:: Article

Building a better life?

By Karl Whitney


Owen Hatherley, Militant Modernism, Zero Books, 2009

This energetic – and at times wildly enjoyable – polemic attempts to accomplish two difficult tasks: to excavate the lost utopian relics of a vital leftist past, and then to present these findings as methods which can be employed by the contemporary British left in its attempts to jolt itself back to vitality from its currently moribund state. It is to Owen Hatherley’s credit that he achieves both to a significant degree, presenting a compelling case for a coherent strand of largely-communist leftism that explored the imaginative possibilities of a revolution expressed through cultural forms: in architecture, in art, in film.

Given the aims of the book, Hatherley is reluctant to limit his focus to the purely historical aspects of the material, and frequently jumps forward to the Britain of Thatcher and Blair, of Robbie Williams and ‘Ikea Modernism’ in order to emphasise his underlying thesis: that the banality of contemporary British culture – in its often-kitsch built environment, in its omnipresent celebrity culture – masks a conservative ideology that is in sharp contrast to the progressive ideas which informed the historical upsurges of ‘Left Modernism’. In this way, the historical aspect of the book perpetually interacts with the present of the reader, in the process providing a plenitude of alternatives to be explored.

You have to applaud Hatherley’s attempt to break the left’s cultural history from the grand narrative of Communism’s presumed failure, and the effort to locate the left’s true value in certain points of utopian promise which were subsequently lost to either Stalin’s bureaucratic trampling or the constraints imposed by capitalistic processes.

Nevertheless, Hatherley is a sufficiently sensitive critic to acknowledge the complex causes behind some of these failures – for example, when he writes about the screen adaptation of Bertolt Brecht‘s Threepenny Opera he is careful to point out that the clash between Brecht and director G.W. Pabst was primarily between aesthetic sensibilities. Aesthetics, of course, were one of the primary political battlegrounds of Brechtian theory, as the writer attempted to disrupt the reassurance and identification they traditionally granted to an audience. Pabst, however, wished to reduce the unreality, something which Brecht could not countenance. Hatherley is even-handed in his judgement of the film as ‘a more complex and murky work than Brecht would credit’, even while he emphasises the alienation effect as a primary cornerstone of his genealogy of Left Modernism.

The book is most persuasive in its survey of Left Modernism’s interventions in the urban environment. Hatherley begins his investigations among the Brutalist concrete tower-blocks that mark his home city of Southampton – the autobiographical impulse behind his book at times makes it a companion work to Lynsey Hanley’s Estates. These largely dilapidated and neglected buildings are to the writer the remnants of a grand post-war cultural experiment which he views as a mutual contract between the British government and people – an agreement that both parties entered into gladly. As he notes at one point, the only remnants of this post-war Socialist experiment visible in contemporary Britain are the National Health Service and the concrete hulks of Brutalist architecture, both in significant states of disrepair.

Hatherley is keen to rescue these buildings from stigmatization, and relocate them as lost sites of possibility. This possibility is not extinct, but merely dormant, and can be re-invigorated in an attempt to harness the lost promise of past experiment.

At times, this investigation turns up interesting byways of radical politics, such as the Russian avant-garde’s Martian imaginings, beginning with Alexander Bogdanov’s 1908 novel Red Star, in which the protagonist is transported to a socialist utopia on Mars. These imaginings in part shaped the notion of estrangement that critic Viktor Shklovsky later held to be a central feature of truly revolutionary art. In drawing the reader’s attention to this strand of leftist thought, Hatherley reveals the importance of the imaginative process to the active creation of an alternative political landscape: the problems of everyday life are largely hidden, because they are over-familiar to us; if our everyday routine is suddenly upturned or reversed, these overlooked problems instantly become much clearer. Both Shklovsky and Brecht believed that one could be shocked out of received routine.

It is obvious that Hatherley sees the seemingly irreducible alienness of Brutalist architecture as hastening such a critical process, yet his trips to locations such as Thamesmead, the estate where Stanley Kubrick filmed scenes for A Clockwork Orange, reveal the brutal(ist) truth: that many of the inhabitants would rather live in more traditional houses. At Thamesmead, he even finds that some of the inhabitants have painted mock-tudor panels over the concrete, in an attempt to make it more homely.

Yet Hatherley is very much a believer in the progressive politics signified by such an uncompromising urban environment, and sees in its destruction the encroaching victory of a competing image of Britishness: an ersatz traditionalism that prefers its reflection to appear ‘eccentric, individualist, nostalgic.’ Yet, if the inhabitants of these estates no longer wish to live there, surely the mutual contract drawn up in the post-war era has by now expired?

Here, the possibility exists of suggesting that the popular rejection of this form of Left Modernism is, in fact, inauthentic, and has effectively been shaped by the propagation of a largely conservative ideology. Making this point coherently is difficult: is one actually suggesting that the public doesn’t really know what it wants? If so, what are the implications for a radical politics that claims to act in the interests of, or even with the approval of, the public? But Hatherley lets this point remain implicit, preferring to focus on the radical possibilities of other vibrant contemporary cultural forms such as pirate radio. (There is a continual link made between music and the urban environment throughout the book.)

By this point, Hatherley has for the most part achieved what he set out to do: to suggest alternative ways of imagining contemporary leftist politics through the examination of forgotten aspects of its past.


Karl Whitney is a journalist, researcher and 3:AM editor based in Dublin, Ireland. He has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 4th, 2009.