Interview with Owen Hatherley

I’m trying to write about architecture in the city rather than new buildings as singular ‘events’, like a new film or new record.

Owen Hatherley is a critic and an unconventional writer, with specific writing style and way of thinking. He writes primarily on architecture, politics and culture. He wrote 4 books; first, Militant Modernism is published in 2009, then A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (2010), Uncommon (2011) and A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain (2012).

He also wrote for many newspapers and magazines (such as Building Design, The Guardian, Icon, New Humanist, Socialist Review…). We talk with Owen Hatherley about himself and about some important and current architecture questions.

AS: You are a modernist and a socialist. Which architects/architecture critics influenced your work and way of thinking?

OH: I could give you a fan list here off the top of my head…probably forgetting several…critics: Ian Nairn, Reyner Banham, Patrick Keiller, Mike Davis, Manfredo Tafuri, Alan Colqhoun, Kenneth Frampton, Karel Teige, the Smithsons before they start to believe their own myth, Anna Minton, Ellis Woodman; architects: Denys Lasdun, Konstantin Melnikov, Rodney Gordon, Ralph Erskine, Caruso St John, Greek Thompson, the now-defunct city architects’ departments of the London County Council, Camden, Coventry, Southampton and Sheffield (among others). There is something that links these. Probably.

AS: Many architects thinks that architecture critics are a little bit nostalgic. Also, you are sometimes considered as an entertaining writer. Is there something you think that people do not understand about your work?

OH: I bet they do! The ‘nostalgia’ comes I think from a) trying to write about the existing city, which does tend to mean writing about old buildings; and b) writing about urban politics, which was considerably more egalitarian when there were some sort of organised counterweights to property developers, such as strong local governments, trade unions, social democratic and communist parties, etc. So it’s not intended, but I understand the accusation.

Owen Hatherley

AS: Do you use low-quality photos in some of your books with a specific purpose? Does architecture need effective visuals?

OH: I deliberately don’t use images from professional architectural photographers, largely because architecture is usually photographed in a quasi-pornographic way. So I’ve tried to use images that don’t always show buildings from their ‘good side’, which don’t show them in good weather (there is little of that in the UK) and also which show how they relate to surrounding buildings, people and urban paraphernalia like adverts, signage and suchlike. Largely that’s because I’m trying to write about architecture in the city rather than new buildings as singular ‘events’, like a new film or new record.

AS: You criticized consumption of architecture on daily basis, grace to Internet. There are so many projects we can find on architectural websites and in magazines (project description + photos). Why this way of architecture promotion is “utterly disastrous”?

OH: Because first of all, architecture is physical and tied to place, and it seems to me the proliferation of spectacular architecture on architectural websites coexists with a massive neglect of the actual built environment; the other, related reason is that there’s no real thought in these pieces and posts – no theory (bar perhaps some quasi-Deleuzian verbiage), no critique, no idea of the city or society, just a picture and some PR.

AS: Is modernism a style in the art history (succeeded by postmodernism) or it has broader role and meanings?

OH: The modern movement was an attempt to design a qualitatively superior built environment via the use of advanced technology. In that sense I can imagine a ‘modernism’ existing now, as I suspect it doesn’t in e.g. western Europe. Modernism does have another meaning as style, and that I find somewhat less interesting. It doesn’t matter a great deal that architects have abandoned, in the last 15 years, the stylistic japery of ‘pomo’, and avoid obvious ornament or historical reference. The society they’re building for is still a ‘postmodernist’ one. If anything, it seems like the absorption of modernist styles by postmodernism – neo-Corb and neo-Mies being just another style revival.

AS: According to Patrik Schumacher, two styles stand out – parametricism and minimalism (modernism in the guise of minimalism). Do you believe that parametricism will be for the 21st century what modernism was to the 20th? Is parametricism a style or a method?

OH: Parametricism obviously thinks of itself as both style and method, and it doesn’t interest me greatly either way. It appears to result in massively over-engineered shed-like structures where what might be of visual interest – the intricate steelwork that keeps the buildings from falling down – is quickly covered by generic, anti-corporeal shiny cladding. In theory, it results in texts which I half-admire for their confidence (rare in architecture today) but distrust for their incessant, obsfucatory self-justification and total refusal to think about politics – and it is the absence of politics which separates them from the avant-gardes that they consider themselves the successors to. Minimalism is even less interesting, a tedious, pompous luxury style – at least Schumacher is trying, I suppose.

AS: Which way today’s architecture is influenced by neo-liberal capitalism?

OH: It partakes of a general neoliberal wisdom, whether it likes it or not – that there is no alternative to unrestrained capitalism, that anything done by private enterprise is necessarily better than anything done by democratic bodies, etc. It also builds ‘for’ neoliberalism in that neoliberal projects are almost always the only ones that actually get built. In the case of ‘starchitecture’ (or as one wag had it ‘oligarchitecture’) it degenerates into a more general identification with the big boss, with the CEO, with the master of the universe untrammelled by morality or democracy – the Ayn Rand school of architectural heroism. But oddly enough, few architects like the actual effects of neoliberalism on their work – the parsimonious budgets, the intricate buck-passing private-public partnership contracts, the deregulation, the reduction of everything to the bottom line. This tends to result in things like detailing and public space being of an extremely poor quality, and architects know this very well – while trying for the sake of staying employed to provide what their employers require.

AS: In which direction you wish architecture would go away in the future?

OH: That’s for architects to work out, not me. The most important things that architecture could conceivably be involved in, as I see it, are housing – there is an enormous housing crisis in the UK, which can only realistically be solved by council housing for the 5 million people on the housing waiting list; and the development of a different kind of industrial economy, one that is not reliant on fossil fuels and so forth. Both of these are potentially modernist projects, and ones in which architectural speculation has a major possible role. The results in design terms could be all manner of different things – I have my stylistic tastes, but I don’t necessarily think any such programme should follow them. Though of course I’d like it if, say, Caruso St John or Peter Barber or whoever were designing the next generation of council estates, applying the more sophisticated approach to the city that has been developed since ‘high modernism’. That’d be lovely. But it’s a political question, and architecture will follow from it – not the other way round.

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