Should we now also despise colonial architecture?

Artificial Islands: Adventures in the Dominions

Owen Hatherley

Rehearsal booksp. 335£12.99

Here’s one thing. A disturbing book about disturbing cities. And it’s full of loaded questions. Like Hezbollah, the publisher uses the silhouette of an automatic weapon as its logo. This is a trigger warning.

Jonathan Swift wrote:

All poets and philosophers who will find Some favorite system in their minds By any means to make it suitable Will force all Nature to submit.

So I give you Owen Hatherley, a leftist architectural critic, adept at the predictable tropes of guardian-sprache, which exists in a world, as he often tells us, defined by the concepts of colonial domination, exploitation and oceanic misery. As Lionel Trilling has observed, people on the left are always sullen because things are never as perfect as they want them to be. People on the right have more fun. If you don’t want to read about “ongoing imperial wars”, look away now.

Hatherley’s subject is the architecture of the “transoceanic white settler superstate” of CANZUK – Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom. Imperial exaggeration has led to many absurdities, described here with disapproval rather than amused wonder: Queen Victoria’s Osborne House on the Isle of Wight is replicated in Brisbane, Auckland and Montreal. Melbourne has suburbs called Croydon and Notting Hill. Why? Because, in the Hatherley version, the dominant world culture imposed itself on innocent primitives and “forced hold” of their territories. There are a lot of forced entries in this book. It is a jargon-laden moan of the perpetually dispossessed.

Osborne House on the Isle of Wight (Getty Images)

Hatherley writes spirited conversations with cities – not as nightly baroque as Jonathan Meades, nor as fun and funny as Ian Nairn. His account of Australia leans heavily on that of Robin Boyd Australian ugliness, a wonderful and original book. His description of New Zealand doesn’t match the dreamlike madness captured by Duncan Fallowell. And Hatherley missed Mordecai Richler’s wonderful anecdote about Canada’s name. On a map of North America, the conquistadors wrote Acqui esta nada (Here there is nothing). The conquering Victorians then filled this void with batches of Victorian municipal pump jobs, soon followed by B-roll Americana.

I myself enjoyed the cognitive dissonance of Malta, where standing stones and Sicilian Baroque are overlaid by Victorian Gothic and the occasional bright red K2 telephone box. I like messy cities. I like a good architectural palimpsest. Autocrats, of course, prefer system and clarity. Still, I recognize that not all man-made islands are delightful. A friend, recently returned from Canberra, said he wouldn’t have mind going there to see a newly discovered Giorgione; it was not however worth the trip for architecture.

However, British excess was not limited to the oppressed colonies: Los Angeles, in the land of the free, has major monuments designed by a Scot. Britannia ruled the yards as well as the waves. The Massachusetts General Court once heard, at the celebration of Plymouth’s nomination,

Let us plant here also the other names of England. When we look up to the hills look at Chiltern and Cotswold….Let the Charles [River] is called Thames.

There’s a practical problem with writing a book about cities few readers will ever visit: you need generous illustrations. Instead, we only get Hatherley’s obscure do-it-yourself cliches, but I guess that’s to escape the coercive hegemony of professionalism (while carefully avoiding the bourgeois question of fees and rights). artificial islands is like Pevsner and PJ O’Rourke vacation in hell uncomfortable and, absurdly for a book about cities, it has a violent deterrent effect on wanting to visit any of them (other than cosmopolitan Montreal which excites a small wave of joy). But the essential flaw of the book is that it only sees the buildings as expressions of ideology, not as art. This is the Marxist way.

In the meantime, the publisher wants to escape “capitalist realism” and seeks “to enter history and assert control over its currents”. Lock and load your guns, pass the Molotov cocktail while I focus on my martini, and explain how this book could have been better.

A truly subversive act by the publisher would have been to hire a talented designer to create a beautiful book, even if that would be indulging in elitist concepts of excellence. As it stands, the typography is sloppy, the layout oblivious, and the effect dismal. But Hatherley followers don’t expect joy of living
and are prepared for the difficulties.

A founding principle of artificial islands, tacit but omnipresent, is that the territory belongs inalienably to the native. It is certainly possible to sympathize with the Maori for the forced seizure of their land and the replacement of tribal huts with town halls and trading centers in a place now called Auckland. But to lament it on principle is surely as foolish as wishing the Iceni, Epidii and Carvetii had regained planning authority after the Romans rose and left Britannia. Either way, if people were inalienably tied to their place of origin, the Hatherleys would still carve flint in the Shropshire glades established by the Athryth woman. And Bayleys in the Flemish Hauts-de-France.

Hatherley’s beliefs are real, but so are those of a student union stalker Trot. artificial islands
is no fun read: it’s a fugue of dissent and rallentando of sinister nihilism that has failed to persuade me that I want to escape capitalism altogether, the author’s stated ambition. And that ignores the central truth of successful urbanization: you don’t finish cities, you start them. Toronto may be grim, but it’s just the beginning. Rome was not built in a day. Cities are works in progress, not closed books.

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