Interview with Owen Hatherley

“The flaneur has become a part of the heritage industry”

An Interview with Owen Hatherley

Owen Hatherley lebt und arbeitet als Autor in Süd-London, wo er über die politischen Implikationen von Architektur schreibt. Sein bei Zero Books erschienes Buch Militant Modernism widmet sich dem Modernismus als politischem Projekt. Hatherley entdeckt im Theater Bertolt Brechts oder brutalistischen Architektur einen Willen zur Transformation auf eine sozial gerechtere Zukunft. Dadurch positioniert er den Modernismus als Gegenpol zum postmodernen Politikstil New Labours, der durch durch eine zunehmende Privatisierung und Kontrolle öffentlicher Räume gekennzeichnet ist.

Mr. Hatherley, in your book Militant Modernism you argue for a continued relevance of modernist ideas in film, theatre and architecture. Modernism, so you claim, is important in that it has provided a vision of futurity for British society. You claim that Modernism’s radical rupture of traditions in art and architecture is worth preserving and constantly remind your readers that in modernist urban planning “nothing was too good for ordinary people.” Yet modernist architecture is frequently associated with renouncing street life in favour of a hierarchical idea of planning. Therefore the streets seem to be conspicuously absent from a lot of modernist thinking. Do you agree with this?

There is certainly some sort of anti-street movement in early 20th century modernism, yet quite often Le Corbusier’s recurring slogan ‘we must kill the street’ is mistaken for the position of modernism in general. Most of the time this slogan is considered to be appalling because ever since gentrification started taking hold in the 1980s, received opinion has it that traditional streets are exciting, ‘vibrant’ places rather than the dens of crime or sin that they were considered to be in the 19th and much of the 20th century. Le Corbusier’s attacks were invariably aimed at the ‘rue corridor’, the side street. One reason for this is because of the lack of light and air, the generally cramped and unpleasant conditions for the inhabitants of said streets. At the same time, he was trying to appeal to governments and businesses by promising to obliterate the spaces the police couldn’t get into, the unplanned spaces. This was where, in theory, people could build barricades and take over the city – hence ‘Architecture or revolution, revolution can be avoided’, as another famous Corbusian slogan has it.

What was Le Corbusier’s alternative to the dark and narrow street?

The alternative to the street in Corbusier’s case is blocks spaced out in parkland, where there simply isn’t anything remotely resembling a street anymore. This has been criticised on political, social and spatial grounds as creating places without the sound, activity and life which make the urban experience different and superior to the rural. Yet while most modernists shared Corbusier’s hostility to the ‘rue corridor’, to slums, alleyways and what in English were called ‘rookeries’, in the process they created very public, usable spaces such as the ‘social condensers’ of the Russian Constructivists or the courtyards, parks and community centres of Bruno Taut’s Berlin housing estates. Nonetheless, there was by the 1950s a kind of anti-street orthodoxy where the more complex planning of the 1920s’ Siedlungen was reduced to the ‘Zeilenbau’, which again is very much an anti-street. The space inbetween can accommodate some sort of street life though, and it often does.

This sounds as if any any attempt to eradicate street life results in an appropriation of inbetween spaces.

There are fairly few examples of pure Corbusian anti-streets, because it’s very expensive and ‘wasteful’ of land. London’s closest example is the Alton Estate and its parkland which was supposed to be part of the ‘radiant city’. Yet most of the time planning has resulted in a mish-mash of modernist ideas along with the later planning ideas of ‘mixed development’, which combines low-rise, medium-rise and high-rise buildings together in one place. In some cases, estates are influenced by the ‘Brutalism’ of Alison and Peter Smithson and Team 10, of which the Sheffield estate ‘Park Hill’ is the most spectacular example. Here you can find the attempt to recreate that street life in the sky, via walkways, corners, wide access decks and such. All of these things are now regarded as incitements to petty crime, as much as the corners, alleyways and such of the Victorian streets were in their day. In most Modernist estates in London, you will find a lot of ‘street life’, in that there are young people hanging around using the inbetween spaces, although curiously nobody seems to think this is a good thing. Meanwhile the idea of ‘the streets’, the mythologised streets of Bow or Brixton, today quite often refers to estates which don’t have streets in the traditional sense – it’s used as a synonym for places that are poor, basically, with or without the suffix ‘but sexy’.

Modernism created its own counterfigure to the ordered urban planning in the figure of the ‘flaneur’, who wanders the streets and – according to Walter Benjamin – appropriates the city this way. Do you think the idea of the ‘flaneur’ is useful in describing inner city life in contemporary London?

The idea of the flaneur drifting around but never engaging in the spaces of commerce is an enormously seductive one. However I do think that the idea of ‘psychogeography’ and the ‘flaneur’, this mix-and-match of ideas from Iain Sinclair, the Situationist International and Walter Benjamin, has become a conformism. The flaneur has become another part of the heritage industry, consisting of sponsored heritage walks round over-familiar 19th and 18th century spaces, whether Jack the Ripper’s East End or once-radical Clerkenwell. This involves a disdain for the planned, supposedly channelled and rationalised cityscapes built between the 1940s and the 1970s. It’s the intellectual wing of gentrification, and every time Iain Sinclair or Peter Ackroyd write about a place I’m sure they’re aware that the house prices in the area will go up accordingly.

Iain Sinclair’s favourite walking spot is Hackney, which is oversaturated with myths of a radical past, but whose architecture mainly consists of Victorian-style houses.

Architecturally, I think this rather misses where the interesting places to wander actually are. If I were to think of a really labyrinthine part of London, an area whose complexities, multiple levels, different ways of walking and aesthetic pleasures are incredibly, overwhelmingly rich and fascinating, it would be the Barbican, a gigantic modernist estate in the City of London. It would most definitely not be the Georgian streets of Spitalfields, where every space has been overdetermined with heritage and history to the point where it’s impossible to experience it as something fresh or surprising. Modernism created wonderful labyrinths as often as it created ordered grids.

But the Barbican is a cultural centre, a space where flaneuring is not only welcome, but might also be specifically encouraged. This is something which one could say about other areas of London, the lower numbers of Brick Lane near Trumans Brewery, for example.

Sure. This is not necessarily connected with Baudelaire or Benjamin’s idea of the flaneur, mind you. The flaneur is someone who wanders the shopping Arcades and boulevards not buying stuff, and dressing spectacularly, showing himself off. The argument could be made that our flaneurs today are very far from the inner city – the ‘Mallrats’, those who go to shopping malls without buying things. The gigantic Bluewater shopping centre on the edge of London has banned this practice, which implies that they were deeply worried about the possibility that they could have reappropriated that particular space.

Your comment about the Bluewater shopping centre, however, reminds me of a scene in Patrick Keiller’s movie “London” in which the narrator describes a person reading Walter Benjamin in a shopping mall, which seems to defamiliarize common connotations of Benjamin’s concept of the flaneur. You make a strong case for the defamiliarisation effect of Brutalist architecture, can you think of any other possibilities of defamiliarization in the cityscape?

Keiller’s use of Benjamin is far more interesting than that of his contemporaries, and his work seems to be consistently about using defamiliarisation to investigate the politics of space. His movie Robinson in Space does this through a genuinely Benjaminian or Brechtian attention to the ‘bad new things’ – the exurban landscape of gigantic distribution sheds, business parks, call centres, US military bases, ‘American-style boot camps’ and out-of-town retail complexes. At a talk Keiller said about the ‘new space’ of riverside flat complexes for the middle classes, the spaces of gentrification, that he didn’t think that anyone really lived in them. So defamiliarisation seems something which really takes place outside of the cities, in the supposedly classless new spaces of the outer suburbs, the Americanised landscape of ‘just-in-time’ production, sitting next to the country houses where the interminable Jane Austen adaptations are shot.

But isn’t that landscape particularly overdetermined by the endless chain of representations of suburbia in film and television? Are there any preconditions for defamiliarization?

Perhaps, although it’s always a prettified, 1950s version of suburbia rather than the suburbia of exurban new space. But that landscape seems strange to me mainly because – at least since moving to London ten years ago – I don’t experience it often. For an urban intellectual there’s nothing so alienating as Bluewater, and the most common way of responding to this is snobbery. But it is a truism that it’s difficult to defamiliarise something if you’ve grown up in it. A landscape as extraordinarily complex and politically overdetermined as the east end of London can become something that’s just ‘there’, and this produces a narcissism of small differences for London youth – postcode wars and suchlike. Meanwhile, the young hip bourgeoisie would no doubt fail to see the strangeness of the suburban landscapes from whence they came. I suppose various kinds of youth cultures engage in defamiliarisation, through seeing concrete landscapes as potential skateparks to the utility of tower block roofs for pirate radio – but both are fairly depoliticised.

The Bluewater shopping centre is (in)famous for banning hoodies in 2005, a move which drew a lot of criticism and once again highlighted the disastrous effects of the privatisation of urban spaces on civil liberties. Although I suspect you to share their political goals, you seem to pay very little attention to movement such as Reclaim the Streets or the anti-gentrification walks that are being staged in places like Hackney and whose aim seems to be the reappropriation of spaces that were once public. Why is that?

Reclaim the Streets always ended up seeming like a lifestyle thing, where a very particular demographic who dressed a very particular way and were generally from a very particular class, got together and did something which had little effect on those who usually use that space. I was on the peripheries of Reclaim the Streets in the early 2000s and was involved in a few of their Mayday actions. Turning bits of inner London into temporary autonomous zones is necessarily a more interesting political act than turning up and selling papers and asking people to sign petitions, but in retrospect, the idea that political action should be a party in the street with samba bands and sound systems has become as much a dead-end as the more traditional kinds of protest. The use of urban space is maybe the most interesting thing about Reclaim the Streets, but its assimilation into flashmobs, and the assimilation of flashmobs into advertising tells its own story. More permanent or semi-permanent uses of space are more worthwhile, but the idea that these momentary actions could transfigure everyday spaces seems to be romantic and ill-conceived. There’s a more general point worth making here about the way that the lifestyle politics and moralism of green and anarchist politics has the effect of reclaiming the streets from the working class rather than vice versa. Having said that, lots of those involved have gone onto formulating ideas about ‘communisation’, setting up more concrete, less temporary spaces, whether occupations or climate camps. That’s very encouraging, and much closer to the kind of uses of space I talk about in Militant Modernism.

This almost sounds as if you don’t believe in a politics of micropolitical

While I don’t think they’re of great political use on their own, there’s no doubt that temporary interventions in London can be great exercises in opening up small groups of people to the politics of their environment. Laura Oldfield Ford, an artist who produces the Savage Messiah zine, has staged walks around particular areas which vividly showed the political uses of London’s streets. I took part in one around King’s Cross, where she gave out old maps which were quite deliberately impossible for use in a terrain which had been transformed by gentrification, by the building of the new Eurostar station, by deindustrialisation – you could literally see where the new enclosures were taking place. Walking around the city is still one of the best ways to experience the politics of space, but you need some sort of spur or guide, no matter how unreliable, to read those spaces otherwise you end up with vague ramblings.

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One thought on “Interview with Owen Hatherley

  1. Owen Hatherley seems not to understand what makes streets fundamentally different from all the other forms of spatial organisation he cites. Streets that work are inclusive—pedestrians, cyclists, vehicles, everything is channelled down them. Other forms of spatial organisation involve segregating some or all of these uses.

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