When it comes to where we should look for the best ideas about urban areas – whether in science, literature, film, politics or football – I say, all at once! Anything outside of architectural self-referentiality is enriching.
People see urban areas in dystopian and utopian terms because urban environments are where you can really see ‘society’ in a concrete form, so they’re a natural way to represent ideas about society and how it should be. That said, from Kropotkin to Mad Max, rural areas have their utopias and dystopias too.
Blade Runner was successful because it was one of the first urban dystopias to spot how late capitalism was going to look – not gleamingly functional and Fordist like, say, Metropolis, but strongly capitalist, messy, multicultural, malfunctioning, unequal, riddled with ads, mess and fragments from the past. Robots and personal aircraft aside, it’s quite impressively prescient about how we live now. It also makes all of that look quite sublime, hence blunting criticism of it – I know I’ve often found landscapes like that rather seductive.
No single building has had the largest effect on my life, but the environment of Southampton particularly combines post-war replanning, chunky medieval fragments, walkable medieval walls, brutalism, lots of green spaces and industry, plus more than enough suburbanising retail and housing developments to induce a lifelong hatred for such things.
My favourite building in Southampton is Wyndham Court, for its drama, public-spiritedness, confidence and intense feeling of place. My least favourite: West Quay, for obliteration of the same.
If architecture reflects power, politics and wealth in British society, it does so in that it’s cheap, provincial, short-termist and, above all, mean – meanly proportioned, mean public spaces, mean materials. It suggests a capitalism increasingly unable to provide anything decent, that has essentially stopped giving a shit.
If I were to own the Shard with the various functions shoved into it as a typology – hotel, offices, flats, studios, etc. – it might work rather well as a Constructivist-style ‘social condenser’. Let’s say council flats, a social centre, a homeless shelter in the foyer...
‘Architecture’ maybe can’t contribute to social equality as such, but architecturally-related disciplines like town planning, housing and so forth obviously can. But probably equally important as ‘good’ architecture in, say, council housing, is less heroic stuff like good maintenance, active tenants’ groups, a sympathetic council and so on.
It’s hard for architecture to be democratic in the sense of participatory or direct democracy, because it inherently involves division of labour, and is very capital-intensive. I would argue it can make an accommodation with democracy – the Byker housing estate in Newcastle was a good example of this, where both the architectural and democratic sides of it were quite uncompromising – the architect didn’t ‘abdicate’ their role to the community, as is sometimes advocated in notions of participatory planning, but put their expertise at the service of the community, who had constant input, over a long and intensive project.
Brutalist architecture was subject to both elite disdain and popular distaste, though they’re currently becoming deeply fashionable, proof that the disdain was mostly about fashion anyway.
If I could commission any contemporary architect it would be Caruso St John, to build a high-density council housing estate in a British city with proper public facilities – a library, a social centre, a pub. I think it’d be intriguing to know what it would do in such a situation, on the strength of both their avant-garde and contextual buildings for art galleries in Nottingham or Walsall.
In terms of unrealised city plans and architecture it’d have been nice to know what Ivan Leonidov’s various plans for spaced-out, disurbanised, high-tech socialist cities would have been like in three dimensions.
Buckminster Fuller was an idiot savant, putting things so simply that they started to sound sensible – why should we work, why should we build houses from mud, why should we assume social systems are permanent?
1981 Born in Southampton
1999 Moves to Southeast London
2009 Publishes Militant Modernism, which defended the Modernist movement in architecture, design, film and popular culture
2010 Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, a look a failures in urban planning under New Labour
2011 Completed PhD at Birkbeck College, University of London
2013 Leads walking tours in Coventry to look at the city’s socio-political history
This was published in the March 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine