Owen Hatherley, Trans-Europe Express: Tours of a Lost Continent (2018)
The publisher of Owen Hatherley's Trans-Europe Express: Tours of a Lost Continent sent me a copy addressed to "Colin Marshall, Cities Writer." Though I've never worked under that title, I can hardly reject it; then again, it would seem to apply rather better to Hatherley himself, who despite being only three years older than me has published ten more books than I have. The volumes with which he made his name, 2010's A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain and 2012's A New Kind of Bleak, deal exclusively with the built environments of British cities. 2015 Landscapes of Communism sends him farther afield, to capitals such as Moscow and the former East Berlin, of course, but also Kiev, Warsaw, Bucharest, Vilnius, and Zagreb, among other smaller and more obscure ex-Soviet destinations. Trans-Europe Express, his eighth, represents the widest expansion yet of his architectural-urbanistic mandate.
Essentially an essay anthology, the book collects Hatherley's writings on various cities across the European continent. The occasion was the United Kingdom's "Brexit" vote of 2016 — hence, presumably, the "Lost" of the subtitle — and the structuring question is what, exactly, makes European cities different, usually better, than British ones. "The reason why I wanted to stay in the European Union was architectural," Hatherley writes, though in his view the superiority of the European city doesn't stop at its buildings but manifests in its streets, its squares, its transit systems, indeed its very sense of urbanity. Urban Britain did once seem about to Europeanize: "Bradford would be an Italian hill town, Gateshead would be the new Bilbao, Salford would become as outward-looking as Rotterdam, Sheffield would model its public spaces on Barcelona." Yet "each of these towns and cities voted in the majority to leave Europe. What went wrong?"
I should note that I'm from the United States of America, where people seldom draw a distinction between the United Kingdom and Europe in the first place. Americans on a European vacation will almost certainly start in London, given its relative (if deceptive) linguistic and cultural familiarity. They'll then most likely use a Eurail pass or budget airline to set foot in as many photographable major cities as they can in the shortest possible time: Barcelona, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Berlin, and Amsterdam, say, all within two weeks. That these grueling excursions are popular among recent college graduates only hardened my resolve not to take one myself. I also suspected — and continue to suspect — that much of the popularity of the compressed grand tour owes to the fact that Americans who return from them can say they've "seen the world," and thus never feel obligated to go abroad again.
Overseas travel began in earnest for me only with my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture, which required me to record interviews in cities not just elsewhere in America but elsewhere in the world. When in 2014 I decided to take it to London, Hatherley was among the first potential interviewees I contacted. Our conversation has stuck with me, not least because we recorded it at a diner that time seemed to have forgotten, and we paused in the middle for an equally vintage (and entirely delicious) meal with plenty of brown sauce. The scene returned to mind when I re-read A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. "I enjoy a fried breakfast in Hollies, a greasy spoon café," he writes in the book's chapter on Nottingham. "Inside is the 1970s in aspic, green leather, brown formica and untouched signage, begging to be used as a film set."
Disappearing though they may be, such places still exist in one form or another in most every country, and I suspect Hatherley savors discovering them as much as I do. The deeper I get into his work, in fact, the more I feel I'm reading the words of a parallel-universe version of myself. On the page, both of us live to explore cities, and we do so in constant search of not just urbanity in general but well-designed subway systems (with decent public restrooms) and well-stocked bookshops in particular. Trans-Europe Express' chapter on Lviv (imagine "an Austria that has become suddenly impoverished and adopted the Cyrillic alphabet") contains a highly characteristic observation: "On an informal little square, between the two Baroque beauties of the Dominican church and the Dormition Church, beneath a colossal statue of the sixteenth-century printer Ivan Fedorov, there's the best book market I've found anywhere in Ukraine."
Wherever he happens to be, Hatherley also appreciates qualities like dilapidation and ambition, which would at first seem opposed. But in the former Soviet Union, many structures — indeed, entire cities — simultaneously evidence the ambition to create society anew and the dilapidation resulting from slipshod workmanship and decades of (partially ideological) negligence. Hatherley's abiding fascination with, and often admiration of the buildings and infrastructure put up under ostensibly communist rule has him taking pains, especially in Landscapes of Communism, not to "sound like an apologist, an omelette-maker — a 'tankie,' as the rest of the left used to call those who defended the Soviets over East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland in 1981." (He lets looser when discussing urban metro systems, "the one area where I genuinely do believe that the practice of the Soviet Union was vastly superior to that of the West.")
Reviewing A New Kind of Bleak, Jonathan Meades — one of Hatherley's esteemed predecessors in this English tradition of writing about the built environment, as well as another of my interviewees — notes that Hatherley "wears his Paleolithic socialism on his sleeve." I find his politics more difficult to pin down; I've heard or read him describe himself as a communist and a Marxist, though never without qualifications. What's certain is that he places himself on the left, though his leftism has little to do with the varieties I know from the United States, none of which appeal to me. Never have I proclaimed myself a leftist, let alone a communist or Marxist; when a friend here in Seoul told me he was a socialist and asked me whether I was one — and if not, why not — I could hardly process the question, let alone formulate an answer.
That friend also happens to be English, if not quite as English as Hatherley, the fried-breakfast enthusiast who explains himself as "obsessive about British architecture and politics." This seemingly deliberate intellectual and cultural rootedness in his homeland numbers among the qualities I appreciate about him as a writer, despite how often I lose my way in his more Britain-centric books as a result of it. My preparation for Trans-Europe Express involved revisiting his works including New Ruins and A New Kind of Bleak, and though I do recommend those books individually, I don't recommend reading them back-to-back, at least not if you're unfamiliar with smaller U.K. cities. Having been to England only twice, once to London and once to Norwich, I struggle to envision Manchester or Birmingham, let alone the likes of Plymouth or Leicester, about whose buildings and streets Hatherley writes about in equally intensive detail.
Critics occasionally take Hatherley to task for allowing that detail to crowd human beings out of the cities he writes about. This despite his own declarations that A New Kind of Bleak, for example, is "a book about architecture and town planning, or at least a book about architecture and town planning that uses these as a way to talk about politics (or vice versa)," or more starkly, that Landscapes of Communism is "a book about power, and what power does in cities." Here again I glimpse, and sympathize with, my more accomplished British parallel self, having heard enough smarmy pronouncements that "a city is really its people" to have begun writing actively to anger those inclined to make them. Hatherley would surely agree with me that, yes, a city is its people — but it's as much or even more so its buildings, its subway trains, its toilets.
He'd also surely admit that, when people have figured into his books, he hasn't got much out of them of value to his core mission. His specialty is "reading" a city (a subject previously covered here in my discussion of Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language) while exploring it on foot, which does not require a human interlocutor. (That said, Hatherley's then-girlfriend, the Polish writer Agata Pyzik, makes for an enlivening if elusive presence in Landscapes of Communism.) Hatherley's readers come for the observations he makes of and the conclusions he draws from the built environment immediately around him, as could also be said of the writer to whom he's most often compared: Ian Nairn, an English architectural critic prominent in the 1960s and 70s and often described as "dyspeptic." Like Nairn, Hatherley combines formidable architectural knowledge with a penchant for judgments, in various combinations incisive, sweeping, and contrarian.
"Possibly because of the preferences developed as an adoptive Londoner, on my few visits to the French capital I've found it alienating and baffling," writes Hatherley, getting his verdict on the City of Light out of the way early in Trans-Europe Express. "The coexistence of different time periods, architectural moments, clashing forms, clashing ideas about city planning that you can find in the centre of London (although often underpinned by an underlying Rationalist Georgian grid) appear, at first, to be absent in Paris, replaced with a mandatory limestone speculative neo-Baroque, thrown up in a few decades." Hatherley gives similarly scant consideration, if any, to the other standard whirlwind-tour capitals, training his signature concentration instead on such second-at-best cities like Le Havre, Bologna, Thessalonika, Vyborg ("the awful state of Vyborg's architecture is not unattractive"), Aarhus, and Łódź, "the Polish Manchester/Polish Hollywood/Polish Detroit."
The sum total could reasonably be called a travelogue, and here and there Hatherley does take on intra-European travel culture of the early 21st century. He opens his chapter on Porto with a description of a breathtakingly patronizing text hung on the wall of the Airbnb he rents there there ("Be curious and flexible. Don't compare your rental with your home. Instead learn how other people live"), and within a few pages he's considering the emergence of "a peculiar new sort of Costa del Gentrification, where the physical fabric of the city actually remans, while, socially, it is transformed through catering to the needs of travelers from places with horrible weather." Porto, it seems, has become one of the top destinations for a European "city break," a practice little known in the United States (and for that matter in Asia, where I now live) among all but the very wealthy.
Hatherley has much to say about the effects of money on cities, as well someone of his political persuasion might. The word "capitalism" comes up dozens of times in each of his books, never, by my reckoning, in a flattering light. You might expect an American to take offense at Hatherley's portrayal of capitalism as the cause of so much of what has lately gone wrong in cities, indeed societies, everywhere. That I don't is due not to anti-capitalistic leanings but a weak belief in capitalism itself. This means not a lack of faith in the benefits of capitalism, but in the very existence of capitalism, at least as an ideology: at times I wonder whether the label "capitalism" wasn't first slapped on human activity — i.e. creating markets, as ants build colonies — expressly in order to make the hindrance of that activity seem viable.
At the heart of Hatherley's work lies the question of whether a genuinely non-capitalist society, the new urban civilization that would follow, is possible. If it strikes me as somehow ill-formed, perhaps it wouldn't had I grown up, as Hatherley did, in the Southampton of the 1980s and 90s. Though in the main a resoundingly uninspiring city, according to his own recollections, it retained pieces of the architectural legacy of the 1960s and 70s, a time in Britain of large-scale building as greater social project. The era's most notable products tend to be council housing complexes, such as Wyndham Court, which still stands in Hatherley's hometown. He also has fond memories of other structures of roughly the same period and aesthetic, some with more spatial than social ambition: the Tricorn Centre, for example, a combined shopping mall, nightclub, and parking garage that once stood in Southampton's rival city of Portsmouth.
Whether or not they involve béton brut, many of these buildings are popularly labeled "Brutalist," owing to grand scale, exposed materials, hard angularity, a lack of ornamentation, institutional associations — all potential triggers for etymologically questionable association with brutality. But in New Ruins Hatherley does describe Brutalism as "Modernism’s angry underside," and "never, much as some would rather it were, a mere aesthetic style. It was a political aesthetic, an attitude, a weapon, dedicated to the precept that nothing was too good for ordinary people. Now, after decades of neglect, it’s divided between 'eyesores' and 'icons'; fine for the Barbican’s stockbrokers but unacceptable for the ordinary people who were always its intended clients." The Barbican has thrived, "as attractive and mysterious as a J.G Ballard heroine," in part because it "was not built as social housing, and its inhabitants are comfortable enough to be able to handle the old ultraviolence."
That comes from Hatherley's first book Militant Modernism, and I've been pleased to note his further use of Ballard's work, a shared enthusiasm, in more recent writings. These include a paper on Ben Wheatley's 2015 film adaptation of Ballard's 1975 novel High-Rise beginning with the observation that "in Britain, and in the United States of America — though practically nowhere else on earth — people find it hard to look at a tall concrete block of flats without assuming that it must be subsidized, state-built housing inhabited by the very poor." Not so in Ballard's telling: occupied entirely by the middle and upper-middle class, the high-rise of High-Rise begins its descent into self-destructive bacchanal almost at once. When I saw Wheatley's film, I wondered what the young Seoulites in the theater made of it, given that most of them would have grown up in wholly middle-class, wholly non-chaotic high-rises themselves.
I've met few other fans of Ballard who are not also fans of the Barbican, the aforementioned well-regarded housing and arts complex in which I spent much of my free time hanging around during my London trip, its lack of free wi-fi be damned. In A New Kind of Bleak Hatherley applauds it as "a monument to belief in the future, the belief that the old certainties don’t matter, that we can live in new ways, with a new conception of space, in a new, democratic city space unencumbered by cars, malls, pettiness and ugliness." Aside from "the sheer pleasure of its Brutalist-baroque grandeur," the Barbican deflects "every anti-modernist, anti-urban shibboleth going — it’s a high-density arrangement in beefy raw concrete of towers and walkways, without an inch of 'real streets,' without an iota of 'defensible space,' that is doing very well, thank you."
"Defensible space," a concept leaned on by many an urban planner over the last half-century, emerges as one of Hatherley's bugbears. Others include wavy rooflines, "barcode façades," ground-floor shops, aesthetics "in keeping" with context and tradition, "yuppiedromes," and the rebranding of districts as "Quarters" — all elements of the so-called "urban renaissance" underway in Britain since the era of Tony Blair, who's evidently as much a bête noire for Hatherley as he is for most left-leaning Brits I know. This movement (if movement be the word) has also produced no end of "lottery-funded centers, entertainment venues and shopping/eating complexes, clustered around disused riverfronts," "'mixed' blocks of flats on brownfield sites, the privatization of council estates, the reuse of old mills or factories," "extensive public art," and "piazzas (or, in the incongruously grandiose planning parlance, 'public realms') with "with attendant coffee concessions, promising to bring European sophistication to Derby or Portsmouth."
Something similar has been going on in the United States, as developers attempt to cater to the formerly suburban members of the middle class (actual or potential) come to live in its "inner cities" over the past twenty years. But then, it's also been happening around the world: in Trans-Europe Express Hatherley visits the Dublin docklands and finds an example of the "international phenomenon" of urban regeneration, "which can be defined easily enough as the redevelopment of former working-class spaces in post-industrial cities, usually accompanied by 'world-class,' 'signature,' 'iconic' architecture, designed explicitly to appeal to tourists." Yet almost nothing of note has come out of these efforts: whatever their conveniences, "regenerated" neighborhoods tend to exhibit only the most textbook urban ambitions — apartments above shops, "walkability," etc. — and no architectural ambitions at all. Investors may have made a fast buck (or fast quid), but they haven't made a Barbican.
Nor have they made anything like that other fearsome City of London landmark, Richard Rogers' Lloyd's of London headquarters. "With its glazed lifts, moving parts, girders, cranes, components all crammed into a tight, fierce, metallic mesh," Hatherley writes, "the Lloyd’s has always exerted (on me, at least) much the same shivers-down-spine effect as 'Strings of Life,' or 'Trans-Europe Express'" — the Kraftwerk song that gives his more recent book its title — "a mechanical sublime that sweeps away any residual humanist resistance with your willing participation." Evoking awe in the original sense, the word "sublime" gets at what's been missing from both U.K. and U.S. cities. But even in the 1980s, when both the Barbican and the Lloyd's building completed construction, British development tended toward the "pinched or anti-urban, defined — no matter how central or dramatic the site — by cul-de-sacs, squat mock-Victorian offices and endless surface car parks.'"
Apart from the mock-Victorian offices, that all sounds familiar to me. You could say that neither Hatherley nor I have come to terms with the hard anti-urban core of the countries in which we respectively grew up, though despite the long-standing idea of the Englishman-in-his-castle, or home detached to the point of isolation, the U.S. is no doubt the more flagrant offender in this regard. Hatherley can still write of a minor city like Liverpool, England's main port in the 18th and 19th century, that "the architectural richness here is so overwhelming you feel almost spoiled by it." (Few would say the same of Baltimore.) Yet "the problem is amply demonstrated by the fact that this magnificent metropolis was supplanted so quickly and easily by Southampton. Liverpool’s recent history is a massive demonstration of the unnerving fact that many don’t seem to want cities, even one as good as this."
He puts it more bluntly in Trans-Europe Express: "We decided we preferred our towns crap." I may have seen a fair amount of crap (an American noun, not an adjective) in, for example, Norwich, but I was distracted from it by the formidable sight of the condemned Sovereign House, a hulking complex purpose-built in the mid-1960s for Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. Even the finest urban design does not a thrilling city make, and in some of his chapters on theoretically admirable parts of northern Europe ("Aarhus Is Nice") Hatherley sounds almost bored. Better the poorer, more troubled likes of Łódź, an "industrial dystopia, cruel, hypocritical, and kitsch" that longed to become "a totally modern city, a multinational experiment, a socialist city-state, where artists and activists helped design housing estates and where some of the best films of the twentieth century were made round the corner from workers making things."
What Hatherley seems to see in these cities are buildings and infrastructure manifestly put up in accordance with goals broader than a secure return on investment. The Lloyd's building may be a temple of capitalism, but Hatherley credits Richard Rogers with being "the last major British architect to have any ideas about society whatsoever." A similar dearth of such ideas (about society or anything else of importance) on the other side of the pond may explain why 21st-century American architecture has also produced — as the British say — naff all. I suspect an underlying assumption that, though fashions in urban regeneration come and go, the basic problems of the built environment have all been solved. Those twentysomethings may come back from Europe starry-eyed and envious over Parisian boulevards and Roman piazzas, but don't they grow up and settle into their landscape of freeways, big-box stores, and McMansions?
If indeed they do grow up. "My first impression was determined by the sheer wonder that is the Deutsche Bahn," Hatherley writes of his arrival in Germany. "Even second class is a world of plush chairs and dark colors — restful blacks and grays, and the unmistakable feeling that you are being treated like an adult." I'm reminded of a tweet by the Paris-based American writer Thomas Chatterton Williams, who on a visit to the U.S. reported being saddened by the sight of Dunkin' Donuts advertising a "Girl Scout Cookie™ Inspired Espresso Drink." Unrelenting cultural infantilization (combined with an undisguised willingness to leave you to the wolves, economically) is an aspect of American life I certainly don't miss. In it I sense the dark side of egalitarianism, which Hatherley praises in its manifestations in European buildings and cities, but whose apparent tendency toward the devaluation of self-mastery worries me.
Perhaps this could be helped with a more bracing kind of city-building. Jonathan Meades puts it better than any of us do in his television series Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry. He calls the destruction of Brutalist buildings "a form of censorship of the past, a discomfiting past, by the present. It’s the revenge of a mediocre age on an age of epic grandeur. It’s the cutting down to size of a culture which committed the cardinal sin of getting above its station, of pushing God aside and challenging nature. It’s the destruction, too, of the embarrassing evidence of a determined optimism that made us more potent than we have become. We don’t measure up against those who took risks, who flew and plunged to find new ways of doing things, who were not scared to experiment, who lived lives of perpetual inquiry. Here was mankind at its mightiest."
I don't disagree — nor, I imagine, does Hatherley, whose judgments of the aesthetics of buildings and cities continue to line up uncannily with my own. When he came to Seoul a few years ago, he wrote about nothing more excitedly than Sewoon Sangga, the mid-1960s battleship convoy-like megastructural complex of electronics workshops and then-luxurious apartments that has for years been my own favorite place in the city. This happens without any perceptible overlap in our political worldviews: it's not that I oppose anything he's for, but that I've articulated few preferences about the organization of society at all, let alone ideas about revolution. "I burn with no causes," as the famously non-leftist Czech-turned-English playwright Tom Stoppard once said. But I do respect sheer human ambition and industry, and whenever I identify it — whether in a city or in a fellow cities writer — I salute it.