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Yesterday’s tomorrow

Militant Modernism
Owen Hatherley
Zero Books, 146pp, £9.99

The Richard Desmond Children’s Eye Centre at Moorfields Hospital, on the north-western edge of the City of London, is obviously the exculpatory benefaction of a future knight repenting for the ocular harm done by his publications. It is, more importantly, a perfect instance of what Owen Hatherley calls “Ikea modernism”: an orthogonal box dressed up with – as they say (while we cringe) – “a twist”.

This ubiquitous “accessible” idiom might equally be termed neo-modernism or synthetic modernism. What neo-modernism has in common with the countless other buildings that will forever be associated with New Labour, PFI and the Regeneration Racket is their appropriation of modernism’s cosmetics, and their boorish disregard for the social programmes and revolutionary politics that initially informed certain strains of modernism. Naturally, it is not architecture alone that has suffered this stylistic appropriation.

Oscar Wilde’s suggestive proposition that “the highest criticism really is the record of one’s soul . . . the only civilised form of autobiography” could hardly have found a better exemplar than Hatherley. This book is the deflected Bildungsroman of a very clever, velvet-gloved provocateur nostalgic for yesterday’s tomorrow, for a world made before he was born, a distant, preposterously optimistic world which, even though it still exists in scattered fragments, has had its meaning erased, its possibilities defiled. And which has posthumously been wilfully misrepresented.

In his introduction, Hatherley recalls that when he was a small child in Southampton, the architecture of the 1960s seemed so much more exciting to him, so much more modern than the burgeoning historicist po-mo of the 1980s, which drew on late-Victorian models. (That historicist urge has not abated, and today’s po-mo merely plunders a more recent past.) He developed a particular fondness for gigantism, for the other-worldly towers that loom above the resolutely bricky, low-rise suburb of Shirley; for the enormous blocks overlooking the estuary at Weston; and, most of all, for Wyndham Court, located beside the central railway station, a work of brutalism that owes much to early Soviet constructivism. Although he notes the influence of pillboxes and “the military architecture necessitated by the fear of German invasion”, he discreetly overlooks brutalism’s more evident debt to the Vienna flak towers, U-boat pens and Atlantic Wall gun emplacements that Friedrich Tamms designed for the Third Reich’s Organisation Todt.

Hatherley’s championing of constructivism is grounded in the moral rectitude he discerns in it, as well as in a kind of aesthetic delight. It was indeed revolutionary, and thus became a victim of the opportunistic Stalin, whose architectural taste was decidedly kitsch. Untroubling familiarity and base populism is what “the people” are, dubiously, supposed to crave. This is certainly what “the people” get whenever the avant-garde is deemed to have failed: witness the neoclassical reaction to late modernism – disturbing if done by the Catalan showman Ricardo Bofill, insipidly tiresome in the hands of Quinlan Terry or John Simpson.

But is populism actually popular? Or is it simply sedative patronisation, bread and circuses devised by a cynical caste of free marketeers who presumptuously underestimate the collective intellect? This is what Hatherley believes and reiterates in various contexts. He makes a brilliantly audacious suggestion that will leave the Prince of Wales, Léon Krier and their “new urbanist” acolytes speechless: what if modernism was not imposed on a working class that really yearned for good old back-to-backs and outdoor privies but was welcomed “as part of a specific collective project”? Streets in the sky were paved with hope. Aneurin Bevan envisaged a National Housing Service.

Hatherley is convinced that “ordinary people” do not shy away from new forms. One rather questionable proof he advances is that the past 40 years have brought the popular acceptance of “all kinds of jarring, avant-garde street music”. Another might be that in the late 1960s a small city like Southampton had a well-attended outpost of the British Film Institute. It was there that I saw The Switchboard Operator by Dusan Makavejev, a director whose radical montage, Hatherley notes, “even Eisenstein would have found a little overenthusiastic”. Indeed.

The last third of Militant Modernism is devoted to a detailed scrutiny of Makavejev’s anti-naturalism and to special pleading on behalf of Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect, devices which, together with the example of the constructivist variant called productivism, Hatherley considers might be among the bases of a new Proletcult, an art of engagement and commitment. Maybe. The writing in this section does not share the freshness, subtle ingenuity and sheer exuberance of what precedes it. As a commentator on architecture, however, Hatherley is in a school of one.

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Flu: Everything you need to know