Nostalgia for the future

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.


Filed under Architecture, Hatherley, Owen

30 responses to “Nostalgia for the future

  1. Brian Joseph

    This sounds like for the most part it is an interesting book. The influence of that Soviet science fiction has had on architecture sounds fascinating.

    The connection between ideology and architecture did remind me of something. Though I am a little loathed to mention Ayn Rand, as I think that her philosophies are simplistic and her writing style to be sub par, “The Fountainhead” did have some interesting ideas relating her ideology to modernist architecture.

  2. Thanks for introducing this new book and sharing insights about its contents! Its good to know that people there in the West are starting to wake up from the long slumber of “post-everythingism” and seriously present alternatives and take up the banner of “socialism” against the endless reproduction of consumerist mediocrity and cynical individualism of the present order.

  3. It is Brian.

    Soviet SF is interesting generally, because it faced some very specific problems. In the US or Europe there were of course various cultural aspects to how SF developed, but in principle at least you could write what you wanted.

    In the Soviet Union party doctrine held historical determinism as fact. Writing about a non-Communist future could be seen as an act of political subversion, as suggesting that Communism would fail and not deliver the future that it promised. The Soviet Union was not a place where doubting the future of communism was a healthy choice.

    That said, the focus on the future meant that there was a fair bit of science fiction still produced, but it was communist science fiction and tended not to get much overseas exposure. Apart from We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (which isn’t exactly well known, despite preceding both Brave New World and 1984 and likely influencing both) and much, much later books like Roadside Picnic there’s very little of it that’s widely known.

    Rand is of course of that period, so while for several reasons I don’t plan to read her what you say does make a lot of sense.

    Karlo, some people possibly, people not so much. Post-everythingism remains the norm and opposition to it tends to be issue-specific and fairly inchoate. Socialism, like Modernism itself, is I think widely seen as a historical movement rather than something that remains relevant.

    I do think the left missed a trick in Europe in its weak collective response to the financial crisis. There was an opportunity there to change the narrative, but it wasn’t taken.

  4. Great review. That initial section looks of particular interest. I recall rows of hideous flats adorned with multi-coloured rectangle-block emblazonments, uniform ‘funky’ design features that merely exacerbated the general sense of downtrodden impoverished misery. They’re long gone, but were there for years, and you wonder what pervasive rancour bled from such monstrosities. Who designed those? How could such a sizable nightmare be allowed to occur? How could such structures with such visual elements attached be considered ‘aspirational’? It’s interesting. Now the local bus station is a kind of zealous manifestation of some similarly misconstrued modern idea, all smoked glass and brushed steel columns, a vile thing plonked amid entirely dissimilar buildings. It renders the surrounding structures even more aged and inhospitable-looking, and it looks like a rushed-design abandoned spaceship, or a kind of wilfully-obsolete cumulation of approved compromises with sanctioned ‘modern’ materials. Getting this sort of thing right is enormously important (the bus station doesn’t look cheap, either) but any desired well-meaning effect has been eroded somewhere. Do designers care what effect such matters have on the psychology of the residents that will use such buildings daily? Probably not.

  5. You might find the sexpol section more interesting than I did, given it largely deals in experimental cinema.

    The place I grew up in was one of these complexes, and while I can see the theory the practice was full of problems. Much of it was the materials, a sharp knock to a front door would cause the lock to pop open without damaging it, with inevitable burglary consequences. The internal corridoors were perfect for muggers, as once half-way into one you were a long way from any easy exit. The sheer relentless brick and concrete wasn’t ideal, and in the high rise parts of the block the lifts never worked and stank of piss.

    But then what did they replace? What were they like? And are the architects to blame for the lack of lift maintenance, the poor quality door materials? I don’t know. The problem with social engineering though is that it’s a lot more appealing when you’re the engineer, rather than the engineered.

    Integration into the environment is an interesting issue. Hatherley brings out how much of this movement wanted to erase the existing environment, replace it with something new and better, in which case integrating with it would be positively unhelpful. In grimy reality though the past remains next to the future, and the two must somehow make an accommodation.

    Utopias can be so very uncompromising, but we live in compromise. I’m left with a faint sense that what was designed was utopian, but those of us lving in them weren’t.

    It’s a fascinating topic. One of the joys of this book is how much it makes you question this stuff, and shows what the architects were trying to do and what they were thinking. After all, none (few anyway) of them set out to create failures. They dreamt of something better. Hatherley explores what that better was.

  6. I’ll have to get a copy. This stuff is of far too much interest to ignore this.

    Your comment about the lock being popped by a vaguely firm knock struck a chord. A firm shove was enough to get into my Nan’s, often useful when one was locked out and she was elsewhere, but a burglary was inevitable…

    I always remember spending a long time pondering, on the way to the football, a spray-painted demand on a long-demolished bridge: ‘Hulme homes for Hulme people!’ Well, the awful, overbearing and enormous curved high-rise complexes they undersatndably wanted rid of would eventually make way for clusters of two-floor houses that don’t look all that great. I’ve always wondered how they felt about their new homes. It’s certainly an improvement for myriad reasons but what in their minds constituted a ‘Hulme home’ and was that nebulous demand met in any way?

  7. I have a lot of different responses to your entry, so, here they are:

    – “We live in a managerial age, with no great choices of ideology or vision.” and all the rest of the paragraph is totally spot on. You should hear the campaign for presidential election in France at the moment. It’s Pathetic, with a capital P. You just want to turn the radio off and dive into a crime fiction novel or think like Beaumarchais “I urge myself to laugh about everything, afraid as I am to be obliged to weep otherwise”

    – “1980s, a peculiarly partisan decade” How odd for me. That’s not at all the vision I have of the 1980s. Perhaps I was too young to realize what was happening. Or perhaps it was the Mitterrand decade, all left wings intellectual were silent.

    – “Hatherley goes on to an analysis of Modernist architecture in the Soviet Union, of its now largely unrecognised influence on international architectural movements” Funny or not, most of these ugly and unpractical complexes were built in working-class suburbs. And in France, most of them had Communist mayors when they were built. So they have Communist streets and boulevards : avenue Karl Marx, boulevard Lénine.

    – Are the Chamberlin, Powell and Bon buildings in the scope of this study? I just heard a lot about them in Get Me Out Of Here by Henry Sutton. I didn’t know them but reading they were Le Corbusier fans was enough.

    oh, dear, that comment is huge. Tant pis.

  8. Hello Max, thank you so much for a most interesting review and the conversation which follows.
    I think the only reason that Australian cities don’t feature quite so much awful architecture of the type you describe is because we had the space to build equally awful bungalows stretching out across the plains beyond the CBD during the postwar housing boom. Alas, not much has changed except that now we have McMansions which cover the entire block.
    Does Hatherley write much about High Modernism, as exemplified in literature by Patrick White’s novels? I would be interested to know if there’s an equivalent architectural movement.

  9. oh hands up a large number of these buildings around the north west were probably down to my grandfather a architect he was held of salford works built a number of flats in the area at the time seems as clean and modren ,he also late design some modernist influenced schools in Cheshire .But He did hate a lot of the modernist buildings .Oh well interesting book thanks for sharing Max ,all the best stu

  10. Hello Max,

    I love your blog and do not wish to sound pedantic but please do get its/it’s right. It can be off putting and difficult to trust a writer who confuses the uses of the two.

  11. Oh, sucked right in. I checked to see who your pedantic commenter was – and of course, I should have known, it’s spam.

  12. Spam it may have been, but there was an erroneous it’s as it turned out. I’d written “At it’s heart” which is criminal.

    I’ll be back to respond to other comments later on today or tomorrow (much to do today). Once I noticed the “it’s” though that needed immediate attention.

  13. No, it was not a spam. And there is more than one mistake… I am usually grateful to people pointing out mistakes in my writing and really disappointed with your attitude.

  14. No, it was not a spam and there is more than one erroneous instance of its/it’s. Disappointed with your attitude, I am afraid. I pointed it out in good faith.

  15. Not it is not a spam. Incidentally, there is more than one erroneous its/it’s. I pointed it out in good faith and disappointed with your attitude.

  16. maria

    One? I can see more than one its/it’s – a clever grammar-knowing spam.

  17. Is it spam that generates several different retorts then? Quite sophisticated.

  18. Emma, peculiarly partisan in the UK (and perhaps in the US), not necessarily elsewhere. I should have made that clearer.

    I don’t recall the Chamberlin, Powell and Bon buildings specifically, Then again he’s talking wider principles more than he’s examining particular buildings (though he does use examples).

    No comment is too large 🙂

    Stu, that’s important work your grandfather was doing. It must have impacted a fair few lives. Something to be proud of I think.

    Lisa, his focus isn’t really on fiction (save Beckett and Brecht, and there his interest is much more in theatre and film). We never had that kind of urban spread you mention, there just isn’t space for it here. Different geographies drive different solutions of course. Each of which has its own issues.

    Vesna, apologies for thinking you’re spam. What other its/it’s errors are there?

  19. Is Vesna a real person? Sorry Vesna, just ignore me.

  20. I did forget one important point in my review. The pictures, sadly, are terrible.

    It’s a real shame. Pictures are important here. They show the buildings he’s discussing, but the quality of the prints is poor and the pictures themselves very small. They may as well not be there.

    It’s not as bad as in Berger’s Ways of Seeing, but it’s a definite missed opportunity.

  21. vesna main

    No, Lee. I am virtual. Tempted to ask about the difference.

  22. Curious Max how you found this?

  23. As I recall I was searching Amazon for books on Modernist architecture for some reason and came across it. It was linked to my trip to St Petersburg so that may have inspired it. I can’t think what else might have.

  24. I imagined you’d read a recommendation somewhere. Amazon makes some worthy suggestions at times–as long as I can differentiate between those and placement.

  25. Oh now you’ve really piqued my interest! I’m travelling to Russia for the first time this year but LOL had not planned on checking out the modernist architecture in St Petersburg…

  26. Do check it out! It’s fascinating. There’s a lot of good material online if you google something like modernist architecture St Petersburg. There’s also a book I own but haven’t read yet which is supposed to be excellent – All That is Solid Melts into Air.

  27. I don’t suppose there’s a handy little book of self-guided walking tours about the architecture of St Petersburg, similar to Walking Literary London?

  28. DM

    I’m surprised by the increasingly revisionist line on brutalism that the cognoscenti have been taking lately. Like most people, I’ve always loathed most iterations of post-war modernism in architecture, and assumed that a revival of brutalism was as unthinkable as a revival of bell bottoms and leisure suits; however, this review put me in mind of a wonderful English artist named George Shaw who has painted some surprisingly nostalgic and lyrical scenes of the housing estate where he grew up in the 1980s. The allusions to post-punk and JG Ballard also apply to Shaw, whom I believe was a Joy Division fan as a teenager (weren’t we all?) and went on to paint some wonderfully gloomy and surprisingly tender canvases of the blighted landscape of his boyhood. Shaw’s work might appeal to your readers– I just discovered him recently, provincial that I am.

  29. Lisa,

    Sorry for the slow reply. None I know of but a lot of good stuff is on two streets. Nevsky Prospekt, which you’ll want to see anyway, and Kamennnoostrovsky Prospect. Both are absolutely worth a wander along.

    DM, give enough time and everything comes back, or at least tries to. Even the puffball skirt. I don’t know Shaw (making me yet more provincial?) but he sounds interesting.

    Recently a company started offering guided tours of the M25. In one way there is something marvellous about our ability to find beauty where we would not expect to, and in being able to see past the flawed execution to the dream the concrete only partially captured. On the other hand though there are real lessons to be learned, ahd having myself grown up in one of these places I’d rather we didn’t entirely forget quite how grim most of them were to actually live in on a practical level.

    HG Wells, that great utopian whose fiction I have a huge regard for, like many of his time reached for eugenics as a way of bridging the gap between flawed humanity and glittering future promise. That was, thankfully, utterly discredited but the problem which gave rise to that horrific solution still remains. To put it in Catholic imagery (though I’m not religious), we can imagine cities which reside in grace, but we remain ourselves fallen and incapable of living in them.

    Thanks for the comment and the Shaw recommendation.

  30. Here’s a blog entry about George Shaw I just found, which some might find interesting:

    And here’s an article from the marvellous online music magazine The Quietus, about music and council houses. I’ve yet to read this one properly myself so apologies if it’s not as relevant as it looks on first blush:

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