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The Modern City in Decay: PopMatters reviews A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain

Clara Heyworth10 February 2011

Reviewing Owen Hatherley's acclaimed A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain for PopMatters, Alan Ashton-Smith is relieved that the book's inevitably somewhat "bleak undercurrent" is "tempered by Hatherley's often witty observations and easy-going prose style."

Ashton-Smith seems pleased by Hatherley's approach which

is twofold: he is concerned with both the architectural and the political. Accordingly, he attacks both the New Labour regeneration schemes that often failed and the frequently uninspired buildings that these schemes gave rise to.

And where the tone of the book is concerned—that inimitable wit and easy-going prose style combined with razor sharp criticisms—praise is also due:

Hatherley is always entirely clear about his personal standpoint, so his criticisms never seem unjustified. He is a socialist and a modernist. As such, he is very much an admirer of Le Corbusier's vision of the cities of tomorrow and a proponent of the social housing in which this vision has at times been partially manifested. Unfortunately, the council estates that draw on this kind of modernist influence, with their concrete edifices and labyrinthine walkways, are often considered to be failures, regarded as sites of crime and deprivation.

Honing in on "another of Hatherley's pet hates"—shopping centers—Ashton-Smith recalls his own experience growing up in Liverpool:

[Hatherley] dislikes their status as symbols of capitalism and the fact that they have the capacity to turn cities into centres of consumerism. However, he approves of the architecture of Liverpool One, if not the sentiments behind it. Having grown up in Liverpool myself, and remembering the huge and ugly plot of wasteland on which Liverpool One was built, I was impressed by the development on a recent visit to the city.

Unlike Hatherley, however, Ashton-Smith views Liverpool's derelict docklands as the more potent symbols of economic decline:

Hatherley rightly points out that this shining mall contrasts depressingly with other areas of the city, particularly the derelict docklands to the north of the centre, where vast warehouses—one of which is apparently the largest brick building in the world—lie abandoned. The shopping centres and apartment blocks of the 21st century may be Britain's new ruins, but these old ruins are surely more potent symbols of economic decline. Hatherley disagrees, so disheartened is he by the form that urban regeneration has taken.

Visit PopMatters to read the review in full. For other excellent coverage, see the Guardian, Independent and Architecture Today.

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