Militant Modernism, by Owen Hatherley
Who would have thought a book on brutalist architecture could be fun? Who would have thought a book dedicated to Southampton City Council Architects Department could be an invigorating read? Well, me I guess or I wouldn’t have bought it, but even so I was surprised by how enjoyable Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism is.
Clocking in at under 150 pages, Militant Modernism consists of four essays on different aspects of modernism, topped and tailed by a foreword and afterword which seek (with mixed success) to put the individual pieces into a larger overall context. At its heart Militant Modernism is an examination of the promise of modernism as a utopian alternative to traditional approaches to architecture, to culture, and to sex. This is Modernism as Socialism, a destruction of what was in order to clear the ground for a better tomorrow that sadly never arrived. Here’s the opening paragraph:
Erase the traces. Destroy, in order to create. Build a new world on the ruins of the old. This, it is often thought, is the Modernist imperative, but what of it if the new society never emerged? We have been cheated out of the future, yet the future’s ruins lie about us, hidden or ostentatiously rotting. So what would it mean, then, to look for the future’s remnants? To uncover clues about those who wanted, as Walter Benjamin put it, to ‘live without traces’? Can we, should we, try and excavate utopia?
Hatherley appears to come from a very similar background to my own. He grew up on an English council estate, listened to post-punk music and read comics like 2000AD and authors like Ballard and the Strugatsky Brothers. Like me, his politics was forged in the 1980s, a peculiarly partisan decade, and so by opposition to a particular strand of right-wing philosophy. My impression is that he’s perhaps a few years older, and of course I went on to City law (betraying all my youthful ideals like so many before me) where he went on to write books about Modernism. Still, he writes from the place I come from, and that makes this in some ways a very easy book for me to respond to.
Hatherley opens by looking at how architects and town planners of the 1960s sought to create a new utopia, a working class Eldorado in which the traces of a tired traditionalism would be swept aside in favour of genuinely democratic forms of housing, which would in time lead to genuinely democratic people. The experiment of course failed, and the buildings it produced are even now widely reviled. The promise was of a new kind of living, but it was a promise largely imposed from without and whatever chance it might ever have had of succeeding was throttled by costcutting and use of substandard non-specified materials. As so often happens, architecture in compromised implementation achieved far less than it offered in pristine theory.
Where Hatherley excels is in his passionate eloquence. He sees the flaws of this architecture (it’s hard not to when you’ve grown up with it). He sees too though what it was trying to achieve, and the sheer ambition of it. He’s brilliantly excoriating about the timidity of what we in the UK have today: “Postmodernism’s aesthetic of pastiche, historical reference, cosiness and conservatism.” He rails against how “… in houses, schools and hospitals the choice is between an ultra-timid Ikea Modernism or the semi-Victorian developers’ vernacular of Barrat Homes and their ilk.”
Hatherley knows his material, and he’s often highly persuasive in arguing for a reassessment not just of the remnants of this vast social experiment carved from steel and concrete, but more importantly of its aims. He’s equally persuasive though in his attacks on the blandness of much of what replaced it, and on the intellectual vacuity at the heart of modern British intellectual and political life.
We live in a managerial age, with no great choices of ideology or vision. Our leaders compete on the same narrow platform speaking the same peculiar and euphemistic language full of mock-outrage and sham-empathy. Our intellectuals aren’t, they are instead personalities picked either for the flamboyance with which they present themselves or their ability to speak in brief generalities which sound vaguely profound but which ultimately reassure the viewers by echoing back to them what they already think.
Perhaps the most irksome of Ikea Modernism’s products was Channel 4’s The Perfect Home, presented by Alain de Botton, promoting his The Architecture of Happiness. Perambulating about the place with an expression of casual intellectuality and immense self-satisfaction, he encapsulates all that is malign in British intellectual life.
The introduction and first chapter cover this material with real vigour, and are an absolute pleasure to read. Hatherley covers an extraordinary amount of material in these few pages, at one point providing an impressively concise analysis of the differences between Vortiticism and Futurism – and why Futurism had appeal in newly industrial societies such as Russia and Italy but not in longer developed countries such as Britain (though this analysis of course owes much to Wyndham Lewis’s own arguments, and a case could be made that the real difference between Vorticism and Futurism was born of Lewis’s refusal to be part of a movement he wasn’t the head of). I attended an entire exhibition on Vorticism quite recently, and Hatherley explains it better here in a handful of sentences than that exhibition did with entire roomfuls of exhibits (and it was a good exhibition).
Hatherley goes on to an analysis of Modernist architecture in the Soviet Union, of its now largely unrecognised influence on international architectural movements and of the tragedy of how so much groundbreaking and inspiring work was cut short by Stalinism and a Soviet state that grew far less keen on revolution once its own people were the ones in charge. He looks too at the tremendous (and again largely unrecognised) influence of Soviet science fiction on Soviet architecture, and therefore on Western visions of what architecture could do.
Unfortunately, not every section is equally successful. The essay dealing with sexpol (revolutionary sexual politics and the links between communism, architecture and sexuality) ironically becomes in places rather dry as Hatherley reaches increasingly to obscure sources and dense theoretical terminology. The chapter culminates in a detailed analysis of the still controversial 1971 film WR – Mysteries of the Organism. The film even today is heavily censored, but as Hatherley explores it that comes to seem increasingly not so much an act of repression as one of mercy. The film sounds a self-indulgent mess, and it’s hard not to notice that the revolutionary cinema it emerged from and which addressed ideas of sexual liberation still mostly involved male directors making films about liberated women having lots of sex but dying before the end of the movie. As with that least feminist of films, Thelma and Louise, the actual politics and the ostensible politics may be very far apart.
Similarly, while I enjoyed the final essay (on Brecht and on taking a critical stance in relation to culture) it didn’t feel to me a natural fit with the sections on British and Soviet architecture. In that afterword Hatherley brings the book’s various strands together by explaining that the point is exploring how to create a counter-culture. Hatherley doesn’t mean here some form of vague late-1960s hippy alternative, “but rather Modernism itself as counter-culture, drawing on sexual politics, industrial aesthetics, critical theory, a new urbanism, in order to suggest – ‘as a tradition and as a vision’ – the possible outlines of a world after capitalism.”
That makes sense to me, and perhaps in a larger book Hatherley would have pulled that off. In this one though I’m left with two great chapters which fit well with the afterword and foreword, one rather dull chapter and one chapter which while very interesting I really wasn’t persuaded did fit that well with the rest. Despite that I’m left with a more nuanced view of modernist and brutalist architecture, a deeper understanding of how theory and politics interacted and helped shape (now largely overooked elements of) our culture and in the main part I was thoroughly entertained along the way. This is an ambitious book, and while not every part of it worked for me that’s a price I’m more than willing to pay if the result is that a book stretches and challenges me. It may even appear on my end of year list, and that’s not bad going for a thin book on an architecture I grew up hating.