and the Arab Emirates. So Abu Dhabi has many logo icon buildings by Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel (he did a branch of the Louvre). There are current projects in the pipeline for a Birmingham Selfridges and a Rem Koolhaas Prada in New York.
Hatherley brilliantly identifies the importance of this, an architecture of distraction and speed that adds the moralistic rhetoric of Modernism without its social uses such as council housing, schools, hospitals. It is a form of social rhetoric without is content. Semblance contradicting function. A lie. He summarises it as the aesthetics of consumption and advertising and the futurism of the McCarthy era where we get political stagnation combined with technological acceleration. This jerks us back to Marinetti and an aesthetic ugly right wing politics that revels in overman power.
Yet its suave face is rather the opposite of its secret fierce politics. ‘Urban Renaissance’ is a phrase coined either by Richard Rogers or Ricky Burdett and Anne Power under the auspices of the ‘Urban Task Force’ which aimed to return the middle classes to an urban setting. Areas that housed poor people were replaced by new accommodation for the affluent. So we have Salford Quays, Cardiff Bay, Tyneside Baltic, Sage and Milennium Bridge, London Dockland, Leeds, Liverpool One, central Manchester. Hatherley is scathing and notes that many now lie empty. Hatherley sees this in terms of a suburban criticism of the urbs resulting in cities being turned into ‘stunning riverside developments’ and post-industrial leisure outside the resulting giant sprawl of giant distribution sheds, retail parks and Keiller’s ‘reduced housing.’ Overlaying Wacquant’s thesis onto this, a distinctly bleak ruin peeps out, more than just ruined buildings too.
In shorthand, it is the politics of Sheerwater Comprehensive School meeting Eton. Paul Weller’s The Jam from the Sheerwater Comp sing ‘Eton Rifles’, and toff multi-millionaire Tory PM of the UK, David Cameron, pronounces it one of his fave songs. Sheerwater’s younger alumnus, Stewart Home, stands for London against Eton toff Mayor Johnson who, as Mayor, has allowed slavery and people traffic in the city to rise to unprecedented levels.
Meanwhile Gormley’s iconic Angel of the North gloats over a former coal seam. Hatherley’s book is brilliant at re-inspiring the eye and waking the mind. Confronting Sheffield, one of the places he devotes a chapter to, he conjures up belief in its noble Modernist politics of the past despite obvious failures. Sheffield Modernism includes the ruined masterpiece Castle Market of Lewis Womersley, who also planned 50,000 homes from Gleadless Valley, and schools and local centres between 1960-65. Castle Market was designed by Andrew Derbyshire and is a panoply of strange and fascinating things, a Modernism of bustle and individuality, a goldmine for classic cafes that Hoggart would hate. Hatherley’s enthusiasm is palpable. “There’s the Soda Fountain, in elegant, continental san serifs seemingly absconding from a Blue Note record cover…” and in this place he records a state of design delirium. A sweet shop using the same font as used by the cult TV show The Prisoner. He exhorts us to “get there while you can: nothing like it will ever be built again.”
For Hatherley the best of Sheffield is its angry Modernism which was never mere aesthetics, as in the American mode, but was rather always attached to a socialist politics that spoke to the faith that nothing was too good for ordinary folk. And here Hatherley is penetrating on the divided vernacular this Modernism instantiates, an architecture that is ok for the elite in The Barbican and an eyesore if the working class get their hands on it. It made me think of a line in the TV show The West Wing where a blonde Republican babe berates the liberal Democratic elites for opposing guns not because they dislike guns but because they dislike the people who like guns. Hoggart’s distaste for classic cafes stems from the same impulse; its not the café he dislikes so much as the people he imagines go there.
Hatherley is brilliant discussing Sheffield’s ruined but magnificent architectural remains. He discusses in detail the complex history of Park Hill, Grade II listed tower blocks which were an early response to surprising 1950s critiques of modern architecture’s failures. It replaced the poor slum quarters of ‘Little Chicago’ down by the Midland Station with dynamic housing for the same people. Designed by Jack Lynn, Ivor Smith and Frederick Nicklin the idea was to create a marvel, a dream ‘street in the sky.’ Hyde Park and Kelvin Flats were part of this urban confidence, part of a total city planning linked to Gleadless valley. Hatherley claims that despite receiving a retrospective bad press up to the 1980s surveys showed high satisfaction with these flats.
By 1990 they were partly demolished, and their remnants became part of project of conservative geographer Alice Coleman who was paid to help the World Student Games in 1991 by arguing that aesthetic form rather than conditions of council housing caused the poverty. Hatherley thinks this a bizarre episode but one consistent with the new politics that sought to replace the city with the suburb. Coleman argued for the 30s semi in order to trash the reputation of the streets in the sky. With the additional inflection of Wacquant, Coleman’s silliness bends sinister.
Sheffield’s music scene was, according to Hatherley, better than Manchester’s. It was weirder, and the description of Human League by Simon Reynolds as an “ambiguous alloy of euphoria and grief” also captures some vital essence of Sheffield itself. Pulp’s “deep fried in Kelvin.” ‘Sheffield: Sex City’ condenses the hard-knuckled sex-glamour of the place, and lines like “everyone on Park Hill came at 4.23 am and the whole block fell down” is rightly noted by Hatherley as catching the spermy vigour of the place and its politics. I recall being in the bogs at the Sheffield Odeon in between watching a double bill feature of Biletus and Taxi Driver and some old guy mumbling ‘best bogs in fucking England’ appreciatively as he left whilst zipping his flies.
Hatherley writes about Warp Records and Sheffield producers like Richard H Kirk and Rob Gordon and how the Sheffield music scene created a music of “vertiginous new space and Brutalist low-end rumble,” a scene that included the likes, lest we forget, of ABC, Cabaret Voltaire, Forgemasters, Martin Wallace’s Sweet Exorcist, Tricky Disco, Alex Rutterford’s Grantz Graf for Autechre, Chris Cunningham’s Apex Twins’ ‘Windowlicker’ as well as Jarvis Cocker and the remarkable Pulp. Warp records put out Sweet Excorcist’s ‘Testone’, LFO’s Frequencies, Nightmares on Wax’s ‘Aftermath’, Rob Gordon’s Forgemasters and, despite decamping to London in the end, was a thoroughly Sheffield thing.
Again and again Hatherley astonishes with a stylish panache that recalls the edgy refinements of Michael Bracewell’s cultural critiques. He combines deft use of detail to make strangely powerful generalisations, as when he says: “Sheffield does not lack for new electronic music. Yet it’s a very different kind, the sort I heard teenagers play off their phones … on the Rotherham-Sheffield rain – baseline house. Yorkshire’s Brutalist version of two-step garage, which owes much to the tinny synthetic stabs and enveloping bass rumbles of early Warp, splicing it with a far from minimal commercial crassness. It’s an expression of the city as it is, a living, messy thing, which is very seldom ‘tasteful.’” This is an assured style of memorialising authority.
And he is clear that Sheffield’s ‘regeneration’ has been about restimulating the moribund housing market rather than looking after the poor and points out that as a result waiting lists for social housing between 2001 and 2007 have risen from 14,301 to 58,706 and some think the recession threatens a rise in the region of 90,000. Hatherley’s name for the movers and shakers of this is ‘Urban Splash bastards’ and it pointedly directs us to the colluding double-facedness of the Sheffield MP Lib Dem leader and now Deputy PM toff Etonian Nick Janus Clegg.
The book has reach, and its sinewy, controlled and witty prose accomplishes the lightness that this richly evocative book requires. It is capable of great traces of intelligent and enlightened beauty, so he can take an overlooked masterpiece and in a single sentence make the connections to bring his object to life again. So he does, for example, when he writes, “Gleadless Valley, planned under Womersley at the same time as Park Hill; a bizarre and beautiful landscape, Bruno Taut‘s Berlin via Neutra‘s Los Angeles, refracted through the English Picturesque.” Exquisite.
Hatherley’s book works like a reverse séance where dead ruins ask for the living to speak to them. Hatherley makes architectural Modernism news again, not as a pure American aestheticism but in terms that cut into the banlieue spaces explored by Wacquant, spaces that express contempt for the politics of social nobility and refuse the aspirations that built streets in the sky in Sheffield.
Sheffield had a ‘Hole in the Road’. It can be seen in the opening shots of the dole film The Full Monty. I often went there and saw the fish. It was filled in years ago but Sheffielders still remember it with a weird sort of nostalgia. High ideals are invisible. Like a hole, some like to think that because ideals are not made out of material stuff they don’t really exist. You might argue that holes can be reduced to talk about holed objects but that would involve thinking that every hole referring noun phrase could be de-nominalised, which seems to be false. Some think holes don’t exist because they are qualified portions of space-time just like everything else, but this rules out by fiat unqualified portions of space-time. Other arguments against the existence of holes involves changing the way we can speak about holes, which suggests these alternatives misrepresent them. Casati and Varzi think holes are immaterial particulars with peculiarities.
I say holes exist because they are part of the inherent ontology in my common sense picture of Sheffield. And so did the Modernist values exist too. And they were made visible in the architecture of the cities Hatherley explores. Absence is causally efficacious according to the late great David Lewis, contrary to Locke. It is a culturally conservative prejudice against negative reality, instantiated by the likes of Henri Bergson, Victor Hugo and Jean Paul Sartre, to think otherwise.
Does a hole exist once filled in? Varzi thinks that it does because we can fully occupy it and leave the hole intact which explains the difficulty specifying identity criteria of a hole. It isn’t identical with the stuff around it or in it. Hatherley’s answer is complicated – in Liverpool he ends on this thought: “An old idea of urbanism is utterly ruined, here at Stanley Dock, and you can smell its decomposition. Yet it feels so much less ruinous than the desolate city of property and tourism just a couple of miles away.”
The pseudo-modernity that fills in the holes of once brilliant cities has resulted in very bad architecture , “baroque procurement methods and an ingrained preference for the cheap and unpretentious, causing a whole accidental school of PFI architecture to emerge.” By developing a phony regeneration through extending a bizarre idea of suburbia into cities weird, deregulated banlieues have been created, some filled with affluent residents, some empty, others still full of poverty. The deliberate decision not to rebuild housing stock for the poor has been part of a false idea about cities and suburbs. The working class territories of the urban peripheries have undertaken a process of gradual decomposition.
Wacquant describes these states as anti-ghettos and in a sense Hatherley’s study of Southampton, Milton Keynes, Nottingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Tyneside, Glasgow, Cambridge, the West Riding, Cardiff, Greenwich and Liverpool is a study of the dispossession of the cities, connecting it with the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the townships of South Africa and the varos of Istanbul. Most saliently, it is a study of the new urbanism formed by the same forces that has created the UK’s carceral inflation. As Wacquant says, “the surge of the penal state is the result of a policy of penalisation of poverty that responds to the rise in social insecurity and the collapse of the ghetto as a mechanism of control of a population doubly marginalised on the material and symbolic planes.” It’s part of the big debates about social justice and the rise of racist anxiety.
I’ve framed Hatherley’s book inside a reading of Wacquant that suggests that the architectural concerns are a mode of a new regime of advanced marginality and urban poverty inscribed in the future of advanced societies accepting the strains of capitalist deregularisation. Wacquant thinks “it is the product of the fragmentation of the wage labor, the functional disconnection between neighborhoods of relegation and the national and global economy, territorial stigmatization and the retraction of the protections traditionally afforded by the social state.” Joblessness, homelessness, criminality, drugs, idle and enraged youths, school exclusion, familial and social breakdown are accepted as part of what the process creates, allowing the state to link welfare with punishment regimes. The UK has more surveillance CCTV cameras per citizen than anywhere else in the world. As Hatherley says, cities are now where most of us now live. Record keeping and surveillance systems, security checks and techniques of supervision, exclusion zones and gated communities protecting the affluent from the poor, all these are now inscribed as ‘rituals of degradation’ in the lives of the non-affluent. The police, prisons and criminal courts are used not for justice but as mechanisms controlling marginalized groups, allowing the affluent to unify around their collective anxieties about these excluded groups. In this way capitalist deregularisation brings about the increased regulation of poverty. Ethnography is used as an instrument of rupture and construction, as Wacquant scribes it.
Hatherley translates his disgust and sadness into a sense of architectural ruin. In Greenwich he captures all of this in two lines discussing a scheme involving ‘pinnacles’. “There is something horribly wrong here, and it’s not just a matter of architecture or mortgage fraud. One of the ‘Pinnacles’ is blocked off by no less than three metal fences.” This is the dystopian Ballardian banlieue running its consumerist civil war rather than Baudelaire’s utopian city of fornicating mixture. There needs to be a change to all this.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 29th, 2010.