Remnants of Utopia

For some writers, not all, there comes a time when old stuff gets recycled. Earlier work is sent into another circuit of value-production – and even the pieces that were rejected become revalued. This applies to the collection Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances by the English writer Owen Hatherley, with its gathering of materials from various times and places: blogs now resting in ‘indefinite suspension’; salvos once composed for new net-based aesthetic-political fora; think-pieces punted to specialised building, design and architectural publications; and, as time goes by, columns, articles and longer essays for mainstream journalistic outlets. To reuse is to get a second chance to construct an argument – for sometimes commissions were muffled in the first instance, as attested by the inclusion of an essay on socialism and nationalism on the Danube (which previously appeared in truncated form), or an exposé of fascist influence in the design of Walter-Benjamin-Platz in Berlin (which was spiked by the London Review of Books). Such recycling is appropriate for someone whose thought developed in dialogue with the remnants of modernism, itself an aesthetics of scraps and quotation which queries what constitutes the truly new.

These off-cuts and online off-the-cuffs deserve to be read again, rescued from the ephemeral moment of their publication. Here they are reorganised thematically according to spatialised concepts. These range from ‘Spaces’, which explores the trajectory of post-war building practices, to ‘Screens’, which rewinds to Hatherley’s starting point in reviews of art cinema, and includes a poignant reflection on the work of onetime friend and blogger-in-arms Mark Fisher. This collating allows the reader to measure just how much foresight was at work in Hatherley’s writing. How sensitive was his radar? How many more libraries or public toilets have shut in the interim? How many more ‘golden turds’ erected? How much more idiosyncratic shop signage has been replaced by dull identikitism and how many more fascist architects have been rehabilitated? This retrospection could lead to despair – what effect does such caustic probing have, if it all keeps getting worse or not better? But the pleasure that comes from his prescient formulations carries its own reward, which may have something to do with solidarity.

Many of the fragments contained here initially appeared in altered form in Hatherley’s ten books, and some continue to float around forgotten corridors of the internet (the eight blogs he participated in can still be found, frozen in time). But their collection in a single volume allows for a re-evaluation of this scattered oeuvre. The driving purpose of the essays is clear: they argue with, bluster over and call to account the delusions and missteps of two decades of urban planning and design, predominantly in the UK, but also as far afield as Palestine. There are also some side glances to pop music. Hatherley began writing for a wider audience at a time when to write meaningfully – politically but also aesthetically – meant to write about music. Or that is what the people who influenced him had done: Simon Reynolds and Jon Savage, Ian Penman, Kodwo Eshun, and Fisher. From the 80s to the mid-90s music was the vector for political reflection and imagination, in its broadest sense.

By the time Hatherley moved to London to study English and History at Goldsmiths in 1999, it had become more enticing – and practicable – to write to one’s own deadlines, about whatever one wanted, without being edited. An army of online critics was assembling. Hatherley joined them, accessing the internet in a local library or cheap café. By then, music had moved to the margins. The NME was dying, criticism was deprofessionalising, and the medium was no longer capable of mingling trash, pulp and experiment. Hatherley’s primary concerns were the inaccessibility of social housing, the dismantling of the welfare state and the legacy of modernism – although he continued to write short-form music reviews for Wire magazine, and in 2011 he produced a monograph on Pulp, Uncommon, which is as much about Sheffield and council flats as about the band itself.  

Hatherley began to focus primarily on the political legibility of urban landscapes, and the depleted energies of modernism that they drew off. Disappointment is present in his earliest pieces. But this is not a loss-obsessed melancholia, because the author understands that modernism was always a warring realm between those who performed for the benefit of the rich and those who developed the capacity to politicise the aesthetic. Modernism is an unfinished project, not a dead one. La luta continua. And the scope or site of that struggle extends from local observations to international ones. For five years, Hatherley spent time in Poland and the former Eastern Bloc. In an echo of Walter Benjamin, drawn to Moscow in pursuit of Asja Lacis, Hatherley followed then-partner Agata Pyzik into the heart of Soviet Constructivism, deepening his understanding of the ‘failed experiments in non-capitalist systems’. Plenty of Western idealists have gone East chasing illusions. Hatherley punctures some and inflates others.

The subtitle of the book, ‘Finding a Home in the Ruins of Modernism’, relays the conundrum. There is no definitive end to modernism, even if at some operative level it is overwritten by an ideological epoch-cum-project called postmodernism. We have the ruins from which our new Jerusalem may be rebuilt. To find a home in ruins does not suggest that the ultimate ambition is to make oneself comfortable amidst the debris. Hatherley’s stance is not the one that Benjamin attributes to New Objectivist Erich Kästner and his ‘left-radical intelligentsia’. These ‘agents or hacks who make a great display of their poverty and turn the gaping void into a feast’ have made themselves ‘comfortable in an uncomfortable situation’. Know-all ironists, they turn political struggle into items of consumption, hawking their Kulturkritik to the highest bidder. Benjamin compares Kästner to a man who contorts himself according to the market’s whims, like someone suffering the spasms of poor digestion.

If Benjamin claims that constipation accompanies melancholy (an early twentieth-century idea recently reaffirmed by scientists exploring the interface of gut microbiome and emotions), Hatherley inverts this logic. The writer has Crohn’s Disease, diagnosed in 2005 after years of gut problems, which makes him dependent on the provision in public space of toilets for urgent access at any moment. ‘The Socialist Lavatory League’, a 2019 essay for the LRB, provides one possible meaning for the title Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances, as in how does one avoid soiling oneself when the progressive impulses that led St Pancras vestryman George Bernard Shaw to champion a public convenience in Camden Town seem like a pipedream in today’s privatised, austerity-saturated townscape? Hatherley offers a wide-ranging analysis of the significance and practicality of various prominent buildings, but his most trenchant – because most urgent – criticism can be found in the least expected of places (public toilets), figured as a prime site of collective struggle, embodying a civic ideal that recedes by the day.

Hatherley’s title also draws, more directly, on a 1978 interview with Who manager Peter Meaden in which he reflected on Modism and Mod living. ‘Clean living under difficult circumstances’ has something to do with keeping yourself and your cheap razors sharp – with remaining slick and neat amid the pressures of factory work and council-house existence. Hatherley stands up for the virtues of council housing and the expanded vistas of the modern tower block, even if his dress is not nattily Mod. Indeed, his floppy-haired, slouchy demeanour and crumpled suits lend him something of the air of his adversary, founding member of the Victorian Society John Betjeman. Hatherley’s defence of post-war council estates, the vision they expressed and the lives they made possible, is not done in the smarmy style of the New Brutalists who benefitted from right-to-buy: hoovering up capaciously dimensioned council flats in the Barbican and elsewhere, and overriding their modernism with Farrow-and-Ballification. It is undertaken from the perspective of someone who grew up in a well-designed Southampton estate and considered it a ‘sanctuary’ which provided stability for his single-parent mother.

Circumstances got more difficult during the period when Hatherley began to study part-time at Birkbeck for a doctorate on constructivism and architecture (I was his supervisor): a project which bloomed into his 2016 book The Chaplin Machine. The first essays in the volume were written at this time, when Blair was elected for a third term and Blairism had markedly changed the landscape, visual and ideological. These texts were conceived as acts of historical recovery, against New Labour’s repetition of stories about ‘old’ Labour, Red Robbo, British Leyland, union bullies and the rubbish piling high in the streets. The Blairist mythology of salvation from the recent excesses of both Old Labour and Thatcherism by blue-besuited Democrats is rebutted. In addition, a longer story is told about what modernism had made possible, in the name of true progress, at the precise historical moment when architecture merged with Private Finance Initiatives, speculation, and the windowless megaboxes of shopping centres and call centres. Blairism terminated in post-crash waves of Torydom, austerity and the manipulative kitsch of 1940s-derived Keep-Calmism, as the remaining scraps of the welfare state were sold off or choked of life. Sent out across the land, in emulation of Daniel Defoe, to report on the state of the nation, Hatherley chronicled the various shapes that ideology assumed in the built environment.

Clean living also suggests something ethical or pure. There is a sense in which Hatherley, as a jobbing writer, must have regarded himself as clean for being in nobody’s pocket (or for being in everybody’s – and so nobody’s in particular). He has no debts to pay off, or only real ones, which means he can say what he likes. He can call celebrated American architect Philip Johnson what he was: a Nazi activist. He does this not to puff and pant with moral outrage, but to diagnose the political aesthetic of this ‘talentless liar’ and its effect on contemporary architecture. Such refusal to compromise gives Hatherley’s work one of its most admirable and distinctive qualities: an unrelenting insistence on the connections between environment, economy, political decision-making and historical legacy, all comprehended in relation to street-level experience.

In 2018 Hatherley got a regular gig as culture editor for Tribune after its purchase by Jacobin (another instance of revamping an old piece of Labour Movement heritage). If Hatherley’s early writing had skewered the cheerlessness of urban development under smiley-snakey Blair, he has now taken the place of another Blair, ‘the forefather of all Progressive Patriots: the India-born, Eton-educated former Burmese policeman, Eric Arthur Blair, aka George Orwell’, once literary editor of Tribune. Hatherley dealt with Orwell’s complicated profile as anti-imperialist and traditionalist in his Ministry of Nostalgia (2016), juxtaposing the era of post-war poverty with the ‘austerity nostalgia’ of the 2010s. The former may have been awful – but writers like Orwell witnessed the birth of the NHS first-hand, and retained some hope that similar modernist projects could change society for the better. Does Hatherley share their optimism? Despite its apparent objects – buildings, public squares, LPs, films – his criticism is motivated by a deep disenchantment with the present political moment, as the shenanigans of the Nasty Party clash with the pieties of Labour (before and after Corbyn). In Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances, he takes a moment to zoom out from this conjuncture and reflect on its more hopeful antecedents. We are invited to look back with him, in anger (of course), and in awe as well.

Read on: Owen Hatherley, ‘Comparing Capitals’, NLR 105.