The experience of living in two very different housing projects in Southampton – one traditionalist, one modernist – taught Owen Hatherley to ask questions about the impact of municipal decision-making on the evolution of his home town and embark on a career as a writer.


The Flower Estate, one of Southampton’s post-Becontree garden suburbs has few trees, no public space and no pubs.

Owen Hatherley
Owen Hatherley

Everyone learns from their home town in one way or another, either by reacting against it or by embracing it as an ideal, or through some complicated combination of both. For me, I could isolate most of my negative and positive feelings about Southampton – the green, sprawling, reconstructed and slightly nondescript port city where I grew up – and locate them in two different housing estates. One, I lived on when I lived in Southampton; one I returned to for several months some years after I had already moved to London. One was, to quote the Pet Shop Boys, “the place I waited years to leave”; the other was somewhere I could see from outside, with the experience of other places, and come to the unexpected conclusion that it was almost all right. But while citing Venturi here, I ought to be clear that the first of these two council-built estates was traditionalist and the second was modernist. The modernist estate was the one with the complexity and the richness and the urbanity; the traditionalist estate a monoculture both architecturally and socially.

Most interesting architecture of Southampton over the last century, as in many of the more humdrum cities in Britain, is the product of municipal endeavour. Apart from Basil Spence’s campus for the University of Southampton, everything worth seeing built after around 1880 was commissioned by the council, from late-Victorian parks that make the city centre so pleasant, and the art-deco Cobbett Road Library, to the monumental Brutalism of Lyons Israel Ellis’s Wyndham Court; from the grandiose free classical Civic Centre to Eric Lyons’ Castle House tower block.

Commercial architecture, whether the dribs and drabs of surviving Victorian eclecticism or the flat replanning of Above Bar, the main retail street after the war – not to mention the several large malls of the 1990s – has been dull or tacky.

Northam Estate, built on the site of Southampton’s bombed dockside slums, had a mixed population, green space and trees – everything the Flower Estate lacked. 

Southampton is a working-class city, a place that was until recently dominated by the port and by factories like Ford’s and the Vosper Thornycroft shipyards. Initially, workers were housed in the usual jerry-built Victorian slums but, from the 20s on, many were rehoused in large peripheral estates, possibly the largest being the Flower Estate in the north of the city. I moved there in 1994 and left three years later. It is a typical post-Becontree garden suburb, with “traditional” houses on gently looping streets with large gardens. Apart from one green in the middle, there are few trees, no public spaces, no pubs. It was a bleak place to live in the mid-1990s; entirely white and violent towards outsiders – a category easily expanded to white residents who looked slightly different. I am told it is nicer and more mixed now; a recent publication celebrated the warm and friendly community before recent migration to the area’s cheap houses, something that made me laugh, remembering as I did those good ordinary folk walking past teenagers getting kickings for having long hair (on at least one occasion, I was that teenager).

I briefly returned to my home city in 2005. Various circumstances in London led to my income disappearing as I became acutely ill, so it was a good time to hide. By then, my immediate family had been rehoused in Northam Estate, a postwar project on the bombed dockside slums. It didn’t have “houses” – only flats here, clipped and crisp brick and glass blocks with big balconies and lots of space, oriented to the sun. But it had everything else the Flower Estate lacked: a mixed population, green space, trees, views of the estuary, and a location round the corner from the football stadium. You could walk into town. It felt to me like a sanctuary, and a place from which to explore the city more widely, and to understand how it once had the confidence to build something like this.

Other questions came out of it, too: How had this city built up one of the finest art collections in any British city outside of the capital? How did it forego the profit motive so much that it laid out half the city centre as parkland? How did it commission some of the best architects in the country to design working-class housing? What happened to the dockers, and who now works on those immense container ships? And how did Southampton go from this to being little more than a place where people from Hampshire came to shop in the big John Lewis?

It’s because of all this that it was in Northam Estate that I started seriously writing, initially as a blogger. It’s also because of this place that I dedicated my first book to Southampton City Council Architects Department. Here, modernism still worked – not some remnant of the past but a surviving ideal for living that could be built upon.

Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances: Finding a Home in the Ruins of Modernism by Owen Hatherley is out now with Verso Books.