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Owen Hatherley argues for the city as a socialist project

Hatherley examines how the closure of public libraries and the “tidying up” of Walthamstow’s street signs unveils what went so horrendously wrong with Britain’s built environment.

Verso Books16 June 2021

Owen Hatherley argues for the city as a socialist project

An excerpt of Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances: Finding a Home in the Ruins of Modernism by Owen Hatherley. This essay collection spans a period from immediately before the 2008 financial crash to the year of the pandemic. Against the business-as-usual responses to both crises, Owen Hatherley outlines a vision of the city as both a venue for political debate and dispute as well as a space of everyday experience, one that we shape as much as it shapes us. From the grandiose histories of monumental state building projects to the minutiae of street signs and corner cafés, Hatherley argues for the city as a socialist project.


The New and Closed Libraries of Britain 

If anyone ever finds themselves wondering what free public libraries are for, they can find an explanation on the facade of Sheffield’s Highfield Library, in gold capital letters etched into blue stone: ‘That there should one man die ignorant who had capacity for knowledge, this I call a tragedy, were it to happen more than twenty times in the minute, as by some calculations it does.’ It emblazons a small free library, designed in 1876 by E. M. Gibbs, for a dense inner-city district to the south of central Sheffield, in close walking distance to a high street, terraces and small steelworks. The quotation, from Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, is a thumping statement of civic gospel – the provision of knowledge, for free, to those whose lives are otherwise dominated by poverty and toil. It’s difficult to imagine anything more obviously noble, and, like the NHS, it’s something which opponents have to skirt around rather than directly attack. Whether the building’s nobility is quite as straightforward might be another matter. It’s a small, robust but rather stern baroque box of red brick dressed with ashlar, which suggests the pursuit of knowledge might be a rather arduous practice. Can the purpose of these buildings be continued in a different form?

The Highfield Library was lucky enough to be recently refurbished – its imposing, if staid Victorian exterior houses a typically strange collection, with the usual pile-up of romance novels and bestsellers, an extensive Chinese section and a good corner of local history with some Pevsners. It is small branch libraries like this, however, which have been under greatest attack over the last few years. A startling 450 of them have been scheduled for closure under the Coalition, from Upper Norwood to Calderdale, from Glossop to Gorebridge. Local campaign groups emerged all over the country to defend them, in some cases successfully, as at Friern Barnet in north London, where a campaign culminating in the occupation of the library saved it from demolition. In many similar situations though, a service is just removed, with no hope of replacement. Sadly, university libraries are usually of higher architectural quality than plain old municipal libraries – no post-war municipal effort has ever approached the crystalline serenity of Gollins Melvin Ward’s Arts Library in Sheffield. Yet the point of public libraries is to come across knowledge where you’re not expecting it. 

Local authorities do have a statutory obligation to provide free public libraries, whether the Coalition like it or not; and before the crash, Labour areas saw libraries being closed and opened at a nearly equally rapid rate. Probably the most obvious example is in Birmingham, where John Madin’s Birmingham Central Library is scheduled to be closed and replaced with Mecanoo’s Library of Birmingham. The latter is nearly finished at the time of writing; and Ken Worpole’s Contemporary Library Architecture, published last month, is a compendious reminder of the various strategies adopted by councils and architects to address the problems libraries face – reduced numbers, digitisation, cuts. These new library buildings were usually part of PFI (private finance initiative) deals, so had a battle to maintain quality from the very start. 

‘Knowledge is Power’, as the slogan engraved in stone on the (closed) Pill Library in Newport famously has it: a government by the expensively educated has an obvious vested interest in closing spaces where people can learn for free. A typical exchange, scheduled pre-crash and finished recently, saw CZWG’s Canada Water Library replace YRM’s 1970s Rotherhithe Library, ten minutes’ walk up the road. Architecturally, it’s no masterpiece – its civic scale and positioning on a former dock are marred by predictably cheap detailing and that typical feature of iconism where one facade (dockside) has been thought about and the other (facing the station) appears as an afterthought. It’s an undeniable improvement on YRM’s depressing, practically Calvinist red brick cube, however; and inside, especially, it’s a vast improvement on the usual branch library dross. A thick spiral staircase from a ground floor entrance/cafe provides both a grand route and acoustic protection to the main library, which is on two floors: essentially, a ground-floor for casual use and for kids, and an upper floor for research and proper reading. The layout, if not the lurid colour scheme of the carpets, is exactly how a library should be – welcoming, intimate and serious without being pompous. But while the old library was at the heart of old Rotherhithe, poor and densely packed with thirties council tenements, the new one is at the heart of the newer, affluent part of the district, ringed with Glenn Howells’s and CZWG’s contrasting eighties/2000s efforts in executive-spec housing design. Walk round the wrong corner and stark poverty is never far away, but the realignment reflects a wider rebranding of council priorities: attracting the wealthy takes priority over protecting the rights of the poor. As it is, though, Canada Water Library’s clientele is a great deal more diverse than the yuppified riverside pubs, and the two Rotherhithes manage, uneasily but visibly, to coexist. 

There are several places where a similar process is at work, but with less scrupulousness. In East Greenwich, for instance, the purpose-built baroque Carnegie Library is to be closed and replaced with an afterthought in the ground floor of some Trespa-clad flats by Make. Yet if I think of the two libraries where I spent much of my childhood and youth, neither were stand-alone buildings: one was a wing of E. Berry Webber’s twilight-of-empire Southampton Civic Centre, with beautiful materials and an air of high-mindedness; the other was Eastleigh Library, crammed by Colin Stansfield-Smith’s Hampshire County Architects Department into the upper level of a shopping mall. So perhaps libraries might actually work better without booming declarations of their status as hallowed sanctuaries of knowledge? 

This was the implicit argument behind the most controversial of all these replacements: the exchange of Whitechapel Library, the former ‘university of the ghetto’ with its unique collection (the building itself would be soon absorbed by the neighbouring Whitechapel Gallery), for the largest of David Adjaye’s three Tower Hamlets Idea Stores. Here, even the name ‘library’ was thought to be off-putting, although the Idea Stores have nothing that most urban libraries don’t have – free internet and IT provision have long been the norm in the bigger libraries. The building makes a grand civic gesture, with its escalator from street to (ahem) library, a gesture which has recently been abandoned for fear of vandalism. Its brash green/ black/grey barcode facade was the obvious inspiration for BDP’s Cardiff Central Library, which has a far better interior, with a sense of flowing space absent in Adjaye’s building; but here there’s a problem Adjaye didn’t have – the co-option of the library space by chain restaurants. A quote on a plaque from the Manic Street Preachers – ‘Libraries Gave Us Power’ – is far less prominent than the sign for Wagamama. Something similar is taking place at Bennetts’ Jubilee Library in Brighton, itself a pretty, thoughtful building fighting against its PFI execution and the signage of Pizza Express. Like the private finance initiative itself, the idea seems to be that a public good must always be offset by a private concession. The libraries in Cardiff and Brighton are at least attempting to be civic buildings, designed for reading in; conversely some of the new PFI libraries, such as Newcastle’s (replacing a library-on-walkways by Basil Spence) feel like business park buildings, with big atria and cold surfaces. 

Perhaps the only public library built over the last twenty-five years that really feels like a library, in the sense that the great municipal libraries such as Preston, Liverpool or Manchester feel like libraries – buildings unashamedly dedicated to knowledge and power, without a hint of anything ingratiating or patronising – is Colin St John Wilson’s British Library, a perennially underrated paragon of public virtue. Its luxurious details and technical complexity are surely as much the reasons why it hasn’t been emulated as is the more obvious decline in architectural fashion of Wilson’s Aalto-via-Holden civic modernism. Madin’s Birmingham Central Library, for all its hard concrete volumes, had a similar approach – that particular sense of rigour and purpose coexisting with comfort and intimacy. It’s too soon to say whether Mecanoo can provide something of equal value. Judging from the renders and the unfinished spaces, the approach appears to favour the sublime rather than the intimate, the kind of vast circular space lined with books that runs from Smirke’s British Museum Reading Room to Asplund’s Stockholm Library, though neither felt the need to clad their building in a screen making ‘references’ to the city’s ‘industrial traditions’. The Library of Birmingham promises to have a huge and diverse collection, and whatever the dubious ethics of demolishing Madin’s building, the jury is still out. But one thing Mecanoo’s building will definitely have is a whacking great big atrium. Apparently a library too needs the ‘wow factor’. 

The Shop Signs of Walthamstow High Street 

One of London’s great secret virtues is its ability to make a street that in many other cities in Britain would be a grim parade of chain stores and empty units into an endlessly interesting global microcosm. One such place is Walthamstow High Street. If you’re looking for architecture, don’t bother – aside from a decent municipal library and the rather piquant Festival of Britain–style clocktower on the junction of Hoe Street, this is a parade of Victorian, Edwardian and modern buildings of minor aesthetic value, which could probably be demolished from end to end without offending all but the most zealous Victorian preservationists. That’s not the point of this place. What is the point is the assemblage of Lithuanian and West African grocers, Bulgarian restaurants alongside eel and pie, a plethora of charity shops, a busy street market mostly full of tat with the odd bit of gold – an exhilarating, warm and convivial fragment of a world where borders are irrelevant and nationalism a joke, laid out in what is, in terms of actual buildings, a normal boring street that could just as easily be in Southampton, Kidderminster or Barrow-in-Furness. It’s no exaggeration to say that it is places like this, as much as better employment opportunities and the underfunding of the north, that make people move to London. But something strange is happening here. All the street signs at the corner of St James Street and the High Street have suddenly been replaced with neat, upper-case sans serif on muted colours. Suddenly, it looks like Harrogate or Bath – except the old shops are still there. It’s a surreal experience. 

This is part of a £3 million makeover by Waltham Forest Council, a process which is intended to begin at the St James Street ‘gateway’ and then creep up the High Street. It also includes new signs for directions, new paving and new street furniture. Most of this is uncontroversial and welcome. The Victorian buildings have been given a sprucing up – so their plaster griffins and gables are a little more apparent to the eye – and the new stone facings look hard-wearing and elegant. That’s all to the good. The problem is the notion that the best thing to do with a street like this – with its audacious combination of Vilnius, Accra, Nicosia, Varna and the old East End – is to make everything look the same, with all those messy and strange shops all having exactly the same typeface. Some have taken the opportunity to rename themselves slightly. The handmade bubble lettering of ‘Beste – French Crop Undercut Colouring Highlights Shave (Hot Towel Massage)’ has become the sans serif of ‘Best Hair and Beauty’. Costa and Lituanica now have the same look, at least on the outside. The makeover was of course optional, but only one hairdresser has kept its old cheap glam sign of the Mona Lisa. 

or Best

Where has all this come from? Although the impulse to tidy up in this manner often comes from Victorianists and conservationists, the early twentieth-century High Street looked absolutely nothing like this. In fact, in terms of signage, it would have been messier than the street is now, with signs upon signs, devoid of even the slightest input by a designer. A little taster of the Edwardian horror of empty space is imparted by the painted advertisements that still exist on the sides of some of Walthamstow’s buildings, which are now delightfully nostalgic but would at the time have been among many shouty voices imploring you to buy potted meats, jellied eels, penny-farthings and suchlike. So what exactly is it Waltham Forest and its design team think they’re doing here? 

In a post on his blog Fantastic Journal a few years ago, Charles Holland called this process ‘Farrow and Ballification’, after the good-taste paint and wallpaper company. This particular approach to ‘conservation’ is, in his words, a ‘sanitised version of the urban streetscape, with its heritage paint shades and expensive bread shops’, which is ‘as historically suspect as any other era’s vision of the past’. Holland argues that ‘for all its assumed sensitivity, it is ultimately more about a certain kind of pervasive middle-class aspiration than it is about conserving the past.’ It’s certainly hard to talk about what is happening here without using the term ‘gentrification‘, and perhaps here it’s a misnomer – none of these shops are being forced out, yet. Instead, what is happening is that ordinary nail bars and kebab shops are being made to look like branches of Labour and Wait, on a principle of ‘if you can’t remove them, redesign them’. It’s not hard to imagine that they’ll be followed soon enough by the sourdough bakeries and artisanal stovemakers. Many of the old signs were and are naff, some of them very enjoyably so (the black-painted B.A.D Warehouse, perennially having a ‘BAD SALE’). Of those that survive a few are very fine, like the gorgeous embossed frontage of Saeed’s Fabrics, or the pink fifties-eighties retromania extravaganza of Jesse’s Cafe (whose owner is perturbed by the programme, mostly because she’s only recently paid for the current sign), though neither conform to the current nouveau Eric Gill canon. What they do, though, is display to the pedestrian that they’re in a place where people from every continent live without discord. Today, that means a lot. 

Urban coherence is a good thing. Nobody in Walthamstow will complain about better paving, cleaner buildings and nicer benches. The standardisation of road signs, Tube stations and maps, street information and suchlike are all progressive measures that only the kookiest Ayn Rand fan could object to. But the remodelling of the shop signs of Walthamstow is an anal-retentive mistake, driven by a total misunderstanding of what makes London interesting. Inner-city London streets don’t need to look like a historically illiterate retcon of a 1940s that never happened – they’re fine looking like what they are: hugely successful experiments in multiculturalism, whether in Deptford, Peckham, Haringey, Wembley or Walthamstow. Let’s hope the sans-serif ‘gateway’ stops here. 

November 2017

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Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances
From the grandiose histories of grand state building projects to the minutiae of street signs and corner pubs, from the rebuilding of capital cities to the provision of the humble public toilet, Cl...