Modern Buildings in Britain. A Gazetteer, Owen Hatherley (hbck, 605pp, Penguin)

This is a fantastic book if you are at all interested in 20th and 21st century architecture. Hatherley unapologetically champions the houses, civic buildings, street architecture, workplaces and shops that have been so wrongly maligned and discredited over the years. (Usually by the likes of Prince Charles who prefer buildings and villages as Toytown pastiches of the past.) This isn’t to say Hatherley isn’t critical when he wants to be: he is unafraid to be forthright and mildly abusive about buildings he does, sometimes it has to be said, buildings that I think are wonderful! And of course, the opposite is true: he praises the likes of the UEA ziggurat student accommodation buildings, which may be fantastic on the outside but whose interiors are a kind of unusable overdesigned hell.

But I quibble. In the main Hatherley functions as an erudite and informative tour guide, offering brief histories, technical specifications in everyday language, history and context, in addition to his opinion. The book starts with an informative overview of architecture and idealism in the 20th century, with nods to planning, new cities, cultural aspiration as well as critical and public responses, before offering a short series of definitions. Then it is on to the gazetteer itself, organised by region, with several specific cities and areas within each section. There are plenty of black and white photographs (though not every entry has one) along with several sections of colour photographs.

As Hatherley says, this isn’t a book to read from front to back, it’s one to dip into; one to check out where you live or where you are visiting, follow trails left by an architect or architectural practice, or read what Hatherley stars as essential or marks with an exclamation mark to note that it is in danger of demolition. So I have been checking out not only London where I grew up and Cornwall where I live now, but Newcastle where my daughter lives. It’s opened my eyes to a number of buildings I’ve walked by and areas I’ve walked through without paying attention, explained some of the concrete anomalies which are the result of half-completed regeneration projects, and given me a list of stuff to look out for.

It’s also added to my enthusiasm for concrete, cityscapes and utopian idealism, for innovative engineering and forward thinking housing design. Most of the problems that have afflicted modern buildings are not architectural, they are problems of maintenance or social deprivation, civic short-sightedness, political ignorance or the result of irresponsible builders (cf. Grenfell Tower). When architects work with their clients and those who are actually going to inhabit or use the buildings and gardens they design, the result can be what many of the entries in this book showcase: glorious combinations of spaces, views, walls, materials, lines, curves and light.






Rupert Loydell

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    1. I think its unfair to dismiss Prince Charles on his opinions of architecture as being “toy town”. Though undoubtedly in another world to most of us, I think he is at least endeavouring to bring back human interaction, pleasant surroundings and social communication, and a fusion with the natural world, in his visions of the ideal living spaces of the future. A lot of the modern constructions, whilst impressive and innovative, dont take into account a woman trying to get to the shops with a pram, or an elderly person getting to the post office. These are the things that have been lost in our rush to the skies with soulless, brutalist glass and metal architecture which dominate every city now.

      Most modern design and town planning revolves around finance, competition and cars. We need to put the human heart and soul back into town planning, as they did in the first century with towns like Chester, rebuilt by Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great (she ofcourse being omitted from the history books) to serve all the people and making their daily lives not only more convenient and sociable but ensuring a lack of social isolation. Maybe we can envision a world where co-operation and collaboration form the basis of human society around communal market places for small traders, artisans and local farmers – things this country has always excelled at. These are the things we need to reinstate for a more balanced and happy human existence, at one with the natural world.

      Comment by Claire on 2 April, 2022 at 8:27 am
    2. Hi Claire, only just seen this. The reason a lot of buildings don’t work is because they are not maintained. When they are, they work just fine. Prince Charles is an inbred numpty who has no knowledge of design or architecture, and his pastiche housing is not the answer to housing needs, it is just romanticised nostalgia for an England that never existed.

      Comment by Rupert on 9 April, 2022 at 11:19 am
    3. It might seem romanticised. But I still think the idea of Albion is embedded in part of the British psyche (and much of its poetry, literature, music, arts and crafts), not idealistic necessarily but just one that works on a human scale, fusing the spiritual, natural and the functional in an aestheitcally pleasing way, when it comes to architecture. I’d say a nostalgic England did and does exist too: it can be seen the length and breadth of the country in areas which havent been ruined. Its what people around the world come to this country to see.

      People are more likely to go to see places that resonate with the human soul: Tintagel, Scottish castles, the coastline, Yorkshire Dales villages etc, none of which are tin pot, than they are some generic modern building that appears everywhere around the world. Some are examples of architectural excellence, undeniably, but the very high end ones you describe are not the norm in our towns and suburban areas which most people get to live in. In fact I would say they are more the fantasy. It will be interesting to see which of them stands the test of time.

      A case in point would be the Handyside Arcade in Newcastle, demolished to make way for a shopping mall. If it had survived, it would still be a hub of music, small business enterprise and affordable artists and artisan studios. The latter being things that are sadly lacking in the city. It could have been updated/modernised, and would have blossomed ever further into an accessible cultural centre over the last three decades.

      ‘The Handyside Arcade was demolished in 1987, in the name of ‘progress,’ to make way for the Eldon Garden shopping complex.
      That’s the one where half the shops remain empty even today & hardly anyone goes. A sterile & useless modern monument, to poor planning judgment, tunnel vision & developer greed.

      A major focal point of the city’s youth culture was destroyed forever along with it. It remains the greatest act of architectural & cultural vandalism, that we have ever seen take place in the city.

      The Council officers who signed off on that project at the expense of preserving the Handyside, should (in our view) still today, be hunted down, publicly whipped & jailed for life.’

      Comment by Claire on 11 April, 2022 at 10:05 pm

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