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It's not all doom and gloom: Owen Hatherley's A New Kind of Bleak reviewed

Tessa Morrison18 July 2012

The essence of Owen Hatherley’s new book, A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys through Urban Britain, was well captured this week in a review by Gavin Bowd for Scotland on Sunday:

“In this hugely depressing but supremely entertaining book, the radical critic sets off on a series of urban trawls, skewering the UK’s neoliberal dystopia while seeking out ­solace in the past and future.”

Visit Scotland on Sunday to read the review in full.

Given the acute wit and satirical eye with which the acclaimed author of A Guide to the New Ruins of Modern Britain traverses this desolate new world of savage public-sector cuts that is modern, urban Britain, it may come as no surprise that critics are able rise above the crumbling concrete landscape and surrounding wasteland to view our cities from a promising new perspective.

The focus of Rory Olcayto’s review for The Architect’s Journal is Hatherley’s evaluation of the Scottish new town of Cumbernauld, which, Olcayto tells us, has not gone down so well with other critics. By way of an example, he cites “a bullying review” by The Daily Telegraph’s Igor Toronyi-Llic, which reads:

“The conclusions Hatherley draws are mad. He seems to wish us to look to the concrete new town of Cumbernauld for architectural inspiration.”

Yet, to Rory Olcayto, this suggestion is far from absurd:

“For Hatherley, though, Cumbernauld is ‘a model for the new settlements of an independent, leftist, intensely local Scotland’, which he makes clear in a chapter that contrasts the fortunes of Glasgow’s Govan with the 60,000-strong new town. That this point, made in a sentence or two at the end of the chapter, feels like a last-minute effort to please the publisher is not important. Because he’s right.

Hatherley’s descriptions of the place are enough to convince you that there’s another reality to experience in the town beyond the narrative of new town failure that the likes of Ferguson happily bought into in his own bid to popularise architecture. ‘You take some stairs up onto a ridge,’ he explains. ‘A path leads off it, lined thickly with trees – a forest planted just next to the town centre, coursing between the estates.’”

Olcayto reminds us of the images of the place’s “gentle green townscape” and “suburban charms” that were first evoked in Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl – for those who are not so well acquainted with the teenage romantic comedy, all is made clear in the writer’s apt description: “the precise opposite of Trainspotting.”

Visit The Architect’s Journal to read the review in full.

Writing for the Irish Times, Brian Dillon also draws a comparison. The writer explains that his daily commute from Canterbury to London involves a train journey that stops briefly at Stratford International station. He notes at this point PD Smith’s comments in City: A Guide for the Urban Age (Bloomsbury) that “there is no better way to arrive in a city than by train.” It is perhaps here though that any romantic ideas cease. Dillon writes:

“Exit this austerely inviting station, however, and you are swiftly dumped in the architectural hell that Owen Hatherley explores in his furiously detailed book, A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain. There is the Olympic site itself, with its hilarious, quasi-sculptural thing by Anish Kapoor, “a shocking pink entrail laterally curved around an observation tower”. And the huddle of speculative high-rises that passes for Stratford High Street resembles, says Hatherley, “the peripheral estates of the late Soviet Union”.”

Thanks to Hatherley’s droll style and cuttingly amusing observations, however, it’s not all doom and gloom:

“Hatherley’s immediate precursors are Niklaus Pevsner and Ian Nairn: learned, opinionated guides to the successes and failures of architecture in Britain. It’s a literary form that depends on authorial voice as much as on scholarly authority, and Hatherley’s judgments are nothing if not pointed: the Lloyd’s building in London is “monstrous, compelling and utterly fucked up”, the heart of Oxford “a Harry Potter playground”.”

Visit the Irish Times to read the review in full.






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