Wednesday, 16 March 2011

A New Kind of Bleak

I'm standing in front of a man-made stretch of water - a dock or an industrial canal, which is traversed by a steel bridge painted white, forming a distinctive, thin arch. There's a small but heavily landscaped piazza, between some vaguely symbolic public art and some new, but already worn looking buildings. One of them is a museum of some description, clad in shiny metal; but what really dominates the view is the apartment blocks. They're dressed in various materials – glass, often green, a pale red brick, with efflorescence dripping from the mortar, anodised aluminium, brightly coloured render, pink stone, and most of all, various clipped-on pieces of wood and steel. Next to them, similar new towers are emerging, their bare concrete frames strikingly minimal compared with the bet-hedging display around. A few other people are here too, sipping coffee in the branch of Costa Coffee next to the gift shop. Not for the first time, I'm thinking to myself – where am I? I could be at Clarence Dock in Leeds, Liverpool One, Salford Quays, Cardiff Bay, the Tyne Quayside, Glasgow Harbour, Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth, Greenwich Millennium Village in London. The second question is – why am I here?

The short explanation for this is that I'm writing a series of articles for the architecture paper Building Design on the fate of 'urban regeneration' in the unforgiving light of the financial crisis; what the speculative redevelopments of inner cities across the country looked like when the debts were called in. I rewrote and expanded these articles into a book, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain – because ruination is what these places have in abundance. Partly because of the way they were invariably surrounded with the derelict and un-regenerated, whether rotting industrial remnants or the giant retail and entertainment sheds of the 80s and 90s, to which these places were apparently a more creative response; partly because they were so badly built, with pieces of render and wood frequently flaking off within less than a year of completion; but partly because they were so often empty, in every sense. Empty of architectural inspiration, empty of social hope or idealism, and often empty of people, as the likes of Clarence Dock and Glasgow Harbour were having a hard time filling their minimalist microflats with either buyers or buy-to-let investors.

Around the time I was walking around these places, marvelling at their general emptiness, I published a short book called Militant Modernism, which was a defence of the left-wing modernists of the 20th century – in architecture, film, music - who are too often reviled and patronised. I'd written in that book of how, growing up in Southampton, I'd always loved the audaciously harsh and modern architecture of the 1960s because of its contrast with the Victorian timewarp of postmodernist architecture, which had an especially grim hold on that port city, then building innumerable fibre glass and pediment-dressed shopping centres on former industrial sites. Yet these new places, the Cardiff Bays and Clarence Docks, weren't postmodernist, not in the old sense of jokey historical references and Las Vegas borrowings, and they weren't suburban, low-rise and car-centred like the developments that proliferated after Nicholas Ridley tore up the urban planning laws. This was modernism, of a sort.

Yet it wasn't the modernism I was so intent on rehabilitating. While the modernism of council estates, comprehensive schools, 'plate glass universities', co-operatives and libraries was driven to a large degree by socialist commitments and egalitarian politics, these entertainment centres, luxury flats, city academies and idea stores were driven by exclusivity, tourism and the politics of 'aspiration'. It was seldom easy to differentiate aspiration and greed, though one important element of these new places was their attempt to claw back some civic pride after deliberate Tory underdevelopment of (especially northern, industrial) cities. In stylistic terms, the differences were even more marked. The blocks of flats clad themselves so as not to look like the repetitive concrete-framed tower blocks they actually were; the office blocks did the same via the 'barcode façade', a ubiquitous method of making a glass box look vaguely irregular. Meanwhile, the 'showpiece' buildings, like Daniel Libeskind's Imperial War Museum North, Michael Wilford's Lowry, Capita Percy Thomas' Cardiff Millennium Centre, Norman Foster's Sage Gateshead or Hamiltons' atrocious Liverpool Pier Head Terminal, were clearly designed from the outside in, shapes and logos waiting around for appropriate functions to be conjured out of them. If form once claimed to follow function, then here form was the function – to be eyecatching, to attract tourists, to get the cameras snapping. If Modernism was about revealing structure, showing the workings, and attempting to transcend the divide between architect and engineer, now the architect draws a shape and asks the engineer to make it stand up.

It's possible to argue over the appropriate terminology for this stuff. Some have floated Iconism, Neo-Modernism, Bilbaoism, after every City Council's favourite Basque Port. In A Guide to the New Ruins I call it Pseudomodernism, a modernism of concealment, a stylistic shell left after all the original social and moral ideas have been stripped out. But the most droll prospective term came from the Architects Journal's Rory Olcayto, who calls it CABEism, after the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, the aesthetics quango that was, appropriately enough, headed at its inception by a property developer, Stuart Lipton. CABE's stock recommendations for mixed use, mixed materials and mixed heights may have created a whole new architectural aesthetic by itself (Olcayto meant it as a compliment, but it could just as easily have been a denunciation). What was especially striking was how quickly these places changed, once you left the icons and looked around a little – in short, how little of them ever actually made the architecture magazines. For instance, photographs of Gateshead's Baltic, a generous and well-designed arts centre, almost invariably crop out the Baltic Quays flats, designed in a vague approximation of the Baltic's colour scheme. For that reason, I was keen not to use a professional architectural photographer, and hired instead Joel Anderson, a theatre photographer who was careful not to hide the clunky public art and clumsy towers that crowded round the showpieces.

But what I was most keen to do was avoid patronising these places. Over the last fifteen years there have been countless articles where London-based architecture critics descend upon some benighted northern city and crow with triumph that 'culture' has been brought to the in proles via amorphous centres for this and that. In some cases the rhetoric is reversed, with the equally dubious claim that the philistines of Tyneside couldn't possibly sustain a gallery as huge as the Baltic. As much as these new spaces were a means of ensuring that unproductive spaces – ex-docks, industrial sites, former cotton mills – could be put back into profitable service, this was also a serious attempt to claw back some sort of civic pride, after the disastrous results of Thatcherism across the inner cities of urban Britain. Great cities like Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool, Cardiff, Glasgow, were keen to proclaim their greatness once again, and after decades where they had been deliberately depopulated, with even their inner cities suburbanised – by both left and right-wing, by local and central government.

The lack of secure confidence behind this apparent resurgence becomes obvious when you look closely at the results. The European equivalents to these schemes – the Ceramique in Maastricht, say, or HafenCity in Hamburg – serve the same pecuniary interests and display a similar pseudomodernist aesthetic, but are scrupulously put together, expensively detailed, with a great deal of money and thought put into the design of their public spaces. Here in the UK, with a tiny handful of exceptions, we've been keen to parcel off these spaces to the cheapest available firms, and to let the property developers lead the way on what was, for the most part, publicly owned land, out of the fear that they and their lovely money might disappear if they were in any way challenged. In Leeds, especially, the result is astoundingly cheap architecture, with the developers assuming we wouldn't notice the meanness and cheapness if they put a wavy roof on top and plenty of contrasting materials on the façade; but in almost every case the 'luxury flats' in these 'stunning developments' were well below the Parker-Morris minimum standards established for council housing in the early '60s.

The architects hired veered from local developers' favourites – Benoy, Carey Jones, Capita, Aedas and a variety of other faceless megafirms – and the occasional famous name hired from outside, usually Norman Foster. The City Architects who could once have stemmed the tide of dross have long been sacked. The last major City Architect was, ironically, employed by Leeds, whose new towers, like the 37-storey halls of residence Sky Plaza, are perhaps the shoddiest of them all. Municipal architect John Thorp was restricted to the design of 'public realm'. He retires this month, and the council do not plan to replace him. What we've lost here is clear enough - Leslie Morrison, president of the Society of Chief Architects of Local Authorities, puts it pithily, 'things get approved for political reasons if you don’t have a design architect at the top to say, 'That’s rubbish; go back to the drawing board’'. As few of the architects have much local knowledge, each 'unique', 'visionary' and 'stunning', scheme appears strangely similar. This homogeneity, ignoring the genius loci of these frequently wildly different cities, is reflected even in the modishly chic one-word names – there are several Pinnacles, a fair few Icons, even a couple of towers called 'Strata' one in Cardiff, the other in the Elephant & Castle.

And in the unforgiving glare of the crash, these remade places looked even more desolate. The confidence trick appeared to have failed, with the desired influx of wealthy residents from the suburbs into the inner city either a failure or a deeply ambiguous success, with polarised spaces, gated communities and lots of private security. When we visited certain of these places, we were told that Housing Associations had been approached to buy up the new flats, but refused because of how far they were below Parker-Morris standards. There is a windswept bleakness about many of the new enclaves, but it's a curious new kind of bleak. While the ruins of the post-war settlement's architecture – the under-maintained estates, the yawningly wide plazas, the vertiginous new spaces of towers and walkways - elicited aesthetic responses in post-punk and electronic music that matched the starkness, power and modernity of their setting, how do you respond critically to something that is trying so desperately not to offend?

One feature we found almost everywhere was the fences. Around the sites of Sheffield's 'New Retail Quarter', the 'Heart of East Greenwich' and practically the entirety of central Bradford, we found brightly coloured fences covering up failed schemes, the wasteland behind carefully screened off, with various means of distracting from the collapse. In Greenwich, a regeneration hole was hidden by subsidised graffiti, dramatising the area's putative transformation from chemical works to Millennium Domes. The hole in Bradford concealed the foundations of a shopping mall, part of a Will Alsop masterplan that intended to flood a city centre unforgivably lacking in picturesque water features. The fence was emblazoned with all the propaganda of regeneration – 'Cafe Culture', 'Urban Energy'. When we there, an unsubsidised graffito read 'BEST AMONG RUINS'. Yet here, the planned shopping district has been indefinitely shelved, turned into a municipal park, albeit a temporary and slightly shabby one. It would be very tempting to claim this as a small victory, an example of failure transformed into something worthwhile. Yet its first appearance in the national press occurred when the English Defence League staged a 'static demonstration' there in August – a first sign of the horrible weeds that might be growing from out of the ruins.

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian on 16/10/10.


  1. Leeds International Pool, a decent building!? You don't know shit! It was butt-ugly.

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