The Mundane City

Owen Hatherley on the banality of the global style

Text by Owen Hatherley

In his most recent book, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, David Harvey argues that the most impressive, most thrilling site of contemporary global capitalism is the skyline of the “global city”. “The capitalist city,” he writes, “is built as a work of art in its own right, replete with fabulous architecture and competing iconic meanings... it is the high point of capital’s attempt to appear civilised and to represent the grandest of human aspirations.” While “we can marvel at the product and admire the views of Paris, Barcelona, Hong Kong and Shanghai in part because this urban spectacle hides the processes and the human labour that went into its production,” Harvey argues, “capital does not, apparently, want to have its own distinctive image... the city landscape of capitalism exists as a diversionary image of another world close to some transcendental sense of human longing and desire.”

Harvey’s thesis captures a common feeling among critics of capitalism who are nevertheless often elated by its urban embodiment. I may admire the skyline pieced together in the City of London by bankers and the peculiar laissez-faire planning of the (until recently) City’s chief planning officer Peter Rees, even while finding all that built it and that it represents utterly reprehensible. Admiration for St Basil’s Cathedral is not necessarily approval of the deeds of Ivan the Terrible. But while these may be the most spectacular and exhilarating urban spaces created by globalisation, they are not necessarily the most typical. The “global city” is always presented to us as London, New York, São Paulo, Berlin, Tokyo, Shanghai or Mumbai. In the UK in particular, however, the global city is also Reading, High Wycombe, Basingstoke, Slough, Milton Keynes, Aberdeen – all of them deeply multicultural, all with rapidly rising populations, and very much at the centre of the transnational networks of production, communication and information. The global city is mundane.

In the 2000s, as London’s skyline was transformed by the steady climb of “Ken’s towers”, I commuted intermittently between Southampton and London. I watched the skyscrapers grow from steel frame to crisp glass membrane. In Southampton not much was built except for a huge shopping mall and some neo-Victorian housing. Yet new housing clung to the railway line, much of it high density and in flats, with traditionalist formal gestures no longer seen in London. Towers sprouted in the towns between the port city and the capital, in Basingstoke and Woking. I would see the concrete frames, and then, a few months later, I would see them completed, with “for sale” signs, property ads and occasionally signs of habitation on the balconies. They appeared as if from nowhere – tall, twisting their forms to maximise the profit-making opportunities of their sites, and utterly uninterested in architectural expression. In Woking the towers were vaguely art deco and painted in bright colours; in Basingstoke, they had a multitude of cladding materials and a more “vernacular” style that perhaps reflected lower budgets. But in both cases, they were impressive and awful, 
vacuous and yet somehow timely and telling. Something was happening here.

But that something would neither feature in architectural magazines nor in digests like Dezeen or ArchDaily. “Unreviewable” buildings, stealthy despite their scale, appeared without debate. To find out who the architects were would take significant research in local-government archives or having attended one of the harassed, pressured Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) meetings that likely gave reluctant building permission on the applicant’s tenth attempt. These too are global-city skylines. So why were they not being talked about?

This may be why Harvey refers to the skyline of the “global city” as a “diversionary image” that distracts attention from labour and production. The disappearance of the popular photographic image of the construction worker atop a sky-scraping steel frame is one instance of this. But the glittering spires also divert attention from other potential images of the global capitalist city. The background to this peculiar silence in all but the local press about more mundane global architecture is rooted, of course, in a long history of metropolitan snobbery – something especially strong in these provincial cities, close to the capital but lacking any northern grandeur or hard-man cool, from where many of the people who work in the media actually come. But it is also the result of a more fundamental cleavage in the way architecture is reported, by its own media and by the media at large.

This cleavage can be traced back to the divide between two architectural magazines that dominated the debate over modernism in the UK in the mid-century, both of which endure today – the Architectural Review (AR) and Architectural Design (AD). From the 1930s onwards, AR popularised a distinctively English adaptation of modern continental architecture – one that found fruit after the war in the form of the “humanised” modernity of the Royal Festival Hall and the first new towns, where modernism became decorative, homely and, most of all, picturesque. This strain, which was associated with editor Hubert de Cronin Hastings, photographer Eric de Mare, illustrator Gordon Cullen, critic Ian Nairn and, most famously, the historian and editor of The Buildings of England, Nikolaus Pevsner, was unusual in trying to convince readers to look outside their own front doors. Pevsner’s monumental effort to catalogue and describe the architecture of every English city, town and village was one facet of this, Nairn’s criticism of the banality and offensive security of everyday “subtopia” another, and Cullen’s popularisation of unplanned “townscape” a third.

From the mid-1950s onwards, the AR’s “soft” approach was criticised as ingratiating, twee and provincial by the “hard” wing of British architecture at AD; the Scandinavian example preferred at the AR denounced by critics like Reyner Banham and Alan Colquhoun as “the Swedish retreat from modern architecture.” AR was criticised for ignoring the advances modern architecture had made in the US (Mies van der Rohe and Gordon Bunshaft’s all-glass towers; Charles and Ray Eames’s clip-together houses) and on the continent (the heavy, raw concrete style developed by Le Corbusier in his unités d’habitation).

AD’s counter-movement encompassed first the “New Brutalism” of Alison and Peter Smithson and James Stirling, and later the experimental pop architecture of Cedric Price and Archigram. For the critics at AD, the neo-renaissance high-street bank, the “sharawaggi” style of the corner pub, the mundane appeal of the industrial terrace and the leafy suburb were inconsequential, a diversion from the possibilities of the modern world. New technologies, new modes of transport, new approaches to space owed nothing to the cosy familiarity of “townscape”. In the short run, this radical faction “won”, and the world-conquering generation of British architects such as Norman Foster and Richard Rogers owe a great deal to AD’s technophile, global perspective.

Yet both factions were intensely local – their buildings shaping construction outside the capital and other usual sites of architecture. The AD/AR divide was actually built into space in the Alton Estate in Roehampton (where one half of the site was given to the “softs”, the other to the “hards”), not in city-centre showpieces. AD would sometimes devote entire issues to the work of one local authority (most famously, Sheffield), and the most famous building of the “hard” faction is a state secondary school by the Smithsons in Hunstanton, a small and slightly forlorn seaside resort in Norfolk. What the residents of “sunny Hunny” made of the many foreign architecture tourists visiting this leaky, wind-blasted glass school is unrecorded. An architect from the “soft” faction would have designed something with more of an East Anglian flavour perhaps, and while the building would still have been a functioning Norfolk comp, it might have been less internationally famous. Both movements remained likely to be creating the architecture outside your front door if you, like most, don’t live in the metropolis. But as local governments – which had been the best patron for well-known, respected architects – were starved of power and funds, architecture moved from the peripheries back to the centres, and became focused on a specific group of people, in the form of what would later be christened “starchitecture” or, less flatteringly, “oligarchitecture”.

Architecture is in principle an unusual discipline in the increasingly intangible, “immaterial” capitalism that prevails in global cities. Architecture may, as Harvey points out, strain to obscure its basis in material production, but it is still three-dimensional, still very large and still, at least potentially, permanent, although increasingly less so. What is conspicuous even within global cities is a divide that far exceeds the traditional dichotomy between “foreground” and “background” buildings common to the historic city. In somewhere like Salford Quays, part of one of the UK’s most feasibly global cities, Greater Manchester, there is a sort of architectural reservation, where impressively abstract structures by Daniel Libeskind and Michael Wilford strain and stretch themselves into stark, instantly memorable titanium shapes, surrounded by the most shockingly banal, inept office blocks and housing towers, all of which could easily be found looking out of the Southampton-London train, decorating the skylines of Basingstoke and Woking. This phenomenon is even part of the local tourist “offer” – I once saw an architecture website plotting out a tour of Manchester based solely on what had been built there by “global” architects, such as Libeskind’s Imperial War Museum, Santiago Calatrava’s bridge over the Irwell and Tadao Ando’s frequently piss-stained “wall” at Piccadilly Gardens. Even the architects’ fans would surely be hard-pressed to find these buildings genuinely more interesting or successful than those designed by near-anonymous 19th- and 20th-century engineers or local-authority employees. Even then, they would have to wilfully ignore the equally globalised dross all around, in the form of thousands of (often empty) buy-to-let units.

If, like many people, you live in cities like Reading, Basingstoke or Woking, your consumption of architecture of a decent quality within the town in question is necessarily limited to the legacy of Victorian civic planners and mid-20th-century municipalities, or what you can find on the internet. Working at a business park and living in a “stunning development”, you can, in your free time, scroll through ArchDaily and Dezeen to see what wonders are being built in London, Shenzhen, Chicago and Santiago, while not thinking or even expecting much from the design of your immediate surroundings. In fact, the heights of “starchitecture” and the banality of local buildings seem to grow further apart in an inverse correlation.

Globalisation is in no sense limited to the metropolis. What is needed now is a real assessment of what globalisation actually means in the city, in all cities. This is not an argument for provincialism or for a revival of AR’s fetish for Victorian pubs, but because globalism and world capitalist processes can actually be more interestingly seen outside your front door than online or on a tourist jaunt to Bilbao. That is why the image of the global city is “diversionary”. It is the stock-brick, pedimented world headquarters of Vodafone in Newbury as much as it is a parametric art gallery in Abu Dhabi or an expressway in Shanghai. It permeates every level of the built environment, and largely, it permeates it with drastically ill-thought out, shoddy, loveless banality. §