Hugh Pearman jumps on board Owen Hatherley’s swashbuckling tour of Britain’s modern buildings
How does he sustain his tone of wry amusement, of lightly-worn learning, throughout? Across more than 600 pages and hundreds of projects? It’s a very considerable achievement, is this latest book from Owen Hatherley, and I honestly can’t think of anyone else who would have done all the necessary legwork to have taken this on (he doesn’t drive, travelling mostly by rail, getting occasional rides from chums). He started writing it in 2015. The effort must surely have flagged at times, what with his various other projects, but if so you’d never know.
Being a gazetteer, this is a book to dip in and out of, and you will keep dipping in and out, it’s an addictive process that is made easy to navigate. After an excellent scene-setting introduction starting with the roots of modernism in the industrial buildings of the 19th century, there are 14 sections, each one a part of the country, each divided into its key areas. There are three indexes – of buildings, of architects, and a general one in which you can search for, say, places, styles, types. When you get to the page you want, you find that these are far from being dry listings. Each section of text on a building or group of buildings is a self-contained piece of description and architectural criticism. There is a decent number of photos, mostly by photographer Chris Matthews whose own travels were clearly extensive. One might wish that every building covered would get at least one photo, but that would have made it impossibly long and expensive so it’s a privileged selection that gets illustrated.
Of course such a book cannot be exhaustive, or anything like it. Everyone will be able to play the game of spotting the good buildings they know that Hatherley has missed or misdescribed. Ha, no mention of the lovely little CLASP-system public library in Duffield, Derbyshire? Oh my, does he really think that the ingeniously PoMo recent additions by DK:CM to Gibberd’s Fulwell Cross library and sports centre complex in Ilford are original Gibberd? Can Lubetkin’s Bevin Court in London seriously be lumped in with ‘moderne’ on account of its show-off staircase? And what the hell are these ‘ceramic concrete cylinders’ he mentions apropos of the roofline of the recently-listed Dunelm House in Durham by ACP? And so on. It’s an occasional criticism of Hatherley that he is not academically rigorous. But that would be a different, less swashbuckling and personal, kind of book. And if you go looking for them there are plenty of omissions and solecisms in the Buildings of England series too.
Modernism is, for most people, ordinary places as much as the landmarks
It’s sobering for me, with all these years’ head-start on young Owen in this trade, to find – again! – that he knows and has visited a startling number of buildings that I was at best only dimly aware of. Yes, I know Woolwich in south-east London, in fact my first job in London was there. But do I know the 1950s (and later) St Mary’s estate there, a pioneering and very good exercise in well-designed postwar municipal housing? Hardly. I didn’t pay it much attention, though you couldn’t miss its (later-phase) row of curiously-sculpted Norman and Dawbarn towers. Hatherley has lived there, it was his manor. He seeks out such places in other cities. As he says, modernism is for most people ordinary places such as that, as much as the landmarks such as the (now listed) Halifax Building Society HQ by BDP or Lasdun’s Royal College of Physicians.
But the ordinary can be special too, such as the rhomboidal tower of the Beeversleigh flats in Rotherham by Maurice Dakin. Hence the subtitle of his title of his introduction, ‘an everyday revolution’. In that he tackles the perennial mystery of British architecture: why, following all the precedents for modernism including late arts and crafts, Mackintosh and garden cities, did actual modernism finally arrive around a decade later than in the rest of Europe? He cites Pevsner: ‘the sources of continental modernism in the 1920s were frequently British’. Yet we didn’t make the leap ourselves: architects such as Charles Holden who moved from neo-classicism to modernism had to travel to the Netherlands and Germany to get his inspiration. So what held us back? For Hatherley, Mackintosh is the missing link and imperial pomp (Lutyens, Baker etc) the drag factor. It was hard for anyone to attempt something radically different from the prevailing orthodoxy.
I think of Hatherley here not so much as a modern-day Pevsner or Nairn, Betjeman or Meades, those diverse architectural and social cataloguers, polemicists and presenters. His mission, given the rate at which buildings of the past century are vanishing, is more akin to a Cecil Sharp or Vaughan Williams, travelling the country at the start of the 20th century to collect the oral traditions of folk song and dance in the nick of time, just before the singers died out and the songs and dances all but ceased. I imagine Hatherley departing his beloved Sheffield, say, writing notes on a particularly fine bit of municipal brutalism, his train vanishing from sight just as the first thump of wrecking-ball against reinforced concrete echoes out across the city. So long, the wonderful Castle Market. Or the Dorman Long coking works tower in Middlesbrough, demolished in September 2021 after being listed. How many of the buildings in this book will survive much longer?
Modern Buildings in Britain: a Gazeteer by Owen Hatherley (Particular Books, 608pp, £60)