Owen Hatherley

Owen Hatherley

Owen Hatherley writes for numerous avenues, including the Guardian, New Statesman, New Humanist, Frieze, Blueprint, The Philosophers’ Magazine and the Wire, to name but a few. Many of the webwise will know him for his blog sit down man, you’re a bloody tragedy which focuses on aesthetic and political issues in architecture and music. As well as studying for a PhD and organising film screenings at interesting venues with Kino Fist he has just published his first book Militant Modernism with Zer0 Books.

Here, Owen speaks with ReadySteadyBook's Rowan Wilson:

Rowan Wilson: Your blog has been going since 2005 and has a regular readership. Where does the title, Sit down man, you’re a bloody tragedy, come from and why the appeal?

Owen Hatherley: The line comes from James Maxton, the Red Clydeside MP who became leader of the Independent Labour Party. It's what he shouted at the famously pusillanimous Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald during his resignation speech in Parliament, and I thought it a rather appropriate exclamation in an era where the Labour Party has become more cowardly and right-wing than even Macdonald might have wished, yet manages to persist, undead.

But more generally, in the year before I started Sit Down Man, I blogged at The Measures Taken (the title of which is nicked from Brecht...), and I started the second blog as a space for fragments, the flagrantly unfinished, frippery of various kinds, links, polemics, pretty pictures, complaints about my health and other things with similar lack of rigour, so as not to spoil the focus, or the general ideological purity of the other one. But it took on a life of its own, and now I only use the other blog for posting occasional longer essays.

RW: What do you get from blogging? How do you think it has changed the way you write? In a recent debate with Stephen Howe in New Humanist magazine you were championing the democratic and propagandizing potential of blogs. Others have complained that they are yet one more example of postmodernity’s disempowering information overload – a thousand flowers blooming every second of the day. Is this simply a fear of democracy?

OH: Yes and no. I'm often rather torn on the internet. On the one hand, I owe it an enormous amount. For myself, and numerous others who aren't part of any old boy networks, or who are neither adept at nor interested in networking and private views, it provided an outlet which simply wouldn't otherwise exist, or if so in the more retro form of the fanzine. I first started reading on the internet rather than regarding it as a kind of expensive Ceefax because of a rash of blogs around 2002 – Blissblog, New York London Paris Munich, then the less musically-focused, philosophical, political and poetic blogs like K-Punk, Infinite Thought, Heronbone, Citta Violenta, The Pillbox, Lenin's Tomb. I had wondered where the critical writing about popular culture which used to have a space in the music press and to a lesser extent the likes of The Face had disappeared to, and there it was, on the internet. It took another few years of procrastinating before I got mine together. These blogs seemed a reaction to the closing-down of discourse which occurred in the late 90s, where the music press no longer existed as an entity interested in politics and wider culture, and the internet actually created something better, something where there was more potential for response, more space, more depth, and yes, more democracy.

So at first I found the internet enormously exciting. I'm relatively jaundiced about it now, partly because of familiarity, but partly because of the amount of internet discourse which is either completely vacuous or outright obnoxious. On the one hand, the internet enabled a huge amount of brilliant writing which had simply no other outlet – and on the other, it leads to jumped-up McCarthyites like Harry's Place mounting hysterical internet witch hunts, or millions of blogs full of lolspeak and inanities. Nonetheless, I think it's a medium with an absolutely huge, if often unused potential. As to how it changes the way one writes – well, again it depends on how it's used. There's no doubt the internet can create very, very short attention spans. I try and balance text with pictures to try and stop the mind from wandering, but to be completely honest, I find writing to strict word counts as a freelancer affects how I write more than blogging ever did – if you're used to writing 800 word reviews, it makes writing something more sustained feel a little unusual, like you have to get back into training. I've also had to get used to self-editing.

I'm very keen on a certain fragmentary mode of writing, partly because it fits how we live, and partly because of its immediacy. It's perhaps convenient that the internet imposes that kind of fragmentation.

RW: Your new book Militant Modernism sets out to define a particular politics and aesthetics of Modernism. As you make clear in the book, Modernism is an elastic term. Can you define briefly what it encompasses for you?

OH: The Modernism I'm referring to is mostly in the sense of 'the Modern Movement', as it was once called, in design and architecture - that is, a more-or-less coherent, programmatic aesthetic that encompasses people like Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus, Soviet Constructivism, De Stijl, after the war Brutalism and to a certain extent the Situationist International, and certain of the less stupid elements of the '60s counter-culture as well. A movement aiming at transforming everyday life through art, or rather abolishing art by transforming everyday life. It's roughly the definition of Modernism used in the V&A's Modernism show a few years ago, though that ended in 1939, while I argue that Modernism as an active movement lasts several more decades, and is in a sense something which continues in other arenas after the '70s, when its death was proclaimed in architecture – punk and post-punk, or rave and jungle, strike me as Modernist movements rather than postmodernist ones, in that there's no ironic distance in them, no deference towards older forms, a certain technological fearlessness, and an attempt, either conscious or completely apolitical, to change the everyday.

Of course I'm aware there's all manner of other Modernisms, particularly the Modernism in literature in Britain and the US which was generally rather more right-wing, and there's an overlap in the book where I talk about Wyndham Lewis, one of the few figures who fits into both of these Modernisms.

RW: The blurb tags the book as ‘a defence of Modernism against its defenders’. Who are these defenders and in what way have they misrepresented Modernism?

OH: It's less a question of misrepresentation, more of emphasis. The book tries to fight the corner for the systematic, politically serious side of the Modern Movement.

The defenders I was thinking of were those who seemed to defend Modernism from a sort of lifestyle perspective – publications like Wallpaper, property developers like Urban Splash, the austerity nostalgia of Royal Festival Hall branded mugs and plates, the attempted reclamation of Modernist architecture in Britain from its associations with social housing and the social democracy of the post-war decades; or there were those who combined that lifestyle Modernism with Modernism-as-self-help, something that was particularly irksome in Alain de Botton's book and TV series on architecture.

This Modernism seemed particularly exemplified by the blocks of flats that were built in every British city in the last ten years, which are frequently meaner than the system-built blocks of the 1960s, and act as a sort of built embodiment of gentrification. The 'yuppiedromes' in Laura Oldfield Ford's term, or 'dovecots' as the blogger Renter Girl - who has the misfortune of living in one of them in Manchester - calls them. They seem associated with a particularly drab minimalism in interior design, or more recently with the grotesque notion of 'credit crunch chic'. Or, similarly we have the Modernism of 'regeneration' and 'iconic architecture', where a place somehow magically stops being poor when you get Daniel Libeskind or someone in to design you a jagged, sententious gallery, or Santiago Calatrava to do you a bridge – a sort of Modernism of the creative industries, 'regenerated' docks and museum culture.

More generally, my problem with this was that its proselytisers mostly deliberately disassociate this Modernism from the Modernism of the Welfare State, as an attempt to make Modernism safe for the middle classes. This usually takes the form of implying that working class (or 'underclass') folk were somehow too ill-mannered to live in these places, that really they were destined to house young urban professionals; the best examples of this are Keeling House in London or Park Hill in Sheffield. Both of these are Grade II* listed council housing projects which were specifically designed to retain working class community, but were recently taken over by property developers, with the new flats largely aimed at 'creatives' as much as stockbrokers. This is usually accompanied by a narrative that argues these were 'utopian' projects doomed to failure but which need to be preserved as 'part of the heritage' but which now need a change of use, despite the huge council waiting lists. And what you never hear about is the fact that the original tenants actually often rather like living in these places, but are bribed out by local councils who refuse to pay for basic upkeep and maintenance – which magically arrives when they get sold off.

RW: Arguing for a return to a Modernist sensibility poses the paradox of trying to unearth the remnants of a movement that was against remnants, who aspired to ‘live without traces’ as you quote Benjamin. Does this methodology undermine your own project? Can one be a Modernist and still look backwards?

OH: Well, that's the question. I've occasionally been accused of a nostalgia for Modernism, and there's a lot of it about nowadays. There's a difference though, between nostalgia and archaeology, between historical materialism and museum culture...and this is why I invoked Walter Benjamin, because without degenerating into the nothing-will-ever-happen-again time of postmodernism, his philosophy suggests a kind of temporality where creating a new society doesn't necessarily involve a linear advance towards the glorious future, something about which we have every right to be dubious, and which the right does just as well as the left – note the Blairite language of 'modernisation', or of 'no turning back'.

V.I Lenin gave a wonderful definition of dialectics which sums up what I was trying to do, I hope successfully:

a development that, as it were, repeats stages that have already been passed, but repeats them in a different way, on a higher basis - a development, so to speak, that proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes and revolutions; ‘breaks in continuity’... the interdependence and the closest and indissoluble connection between all aspects of any phenomenon (history ever revealing new aspects) - these are some of the features of dialectics as a doctrine of development that is superior to the conventional one.

RW: You discuss Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticists and their desire to transform everyday life through transforming the city and for me this raised the spectre of the other movement related to Modernism, Fascism. It’s a tired liberal trick to lump the Soviet Union in with Fascism to invent some generic ‘totalitarianism’ in polar opposition to ‘democracy’, but I was intrigued by this connection between Lewis and your own project. Lewis was never a socialist and flirted with fascism (well, at one point he wrote a book-length love letter to Hitler...) but this still raises the connection of the difference between a Fascist and a Socialist architecture. Has Fascist architecture ever contained a ‘utopian moment’ or was it all reactionary neo-classicism? And, seeing his work as a whole, what tropes do you think pull Lewis one way and then another?

OH: Firstly, I don't think you can talk about Modernism in Britain without mentioning Wyndham Lewis – he's one of a handful of British Modernist painters and thinkers who were the equal of their continental contemporaries – but he is, there's no doubt, a fairly ugly figure. Lewis was politically very slippery. There are traces of leftism in the two volumes of BLAST in 1914-5, and he wrote in the mid-20s that he 'shakes the Bolshevik with my left hand and the Fascist with my right hand'. By the 30s it was obvious he was more interested in shaking the right hand. I think the central problem with Lewis, in many respects, was that he was an egomaniac and a genius, and favoured any potential society which would be most likely to acknowledge and indulge that genius. As interesting as his political writings often are, this is hardly a base for anything other than a deeply unpleasant politics. I ponder in the book whether, if Vorticism had survived into the '20s, it might have developed into something as serious as Russian Constructivism or the Bauhaus, but I somehow doubt it – the idea of Lewis going to demonstrations or trade union meetings, or going along with Mayakovsky or Rodchenko in calling himself an 'art worker' is pretty inconceivable. There is however a major Vorticist strain in a lot of leftist Modernism later on in Britain, from the poster designs of London Transport to the Welfare State architecture of the New Brutalists.

With respect to the second part of the question. Nazi architecture was never Modernist – at most, some of their factory buildings were vaguely functional in appearance, but even there they had a symmetricality and monumentality which was far from Modernist. This wasn't for want of trying on behalf of some Modernist architects – Mies van der Rohe, for instance, kept clinging on for years before lack of work made him emigrate. Fascist architecture in Italy is a very different matter. Architects like Giuseppe Terragni and designers like Fortunato Depero were Fascists. So it's not a straightforward question, but there are major differences in approach between the two Modernisms. Soviet architecture in the '20s was interested in montage, signage, dynamism, social programmes like factory kitchens, workers' clubs and communal apartments; the Italian Modernism of the '30s was a much colder aesthetic, all about pure geometries, mathematical precision, and a classicism in ideology if not form - and far more aimed towards the rich. Nonetheless, there was a distinctive Fascist Modernism under Mussolini, and also in some Latin American countries, which is still rather under-researched.

RW: Much of the Russian architecture you write about comes from the late twenties – which is to say after the Russian Revolution had gone disastrously wrong and Stalin was in power. You also note that the gated community contains a utopian pulse buried within its politics of class and exclusion. How does one extricate the utopianism from architecture created under Stalinism, or apparently for Stalinism?

OH: I think there's always a utopian impulse of a sort in any attempt to reform everyday life and generally make the everyday less awful. It's the refusal to accept things as they are, but it often appears in morbid forms, and the gated community is a particularly gross example of a utopia of exclusion. Still, my mention of gated communities as utopian was written with tongue very much in cheek.

With reference to the USSR, we shouldn't forget that Stalin came to power very gradually – it wasn't as if the day after Lenin died he launched some sort of palace coup. There were several years of collective leadership, and it was not obvious until around 1934, with the Kirov assassination and its aftermath, that he had systematically eliminated his enemies and firmly established a personal dictatorship. There was a weird moment in the USSR between 1928 and 1932, where it suddenly became officially 'revolutionary' again after the compromises of the '20s, and there was a definite intensification of aesthetic experiment at this point, especially in film, architecture and town-planning (the work of Sheila Fitzpatrick is very interesting on this period). The first Five Year Plan led to an undoubted revolutionary enthusiasm in the towns, combined with the most appalling mass murder in the countryside, and the strictures on Modernist architecture were put in place exactly at the point the Plan was completed, when that 'enthusiasm' was no longer useful. The projects for social condensers, collective living and so forth were ended by decree as the Plan came to an end. In fact, one of the reasons why Modernism was so unpopular was because of its association with the botched construction projects of those years, where Modernist buildings were realised using basically medieval technology.

You could argue, and it's something Slavoj Zizek is keen on arguing, that there was a truth in the enthusiasm of those who took state Socialism at its word, and that the true believers were always more dangerous than those who just cynically went along with Stalinism for personal gain and self-preservation. The fact that most of those killed in the Purges were loyal Communists certainly implies that it was these people who Stalin most feared. In that sense, we could regard buildings like the Narkomfin in Moscow, or the original plans for new towns like Magnitogorsk, as the 'believing' element of Stalinism – and like the believers themselves, they suffered a pretty grim fate under Stalinism proper.

RW: Two key themes of Modernism play themselves out in the book: functionalism and romanticism. In Modernism’s call for a revolutionary transcendence there was a definite Blakean romanticism. And yet the technical language that was employed by some, such as the Constructivists, suggest that they also employed a functional approach to their romanticism, which is to say that they saw the transformation of the human character as almost a straightforward scientific program. Is this problematic for you or a source of Modernism’s productivity?

OH: I quote Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell in the book, because I think Blake straddled both of these positions, or at least tried to early on – think of the 'printing-house in hell' in that book, Milton being of the devil's party without knowing it – these are positive images of industrialism, and Blake certainly had fairly little interest in nature; but he did believe in a certain human perfectibility, which runs alongside a revolutionary mysticism. There's a dialectic there between science and romanticism which should never be entirely resolved.

On the other hand, the likes of the Constructivists certainly didn't regard themselves as romantics, and considered their work to be purely scientific, devoid of any residual idealism, though we look at them now and think them enormously romantic figures, what with their belief that everything from sexual relations to the built environment could be completely transformed - although that says more about us than them. For instance, I don't know if you can talk about, say, Mayakovsky or Brecht being intent on a 'call for transcendence', unless we mean in the sense of transcending existing society. But I regard this tension, or contradiction, perhaps, as one of the things that makes Modernism interesting – the friction between the allegedly romantic or idealistic notion that we could live differently, and the attempt to achieve this via scientific, technological means.

Meanwhile, functionalism as an idea was not all physical jerks and Taylorism, there were other sides to it – the dynamic, neon-lit functionalism of Erich Mendelsohn or Ilya Golosov, the organic, humanist functionalism of Hugo Haring or Mikhail Okhitovich, the energetic Sexpol functionalism of Wilhelm Reich or Sergei Eisenstein... Both Modernism and, for that matter, Socialism, lose something important when either the romanticism or functionalism become totally dominant.

RW: The book ends with a call for a new counter-culture and you yourself have recently been involved in discussions about the unification of the left. So – the $64,000 question: what is to be done?

OH: If I knew that I wouldn't be sat at my kitchen table writing this, I'd be out there doing it. As to what should be done, well – a wave of full nationalisations, without compensation, combined with an attendant expansion of workers' control – something made much more viable by the internet and other advanced technologies – would be a good start. We also need, and could undergo, a fourth industrial revolution to convert a dead-end economy based on fossil fuels and rapacious growth to less destructive energies and technologies. This would be a huge Modernist project, easily the equal of the earlier technological revolutions but without making the same mistakes, with a vast potential for the creation of new forms or new and better ways of living. I think most of this would be popular, far more now than at any time for decades.

I could think of ideas until my hair falls out, but the problem is who is actually going to do it. The British Left is in an absolutely appalling state, and attempts to bring it together like Respect or the RMT's No2EU platform are either dead or stillborn. What there is is the Greens, who I have a certain amount of time for, but Green politics is too often driven by snobbery and anti-technological fantasies; and the Trade Union movement, which has the organic connection with working people that the Greens lack, but which is depressingly intent on unconditionally funding a Thatcherite Labour Party. The first thing that has to be done would be to abandon the idea that the Labour is even a liberal Party, never mind a socialist one, but even then I sometimes wish well the likes of Jon Cruddas or Compass, although I have no illusions in either. What makes this so worrying is that there is a huge, huge space for the left now, in that the last 30 years of neoliberal economics and politics have suddenly proved to be completely and utterly bankrupt. Yet we just aren't capitalising on it. I suppose the orthodox thing to say is that the struggles that will undoubtedly happen in the next few years will create their own organisations, but whether we even have time for that is a difficult question. Things are less grim in Germany with Die Linke, France has its New Anticapitalist Party, plus there's the leftist governments in Latin America...but in Britain it seems like it'll be Nazis and little Englanders reaping the benefits, at least for now. So no $64,000 for me.

RW: What future projects are you working on?

OH: The main project is, or at least ought to be, the PhD I'm working on at Birkbeck College, which is on Americanism in the USSR and the Weimar Republic during the '20s. In some ways it's a retrospective attempt to answer the question of whether or not an advanced, technological popular culture - here represented by particular American archetypes from slapstick to space fiction to skyscrapers, but which could mean today the hardcore continuum or the internet - could have a serious political use, either as a foreshadowing of the culture of a different society or as a means to achieving that society. I'm not expecting to definitively answer the question.

In the shorter term, I'm organising a sort-of-conference with Esther Leslie and some other interesting people at Birkbeck, called 'In the Shadow of Senate House' - a sort of decentred event based around that building and its presence in central London, through walks, exhibitions and other actions. I'm also vaguely planning a second book, entitled Ingsoc, on the cultural and aesthetic history of the British left, possibly with particular attention to why people are obsessed with that sodding Keep Calm and Carry On poster...

RW: Thanks Owen.

-- Rowan Wilson (09/06/2009)

Readers Comments

  1. Ok - I'll bite!!

    OH's ambivalence towards the internet & bloggery is intriguing. In fact, I think what is problematic can be linked back to Mark's excellent post about reading carefully. Blogging, like texting, emailing &, heaven forbid, tweeting, thrives on the immediacy of rapid writing (& rapid reading). This temporal dimension of immediacy, & rapidity, of writing & reading works against the formulation, or construction, of careful arguments. It eliminates, precisely, the possibility of patience.

    Patience not only designates a taking of one's time. It also involves a certain passivity. Now - it is a standard claim that the internet, along with all the other wonders of modern technological society, such as video-gaming, encourages passivity. In the case of blogging, & the culture of immediate communication, I'd would like to suggest the opposite - that, in fact, the passivity of patience is precluded.

    This is because, in this culture of rapid communication, the only way to participate is to become involved immediately, to post, or to respond, in the blink of an eye. One must always be, in other words, active. But what is the currency of activity in this sphere of immediate communication?

    It is opinion.

    In the blogosphere, everyone has a ready opinion. In order to function in the blogosphere, one must always be ready with an opinion. If one were to stop, in order to think, then it would be too late - the time to communicate would already have passed. Equally, the idea of being patient, of waiting before one posts - in order, for instance, to take time to read over, & reflect on, what one has written - is also excluded by the temporality of rapid communication. That's why "it's all about opinions." Opinions are easy, they're facile. They don't require time to figure out, they don't require patience in order to construct arguments in their defence. They don't invite self-reflection. They don't require patience. They thrive in the endless activity of immediate moments, rather than the careful passivity of moments with 'longue duree'.

    Of course, I realise that there is a performative contradiction lurking in this post; & I also accept that what I say does not have universal validity.

    But, to rejoin Mark's earlier discussion, it would be very interesting to develop a sustained reflection of the conditions for careful writing alongside a reflection on the conditions for careful reading.

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