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Viewpoint: Why does regeneration create so many ugly buildings?

  • 17 August 2011
  • From the section Magazine
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Why has urban regeneration created so many ugly, bland buildings in the last 20 years, asks architectural critic Owen Hatherley.

I was born in 1981 in Southampton, a port city that was subjected to round-the-clock bombing by the Luftwaffe in 1940.

After a shaky start in the 1940s, where they merely rebuilt with Portland stone and better planning controls, the city made a real effort to become modern, filling its skyline with towers, walkways and multiple levels.

It was also an ancient city and at times the concrete walkways led into the medieval walls. I was fascinated by both. Their abrupt juxtaposition seemed of a piece with the landscapes of science fiction.

In 80s and 90s popular culture the future still existed and it was still modern, efficient, dramatic and perhaps slightly severe and even slightly scary - and so was the city around me.

It was built out of concrete and built out of rubble. For all its confidence, you could still see what had happened to it in 1940. It wasn't going to forget. But what it would soon forget was precisely the confidence it had in the post-war decades.

First came housing that tried to look old. But following it was something else entirely, something that could almost be described as modern. A gigantic shopping mall complex, clad in wipe-clean surfaces, which suddenly subsumed around half of the city centre, swallowing everything else in its path, from office blocks to Georgian streets to factories.

It had a strange, cancerous effect on the area around - retail parks, vast empty car parks with long buildings behind them. You couldn't walk here, you could only drive.

And, crucially, there was nothing to look at - nothing to even slightly tempt the eye. The new landscape wasn't concerned about the visual. Or if it was, the visual was only important inside in the atrium where the escalators led to the food court.

All you could see was a seemingly endless straggle of gigantic, windswept surface car parks, multi-storey car parks clad in brick and given pitched roofs in case anyone thought they were modern, huge windowless sheds. One with a giant sign on reading "LEISURE WORLD".

Publess utopias

This was the city of the 20th Century, but surely nobody, neither utopians or dystopians, imagined that it would look like this. It was nobody's dream and at least in theory, nobody's nightmare. How did we get here?

The city of the future in the UK was always torn between two competing impulses - to create a futuristic city or to imagine the future without cities as we know them at all.

On the one hand we have William Morris and his News From Nowhere. A committed Marxist, Morris took seriously the claim in the Communist Manifesto that a socialist future would do away with the divide between city and country. The first attempts at vaguely socialist cities in the UK were on the Morris-esque model, although far more compromised than he would ever have accepted.

Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities book was partly realised in Letchworth and Hampstead Garden Suburb, all of which aimed at a publess utopia that was neither fully city nor country, but which strained every effort to look medieval.

Versions of this were built along bypasses and spreading out on the edges of cities all over the country. If they had none of the vices of the city or country, they also had none of the virtues.

They were a vague in-between zone, a new suburbia that most of us now live in. So cut off from the land and agriculture that they are urban in all but name, but without the density and the sublime melodrama that makes a place genuinely city-like.

This in turn was rejected after World War II in favour of a still highly controversial urbanism of towers, walkways and flyovers. Supposedly we were all so horrified by that we all demanded the old cities back, except this time with the inside toilets they all originally lacked.

Under New Labour the future seemed to revive, at least briefly. City centres suddenly sprouted new blocks of flats, some of them - especially in the big cities - really quite tall. Outside of the outer suburbs an architectural style that looked kind of modern rose out of the shopping malls and retail parks of the 1990s.

Weed-filled wastelands

What made it different was the gap between quality and quantity. Go to many of the new schemes and you recognise that the order of modernism has been reversed. For better or worse, the buildings of the 1960s were designed from the inside out. Even the most reviled of blocks contain spacious apartments. Even the most alarming crumbling concrete hulks have residents who will say: "But they're lovely inside."

The new blocks are designed from the outside in, irregular windows and brightly-coloured cladding hide the tiny, mean proportions and a total lack of planning for human use. Now the cladding materials are falling off and the debts on the buy-to-lets are being called in. Was this another failed attempt at building cities of the future? Of building cities at all?

National Space Centre
Some modern architecture works well

If you want a vision of the future, one excellent place to go is the National Space Centre in Leicester. Get the bus there and it will loop through a world of semi-detached houses and retail parks. Get off and walk past some grimy, decaying terraces, follow the signs through the huge surface car park and you find a bizarre, bubble-like structure.

Inside it, the remnants of the space age are left around as ornaments - a Soyuz spacecraft next to the refreshments and two rockets within the building's quasi-organic membrane. It has more than a few hints of what the future was meant to be like but this is a museum, a repository for artefacts from another age entirely. Walk out of it, turn left, and you come to a large piece of overgrown, weed-filled wasteland.

This is the site of the Leicester Science Park, where new things should be able to occur. A sign says "starting on site summer 2010". There is no sign of it a year later.

What there is, is a new housing development. Little detached boxes in cul-de-sacs, designed for two purposes - maximising car parking and maximising profit. Each house has a little neo-Georgian porch, what the developers call a "gob-on".

What you notice is the emptiness. Not just the huge empty wastes outside, but the empty-headedness of a society that has abandoned all hope that it could create something better than this bloody mess.

This is an edited version of Owen Hatherley's Four Thought broadcast.