Are European cities really so much better than our own?

2 June 2018

9:00 AM

2 June 2018

9:00 AM

Early on in his introduction of nearly 60 pages, Owen Hatherley writes: ‘I find the Britain promised by Brexiters quite terrifying — xenophobic, paranoid, enclosed, pitifully nostalgic, cruel. But in much of the country that landscape never went away.’

One’s heart sinks. This isn’t even polemical; it’s just silly. The introduction, subtitled ‘What is a European city?’, continues to push the line until something like a position is reached: Britain is awful, Europe is wonderful. I was reminded of certain of my French, Italian and German friends who are excited by the new horizons of living anywhere but in their own homelands, which they find every bit as stultifying as Hatherley does his.

As the introduction proceeds, the author’s block-like prejudices (of the usual hard left set) pile up. So does a kind of free-wheeling flakiness; and sometimes error. ‘Europe, geographically, is a fiction.’ Really? He refers to ‘Neoclassicism, in which the “purer” architecture of the ancient Greeks became the new model.’ The inspiration for Neoclassicism was ancient Rome; the Greek revival came later. British cities are portrayed as unplanned, capitalist hells; but unplanned, mafioso Naples has to be ‘thrilling’. He calls the Louvre ‘Baroque’, whereas that vast building has everything except the Baroque (Bernini’s wavy proposal was rejected in favour of an early, stunning example of Neoclassicism by Perrault).

Indeed, when it comes to Paris, the flickers start to appear in Hatherley’s guiding, Europhiliac light, and he goes blind: Paris is ‘all these white boulevards, full of white people’. Berlin, he announces, has ‘spatial thrills Paris can’t rival’. But these cities are utterly distinct, not architectural rivals. In fact much of rebuilt, unified Berlin is so hard and blank that they are having to pastiche parts of the royal centre to anchor it in time.

At the end of the introduction he writes: ‘This book is about architecture and cities, but it is also about the forces that made, and make, them… in architecture it is still oddly controversial’ i.e. to write about architecture in this way. No, it isn’t. Almost every book on architecture by a non-architect does this. ‘I’ve tried to keep the pieces short, deciding on geographical scope rather than minute detail.’ It is surprising therefore that there is very little geography. There’s lots of rickety politics however and plenty (thank goodness) of minute detail.

What is even more surprising — and this really does save him — is that Hatherley is incapable of marrying his political prejudices to his direct experiences. As we read through this dossier of some European cities he’s visited, one becomes aware that no conceptual threads hold his reports together. One also wonders why these particular places have been selected. People don’t feature in the pages at all, but he does let slip at one point that: ‘I went to Leipzig in late autumn 2016, for an academic conference on the “post-socialist” city.’ So perhaps the cities represent a random collection of freebies or junkets. There is no supporting information to help, which Hatherley justifies with: ‘This is not a scholarly book, and accordingly I’ve not felt the need to footnote it or provide proper references.’

As he flounces about with his notebook, his reactions are volatile: one minute he admires totalitarian communist planning, the next it’s shoddy or pompous. He hates 19th-century bourgeois buildings — except in Lodz. The EU is a blessing — or it’s a curse (in Thessaloniki for example, or for its interference in the Ukraine). His great love is for Scandinavian utopianism; yet Aarhus is ‘pleasant, functional and forget-able’. He hates colonial buildings, but admits that ‘the most interesting architecture in central Nicosia is actually from the colonial interwar years’. Meanwhile, back home he sneers at the British interwar record as ‘architectural Toryism’.

He is good on anomalous, rather obscure cities which don’t fit any theory: Lviv, Narva, Vyborg. He is best of all in firing us up with his discovery of little known but great architecture of the past 50 years or so, wherever it may be. He concludes with a paean to Hull, which is not an act of contrition but another example of the book’s intellectual incoherence.

I agree with him that many British cities have been horribly messed up by reckless demolitions, bad planning and bad building; but there is also good to be found. Hatherley demonstrates that this mix is true across continental Europe too — yet somehow the penny doesn’t drop. It’s the Brits who must be put down: ‘We decided we preferred our towns crap.’ Incidentally, what on earth the title and subtitle have to do with the book’s contents is anyone’s guess.

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