Get angry with the carry on

Owen Hatherley swaps nostalgia for a call to arms

Gentrification of council house modernism: Keeling House in Bethnal  Green, London, by  Denys Lasdun.
Gentrification of council house modernism: Keeling House in Bethnal Green, London, by Denys Lasdun.

My trouble with Owen Hatherley’s excellent if thoroughly miserablist walking tour of Blair’s urban Britain in his earlier ‘New Ruins’ is that it maintained an almost nostalgic, rose-tinted view of the modernist/brutalist housing experiment of the 60s and 70s, without taking account of the fact that people might not have liked living in them very much. Maybe it’s because he was a child of the 80s. Hatherley is nothing if not a prolific writer on socialist architecture – his last tome, ‘Landscapes of Communism’, a dewy-eyed tour of duty around the former Eastern Bloc, runs to 624 pages. Mao Tse Tung’s Little Red Book it sure ain’t.

‘The Ministry of Nostalgia’ is both red and little (luckily) – and aims to address accusations of nostalgia head on. It’s also, by his own admission, something of a mea culpa. His expertise and championing of socialist architecture, read via the lens of modernist housing and Thatcher’s abolition of the generous Parker Morris standards, unwittingly helped make the style eminently marketable again. A surf through property sites like The Modern House proves how the message got absolutely lost in the medium.

And this seems to be the premise of his latest book – one apparently triggered by no more than a simple poster. ‘Austerity nostalgia’, as Hatherley terms it, finds no worse embodiment of corrosive potential for the future than the 1940s ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster in Gill Sans font that has, since the 2008 crash, been endlessly re-presented to us. The now ubiquitous phrase was first used, we’re generally led to understand (incorrectly, Hatherley says), to galvanise the masses in their legendary wartime ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ but has now been hijacked to underpin a far less justified – and insidious – form of contemporary austerity, courtesy of David Cameron.

‘Austerity nostalgia’, as Hatherley terms it, finds no worse embodiment of corrosive potential for the future than the 1940s ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster in Gill Sans

The route from the author’s ‘Junk Market of Austerity’ chapter to his concluding ‘Building the Austerity City’ may disconcert readers used to Hatherley’s more architectural writing. The book is drawn from diverse articles penned for his own blog site, magazines and broadsheets, so not only is there a slightly jarring disconnect in the intervening three chapters, but they are written to appeal to different audiences. Yes, we get potted histories, from Pick and Holden’s London Underground in the 1930s and Lubetkin’s modernist social housing to the austerity brickwork of Cambridge’s Accordia and a 2015 King’s Cross by Argent – but it’s done via the complexity of Clement Atlee, Ken Loach’s film ‘Spirit of ‘45’, EP Thompson’s ‘Making of the English Working Class’, the Mass Observation Archive, interwar Empire Marketing Board and Nye Bevan’s NHS. In exposing the austerity nostalgia subterfuge, Hatherley calls on a plethora of cultural influences – some more subjective than others.

The result is a flawed call to arms; but a well-researched and impassioned one, taking a seemingly banal, superficial observation to highlight a much deeper societal malaise. Hatherley fervently argues that the period from 1930-55 in Britain was in fact far more radical, potent and open-ended than any Keep Calm and Carry On campaign could ever epitomise. The book leaves us in the charge of the front liners occupying the council estates poised for demolition or gentrification; for whom William Faulkner’s 60 year old words must still resonate: ‘The past’s not dead; it’s not even past’. 


The Ministry of Nostalgia, Owen Hatherley, Verso, £14.99 224pp HB