facebook
Twitter
Linkedin
Feedback

Sunday20 August 2017

Why leftists should look back in anger

  • Email
  • Comments (7)
  • Save

Yes, the left is lacking an urban vision, but the past few decades have left it with few means to develop one

Owen Hatherley

Owen Hatherley

In the last issue of this paper, my colleague Wouter Vanstiphout wrote a sharp, brilliant attack on the left’s apparent total lack of new spatial and architectural ideas. He asked whether or not the various micro-resistances proposed by left-wing urbanists and architects — from guerilla gardening to pop-ups and occupations — have anything like the aggression and power of the financial architecture of neoliberalism, and answers, unsurprisingly, in the negative.

Like so many critiques of the left’s seeming impotence in the face of an actual, proper and quite possibly interminable crisis of capitalism, it’s true as far as it goes — though it’s somewhat unfair to ask a movement that has been defeated, demoralized and legislated against for decades to suddenly rise and take power.

That defeat has so often been played out in architecture and planning. Modernism was eventually co-opted not merely into reformist public housing and suchlike but into chic corporate logos; less notoriously, but far more importantly for our current problems, the response to that was co-opted just the same. Jane Jacobs-style neighbourhood renewal becomes gentrification; New Urbanism becomes Disney towns; Non-Plan becomes Enterprise Zones; Utopian hi-tech fun palaces become lime-green neoliberal boot camps. All those 1968-infused reactions to high modernism have served to make our cities less equal, less fair, and less liveable, not more so. In fact, modernism and modernist-era planning made possible certain imperishable things, such as secure council tenures and space standards.

But we’re getting lost in detail here. What can, or should, an architectural movement for an anti-capitalist city look like? It’s easier to say what it wouldn’t: the sorry list of post-hippy fiddling outlined with such alacrity by Wouter. An industrial society that could feed the planet’s 7 billion inhabitants cannot run on face-to-face interaction and off-grid generators, and straw bales and shacks are never going to be a convincing counter-aesthetic for most people — especially for those that live in actual shanty towns.

This is exactly where modernism can still come in. There has still been no other architectural movement which has tried to take seriously the need to create a technologically advanced and yet also equal and participatory society. Leftists could still learn more from the social spaces of Park Hill, the montage principles and public participation of Byker or the self-managed skyscrapers of New Belgrade than from the elective, hobbyist mini-vanguards of Small is Beautiful and Drop City, even if the latter cannot be built now.

Yet the question is still unanswered. What would that new 21st century modernism look like, as infrastructure and as architecture? Who out there would sign up to it?

It would help the left’s cause, surely, to have an outline or an idea for its future cities. But aren’t we perhaps getting this upside down? Constructivism, for instance, didn’t precede the Russian Revolution: it followed it, as much as five years later — nearly 10 years in terms of built architecture. A new (super)structure needs a new base first.

Share

Readers' comments (7)

  • the world is much more complex and interwoven. so the discussion suffers in undercomplexity by still discussing the problems in a left-right or capitalist-anticapitalist order.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Robert Park

    Owen Hathlerley's unswerving faith in the heroics of modernist planning is disturbingly charming. Does he really still believe that all that a city slum needs to jubilantly reinvent itself is the radiant city?

    The reason that modernism failed poor urban communities is because it is so fundamentally unadaptable. Large buildings set over many hectares with ponderous functions laid down by dead architects over 60 years ago. How does an individual caught up in a large modernist housing development begin to influence a community that has been spatially arranged in such a pre-determined way?

    They can't set up a coffee shop, as there are no older buildings to convert. They can't open a builder's yard, as all the outdoor spaces are all public. They can't even hawk the street, as there are no streets.

    This is why modernist public housing projects have not worked. The only way out of poverty if you are stuck in such a development, is to succeed elsewhere, then leave.

    The left may well need to develop an architectural approach that captures the imagination, but modernist planning practice is not it. It would be much more useful to treat modernism as an aesthetic movement, and drill into the politics of development and planning to find our answer.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Getafix

    The article highlights an area of debate in need of more attention but I agree with the 2 previous comments. The questions posed are straight from a 6th form debate circa 1985. Hatherley raises interesting issues but takes such a reactionary view of what capitalism necessarily means that he boxes himself into a very uninteresting corner. 'What can, or should, an architectural movement for an anti-capitalist city look like?' Is this a serious question? This concept of having to be for or against capitalism is what crippled the British left for decades. Look at how the German left has largely grown up and adopted far more sophisticated views.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Ana Wintours

    All the lefty practices think architecture should be pop up or guerilla. They even regard Trenton Oldfield as a radical and running a unit at London Met as something that will change the world. Sad.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • SomeoneStoleMyNick

    As a leftist, I'm not looking back. There's too much to do. We're busy.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Ana Wintours

    With another pop-up guerilla garden.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Getafix

    The profession is full of supposed lefties who usually treat their staff like sh*t. Hatherly's assumptions about his audience are naive. In my experience a self-regarding leftist usual equals a workplace fascist.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

sign in register
  • Email
  • Comments (7)
  • Save
Latest
News
Sign in

Email Newsletters

Sign out to login as another user

Desktop Site | Mobile Site