At present reading Owen Hatherley’s book A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. Hatherley is a sardonic critic of Thatcherism and Blairism and their effect on our cities and their architecture. He has picked up the baseball bat from Ian Nairn and wields it in impressive style. He has recently laid into the government’s Pathfinder demolition programme which aims to destroy huge swathes of Victorian housing, and has particularly criticised the ‘Welsh Streets’ project in Liverpool in the Guardian. He is, however, a defender of well-designed modernist architecture.
So what do I think, after being so scathing recently about Brutalist modern architecture and Jonathan Meades? I said that, like Ann Widdecombe pointing out that ‘there is something of the night’ about Michael Howard, ‘there is something of the tomb about Brutalist architecture’. I will stick to what Hatherley says about Liverpool as that is the city I know best. Surprisingly, he has a lot of praise for the city as well as some well-aimed brickbats. ‘It’s a dramatic, great city, and at its centre is the most wholly and thrillingly urban environment in England outside of London’. ‘An astonishing skyline, easily the finest in Britain’. However, for the houses built by the Militant Council in the 80s (usually suburban style semis arranged in closes and cul-de-sacs), he says ‘they just look so utterly wrong’. Though he does admit that ‘why shouldn’t every council tenant have their own house and garden’? He has a dig at Alice Coleman and her theory of ‘defensible space’ which the designers of the new houses followed.
He’s right in one sense. The new housing is drab and incongruous in the context of Liverpool’s architectural splendour but then this is what the people said they wanted. And ‘defensible space’ isn’t an abstract concept for people living in badly designed and constructed council estates.
His arguments about Pathfinder and the Welsh Streets is coloured by politics as well as architecture. As well as demolishing perfectly restorable Victorian terraced housing the scheme is intended to clear out the working class inhabitants and build new housing to lure the middle classes back to the inner city. Not an easy one this. If it was me in charge (little old retired town planner me), I would look to compare the total costs of the various approaches, consult the people living there and try and strike a balance. Having said that, I prefer the style of Victorian terraced housing in the ‘Welsh Streets’ to suburban style semis.
Finally to Liverpool One, Grosvenor and the Duke of Westminster. Hatherley says that ’architecturally, there’s no doubt that Liverpool One is good’. He praises the standard of finish on the new buildings and ‘the pleasurable walking experience’ of perambulating through the area. Though the area is ’unashamedly designed for consumers from Cheshire rather than Bootle’. But oh the brickbats. Close to the Pier Head are ‘some extremely shoddy and banal buildings’, in particular the new Pier Head terminal which won the award for ‘worst building of the year’ in 2009.
This is spot on. The good and the bad. Mostly good.