Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Militant Modernism

[This review of Owen Hatherley's book Militant Modernism was published in the journal Planning Perspectives
Cite this paper as: Hicks, D. 2010. Review of Owen Hatherley 'Militant Modernism'. Planning Perspectives 25(2): 272-274.]




Owen Hatherley’s ‘excavation of utopia’ reflects upon the residual effects and potentialities of late 20th-century modernism in early 21st-century British cities. It does so by questioning four dimensions of conventional accounts of modernist urbanism: its brutality, its totalitatianism, its ‘sexlessness’, and its alienating effects. The book is best read from back to front. The third and fourth themes produce only disappointing digressions into film and theatre, pornography, and the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt. But through a sustained archaeological metaphor, its opening sections nicely explore the irony of the potential status of the remains of future-oriented architecture and urban design as ‘modern heritage’.
Working backwards through the digressions on Brecht’s Kuhle Wampe or Wilhelm Reich’s pamphlet Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis (Chapters 3 and 4), we arrive at Hatherley’s ‘excavation in Soviet Modernism’ (Chapter 2). Photographer Richard Pare’s documentation of the chipped render and water-stained interiors of the buildings of Bolshevik modernism is used to reflect upon how
‘if Modernity, or Modernism, is our Antiquity, then its ruins have become every bit as fascinating, poignant and morbid as those of the Greeks or the Romans were to the 18th century’ (p. 45)
Here, Hatherley puts archaeological studies of the 20th-century built environment to work for new audiences. A discussion of the Narkomfin Communal House in Moscow draws upon Victor Buchli’s An Archaeology of Socialism, and a reflection upon Albert Speer’s ‘theory of ruin value’ recalls archaeologist Cornelius Holtorf’s study of the National Socialist sea resort at Prora. The relationships between the ruined and the futuristic are elegantly segued with discussions of the aesthetics of Soviet Sci-Fi. But the stated aim – to critique conventional accounts of the totalitarianism of modernist architecture – fits awkwardly with Hatherley’s silence on the Left’s complicity in the emergence of Stalinism, and its effects upon buildings such as the Narkomfin as human, lived spaces, despite Buchli’s nuanced arguments on this theme.
The 42 pages of its opening chapters, and the short conclusion, present the main argument of the book. The Brutalist architecture created between the 1950s and 1970s in provincial British cities – buildings such as Wyndham Court, Southampton or the Park Hill Estate, Sheffield – represents ‘the most persistent reminder of British socialism’. They are the ruins of a Left-Modernist hope that might be ‘recharged and reactivated’. But rekindling their hope and ambition requires not ‘surrendering’ these artefacts of social democracy to the art-historical classification of heritage designation:
‘If we want to preserve what remains of Modernism, then we’re necessarily conspiring with the very people that have always opposed it: the heritage industries that have so much of Europe in their grip’ (p.5)
Instead of preservation or designation, we must account for the ‘in-built obsolescence’ of unrendered, reinforced, poured concrete: since ‘Brutalism, with its rough-hewn rawness, always was a vision of future ruins’.
Hatherley recounts his fin-de-siècle teenage vision of Southampton’s skyline from a suburban Asda forecourt, where council estates appeared ‘a shabby version of the glittering towers of science fiction’. From Edward Wadsworth’s industrial Vorticism to A Clockwork Orange’s celluloid rendering of Thamesmead, Hatherley re-imagines Brutalism through a kind of industrial sublime: ‘strange, inhuman and futuristic’. To a rather self-conscious soundtrack (Japan, Cabaret Voltaire and ‘early Human League’), a distinctive urban Romanticism emerges. Post-war concrete refracts the ‘technological primitivism’ of Wyndham Lewis into post-punk pop culture: from New Romanticism through Jungle, to UK Garage, to Grime – the ‘Hardcore Continuum’.
Hatherley develops an argument about ‘Brutishness’ and ‘Britishness’ that inverts more traditional, more pastoral post-war Romanticisms. He rails, Hoskins-like, against the ‘Disneyfication of Britain’: but here the concern is that the ‘roughness’ and ‘barbarism’ of urban Britain might be lost by allowing ‘modern ruins’ to become heritage. However, the complicity of modernist thinking in 20th-century conceptions of ‘heritage’, especially though town planning, is never considered. The distinction between ‘modernism’ and ‘heritage’ thus presented is much too clear-cut.
Nevertheless, while the metropolitan aesthetics of the industrial sublime can descend into a self-serving East London modishness based on a rhetorical ‘preoccupation with debris and ruin’ (Wright 2009: ix), at its best Militant Modernism captures the visceral consequences of growing up among the remains of provincial modernisms. The Brutalist hope that Hatherley describes is simply invisible in conventional accounts of the relationships between the built environment, popular culture and urban creativity. He challenges us to account for the ‘aesthetic effects’ of post-war built environments, and their political charge. In moving beyond a kind of British Ostalgie – simply extending conventional models of ‘English Heritage’ into the recent past – how might we reclaim this Brutish hopefulness as a resource for contemporary urbanism? Perhaps, as Hatherley suggests, through new forms of archaeology.

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