10th February 2008
Got to agree with him. That said, as he points out, Manchester has got off pretty lightly compared to many other UK cities. Sounds like an interesting read. Definitely a stocking filler.
New book attacks modern Manchester as 'New Labour boom town' that's lost its cultural edge
When people talk about Manchester’s planning mistakes, it is not long before conversation turns to the Hulme Crescents.
The leaky, crime-ridden concrete streets-in-the-sky were finally demolished in the early 1990s, and good riddance, said most.
But Owen Hatherley, Southampton-born academic and author, offers another version of history.
After the families had moved out of the Crescents, a population of alternatives had moved in – many neglecting to pay the city council any rent.
These people enjoyed an eastern European aesthetic, the brutalist architecture chiming perfectly with the chilly emotions of the music produced by the likes of Joy Division and the art films at the local Aaben cinema.
Those bleak crescents had a thriving, independent culture.
More than 20 years later, Manchester has another kind of urban living, and Hatherley for one is not too impressed by it.
His book, A Guide To The New Ruins Of Great Britain portrays Manchester as “a flagship for urban regeneration and immaterial capitalism”. After the financial crash, Manchester can be seen as “the ultimate failure of the very recent past, a mausoleum of Blairism”
“If your benchmark is the rest of the UK, Manchester is doing pretty well in terms of architecture,” says Hatherley. “If your benchmark is the rest of the world, it’s terrible.”
The book casts a despairing eye across a dozen areas of the UK, bemoaning box-like “luxury” flats and an encroaching American-style urban landscape of gated communities and malls.
Dubbing these “new ruins”, he says they “represent everything wrong with New Labour and the Third Way in a built form”. But cuts may mean those cities now being “left to rot”.
“What is about to happen is so worrying, we might look back on New Labour with nostalgia,” Hatherley adds.
Of Manchester, he says the new Civil Justice Centre is a “genuinely striking building”, and Homes For Change in Hulme is “the most interesting housing scheme in contemporary Manchester”.
He says the work of Ian Simpson – architect of Number 1 Deansgate and Urbis – is “undeniably superior to the run of the regeneration mill”, though Simpson’s Beetham Tower he damns with faint praise as the work of “a mediocre architect at the very top of his game”.
But it is the new Manchester beyond the iconic structures for which Hatherley reserves most bile.
“As soon as you get out of the ring road you find some really shoddy stuff,” he says.
“I’m thinking of things like the Green Quarter, Islington Wharf, quite a lot of the stuff in Ancoats, the stuff over the river in Central Salford is incredibly badly-made, incredibly bad architecture. In Salford, the old towers are badly maintained and, in some cases, badly-built, but in most of them you get Parker Morris-sized flats, double-aspect windows, a certain amount of space and light.
“In a recent tower block, you’re quite likely to get single-aspect, the rooms will be much smaller.
“Although it’s not a lot of poor people stacked up together, and so it’s never going to become a sink estate, it terms of what you are living in, you’re living in something worse.”
Hatherley describes life in new “luxury” flats as “barricading oneself into a hermetically sealed, impeccably furnished prison against an outside world seldom seen but assumed to be terrifying”.
But Hatherley’s key criticism is that Manchester now makes property developers, not vital pop music, and the constant harking back to Factory Records, Joy Division and the Smiths begins to resemble Liverpool’s obsession with The Beatles.
“We shouldn’t forget that Joy Division etc ... all this came from a city which probably wasn’t a great deal of fun to live in, but which had low rent, lots of space to rehearse and record.
“In a place with high rents, you’re not going to get good art.
“I think it’s partly the gentrification, partly Oasis, but most of the interesting music that has come out over the last ten or 15 years has come from London, Glasgow and Yorkshire, and Manchester has been nowhere, particularly with dance and electronic music.
“The swaggering, vainglorious machismo of Oasis seems quite similar to the swaggering, vainglorious machismo of Urban Splash and the Beetham Tower and so forth. It’s all about front and it’s all about arrogance.”
So which places on his travels did Hatherley like?
“I’m very keen on Sheffield, Glasgow, weirdly keen on Halifax, though I wouldn’t want to live there. I quite like Bradford. Obviously, I like Greenwich because I live there,” he says.
And which did he hate?
“Leeds is the pits,” he says. “Of the new architecture there is one building that’s quite good – a building at Leeds Met University – but the rest of it ... it’s Manchester without the confidence. They’ve done all the redevelopment but with none of the wit or arrogance. It’s shocking.
» A Guide To The New Ruins Of Great Britain, by Owen Hatherley, is published by Verso at £17.99.