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Power, Corruption & Lies

By John P. Houghton.

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Sex, power and money – corrupting influences are at the heart of two books about city building and branding

“Commodity, firmness and delight”. These are the fundamental qualities of good building, defined by Vitruvius in the first century BC and pursued by architects ever since.

If Peter Murray’s debut novel A Passion to Build is an accurate guide to modern architectural practice, then “firmness” and “delight” are the priorities for today’s practitioners. And they have taken on a much more libidinous meaning than innocent, ancient Vitruvius intended.

Sex is the main corrupting influence in a story which follows the architects, planners and politicians of ‘Frampton-on-Tees’ as they scrabble to get the town ready for the ‘EuroGames’. When they’re not sleeping with each other, in drug-fuelled hotel orgies or seedy dungeons, the characters are competing to win lucrative construction contracts and put run-down old Frampton on the map.

As a satire on the petty jealousies and personal rivalries of an exclusive profession, with obvious parallels to the 2012 Olympics, A Passion to Build works.

A respected architectural critic and commentator, Murray has a deep knowledge of the trade and its people. The humour is biting, but affectionate, with elements of Tom Sharpe–style farce. The world he creates is well-honed, containing the sort of telling details – the kind of pubs the characters visit, the streets they enjoy walking down – that reflect a deep knowledge of the subject matter.

As a novel, A Passion to Build is less convincing and at a few points it malfunctions. The soft-soap treatment of its characters leads, without giving too much away, to a warm-bath ending. Graham Greene argued that every writer needs a “chip of ice” in their soul so they can remain ultimately detached from the characters they have spent so much of their time creating. Murray perhaps has too much affection for the people he is lampooning.

The minor characters are rather crudely drawn and lapse into stereotypes. The Scandinavian character is called Thor, “whose fathers fished the fjords”. The Japanese architect is a taciturn disciplinarian who hits his juniors with bamboo canes if they don’t work hard enough. And can you guess the main characteristic of the South American? That’s right. It’s his “Latin passion”.

The biggest problem is the clunkiness of the dialogue. The characters don’t have conversations. Instead they exchange “Basil Exposition” style plot points and contextual background – often in long, uninterrupted paragraphs that bear no relation to normal human speech – so the story can progress.

Though flawed, A Passion to Build is an enjoyable read, which often made me laugh and, in the scene involving a snake, grimace.

Franklin Medhurst’s A Quiet Catastrophe is a very different kind of book, but it shares a surprising number of parallels with A Passion to Build. Both are set on Teesside. Both are focused on the construction of cities and the relationship between planners, politicians and architects in creating them. And both are concerned with corruption.

But whereas Murray’s characters are essentially well-meaning types distracted by their libidos, A Quiet Catastrophe is a much darker tale. Power and money, are the corrupting influences at play, embodied by T. Dan Smith and John Poulson. Where Murray’s book echoes the light tones of Tom Sharpe, Medhurst’s story brings to mind the bleak Northern dystopias of David Peace.

There are many villains in Medhurst’s real-life account of his thwarted attempt in the 1960s to develop and implement the “Teesplan”; a long-term strategy for tackling the social deprivation and environmental degradation of the “severely depressed and ecologically violated valley region”.

Medhurst’s arrival was initially seen as a coup for area, but achieving real change meant taking on a closely intertwined and deeply corrupt network of power, financed by the heavy industries which had polluted the valley and poisoned the well of civic endeavour.

Under pressure from local and national politicians, Medhurst was unceremoniously sacked. Although he fought back, and many of those involved suffered a much worse fate when the evidence of their wrong-doing was revealed.

The same councillors treated their communities and cultural resources as the industries treated the environment; as objects to be torn apart and re-made at will, leading to grandiose demolition and construction schemes that sabotaged the potential for sustainable development for decades.

A Quiet Catastrophe splits into three parts, though it’s not formally organised as such: the story of Medhurst’s time developing the Teesplan and grappling with his enemies; his attempt to unravel who was involved in his sacking; and his manifesto for how cities and towns, particularly post-industrial places like the Tees Valley, should develop in future.

I found the “whodunnit?” middle section the least compelling, particularly when Medhurst starts referring to himself in the third person. But the story of the Teesplan is fascinating and his proposals are inspirational and desperately needed today.

The debate about regeneration has ground to a halt, in England at least. The idea of ‘sustainability’ has been sapped of meaning and turned into a spray-on cliché. We’re in danger, yet again, of wrecking our cities by using low-quality, low-density housebuilding as a crude economic stimulus.

Medhurst points to what a truly sustainable future would look like, with examples of how places are transforming themselves in ways that cherish, rather than exploit, natural and human resources.

Cities can be places of corruption, and the capitals of humanity’s worst vices. But they’re also our only hope for environmental survival.

jh
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John P. Houghton is a writer and adviser on neighbourhoods, cities and social exclusion and is the author with Prof. Anne Power of Jigsaw Cities.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 24th, 2012.