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Book Review: ‘Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances’ by Owen Hatherley

Finding a home in the ruins of modernism.

Since I was asked to review his book “Landscapes of Communism” in 2015, Owen Hatherley has been one of my favorite authors. I’ve read most of his books – from “Militant Modernism” (described by The Guardian as an “intelligent and passionately reasoned attempt to excavate Utopia”) to “Red Metropolis” and the lesser-known “Across the Plaza: The Public Voids of the Soviet City’. ‘Trans-Europe Express’, his comprehensive and witty guide to European architecture, has been my faithful companion on a number of trips.

Today, while I am researching a book on Britain’s utopian settlements, some of Hatherley’s works prove useful, eye-opening, and simply indispensable and will probably be among the most cited sources of my own book.

The magnitude of Hatherley’s architectural interests has always been astonishing – from the Bauhaus district of Tel Aviv to the monstrous bulk of my own alma mater, the University of Kharkiv in Ukraine. His latest book, “Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances: Finding a Home in the Ruins of Modernism” (Verso, £18.99, ISBN 9781839762215), reflecting much of the above, spans 15 years of writing, “from final reelection from Blair to the election of Boris Johnson,” as he puts it.

One thing that comes out clearly in most of Hatherley’s books and essays is his seething, almost Orwellian hatred of what I would call “architectural brutality” (not to be confused with brutalism)—all those massive, ugly structures that make up the face of many a British and European town and city. He still seems to have an unwavering belief in Winston Churchill’s famous saying that we first shape the buildings and then they shape us.

It’s not just the buildings that alert Hatherley’s keen eye and provoke his legitimate wrath. One of the most powerful essays in the collection deals with the enforced standardization by local authorities of the once versatile and interesting shop signs in the High Street of Walthamstow, one of London’s proudest multicultural areas. They all had to be designed according to one and the same pattern, which immediately made the once colorful street look depressing and dull. “The Walthamstow sign conversion is an anal-retentive error caused by a total misunderstanding of what makes London interesting,” Hatherley writes with signature bitter simplicity.

As a former Edinburgh (or Dunedin), I very much enjoyed the essay on the thoroughly screwed up architectural scene of the modern Scottish capital; ‘Edinburgh’s Golden Turds’. The recent “horribly cheap and filthy” shoddy reconstruction of the famous Waverley railway station has only exacerbated the situation. Hatherley’s conclusion is scathing: “Edinburgh’s architectural problems are British problems. Its inability to plan coherently, its chaotic, staggering attempts to bolster public transport, its neglect of social housing, its colossal speculative office buildings… are all specific to the UK, and the stark reticence it faces towards architecture and urban planning.”

I agree with everything in the emotional diatribe above, except the public transport situation being better in Edinburgh than perhaps anywhere else in the UK, with the recently opened light rail line to the airport – albeit expensive – a welcome addition to the already well-functioning network. Still, I generally applaud the portrayal of Edinburgh, which – like Warsaw, in the essay, My Kind of Town: Warszawa and many other 20th-century cities – “seems to be a little embarrassed”.

A city in shame is a typical metaphor for Hatherley, who tends to personalize places by assigning them human faces and souls. I remember how stunned I was a few years ago to discover that Hatherley, who grew up in a family of staunch Labor supporters, repeatedly described himself (see his Wikipedia article) as a staunch socialist and even a communist, for I would safely qualify most of his writing as extremely pro-democratic, anti-totalitarian and therefore – on my scale of values ​​– rabid anti-communist!

However, after reading most of his books, I realized that his views on socialism and communism were largely idealistic, based on the works of Marx and the Communist Manifesto (as he himself acknowledges), while mine had been shaped by 35 years live (or rather survive) in the oppressive and stagnant atmosphere of the USSR – a Stalinist state as far removed from the original communist ideals as the earth was from the sun. Hatherley may call himself anything—a communist, a Zoroastrian, or a Rastafarian—but his books, including the latest ones, are essentially anti-totalitarian through and through. To me that also means anti-communist

.’Clean living under difficult circumstances’ fits nicely in my bookcase of previous works by Hatherley. There is still plenty of room, but the author has only just turned 40, so hopefully, many more will follow.