Owen Hatherley’s stimulating history of London’s government and public architecture is given greater resonance by uncertain times, finds Patrick Lynch
‘Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London’
Repeater Books, 300pp £11
Owen Hatherley’s ‘Red Metropolis’ began life as an essay for the New Left Review and was expanded to book-length during the lockdown of Spring 2020. This erudite and witty study charts municipal political life in the capital after the formation of the London County Council (LCC) in the 1880s. In doing so, architecture – in particular public housing – is offered as explicit evidence of the success of London’s government, and consequently much of the book concerns its characteristics and the circumstances that gave rise to it.
‘Red Metropolis’ is primarily a political rather than an architectural history, and yet it provides essential background for anyone interested in the topic of social architecture today. Along with Mark Swenarton’s ‘Cook’s Camden’ and Roy Porter’s ‘London: A Social History’, it is among the best books I’ve read about the city. Hatherley demonstrates vividly how good urban architecture doesn’t just happen, but is almost always the fruit of civic ambition and collective commitment.
William Morris’ Red House, designed by Phillip Webb, and the Boundary Estate
We learn, for example, that the Housing of the Working Classes Act (1890) was the result of LCC pressure, and that the first council housing was built by the LCC’s own Works Department, formed by the Progressive administration elected in 1892. The reasons for the “visual lushness and spatial generosity” and “superior workmanship” of the Boundary Estate and the Millbank Estate lie in the fact that the workers who built them were paid union rates. And because the architects saw – in expressive craftsmanship and verdant landscape design – the possibility to realise what was envisioned in William Morris’ newly published utopian ‘News from Nowhere’.
The development of social architecture in London subsequently remained remarkably consistent, despite factional tensions among both architects and politicians. While art historians tend to talk up differences in approach taken in the post-war years as the ‘Battle of the Styles’, Hatherley mostly resists this, and instead emphasises the vital role that trees and landscaping have played in London’s social housing throughout the last 130 years.
Alexandra Road and Central Hill estates
His pen portraits include figures such as Ted Hollamby – LCC architect and Communist Party member – who in 1952 bought and refurbished the Red House designed by Philip Webb for William Morris, while working on mass housing projects. Hollamby was later director of architecture for the Borough of Lambeth, where he oversaw schemes such as the Central Hill Estate, which are discussed here along with Kate Mackintosh’s Dawson Heights and Chamberlin Powell & Bon’s Barbican, among many of the housing projects of astounding quality that London is known for. I would love to have learned more about these places through drawings, but the lack of such visual reference material is the only weakness in what is otherwise an extremely informative study – and an understandable one in a book meant for a general readership.
The book’s strengths lie in revealing the stories underlying the political and aesthetic choices that have shaped London’s appearance. We discover that as a Camden councillor in the 1970s, Ken Livingstone initiated legal action against the council’s own architects’ department, claiming poor workmanship and design faults in the Alexandra Road estate – whose designer, Neave Brown, was ultimately recognised with the Royal Gold Medal in 2017. He argued that the council should instead be renovating empty nineteenth-century houses. When Livingstone became the last leader of the GLC in the 1980s this antipathy continued (Hatherley records that he believed it was not possible for boroughs to manage such large property portfolios “in a socialist manner”) and with the city still shrinking, his GLC built almost no council housing. He did, though, open up City Hall to punks and hippies, and to arts festivals that celebrated diversity. The obvious fact that a complicity of politics and aesthetics combine to create ideologies is made very clear in ‘Red Metropolis’.
The former GLC headquarters and the South Bank – historic locus of local democratic power in London, and a rival to national political power in Westminster, and financial power in the City
Hatherley combines scholarly attention to historical detail with a ribald and lively style. He doesn’t mind hyperbole and acid irony, and his flaming rhetoric is often inspired by righteous anger, as in the case of Grenfell Tower, where “a completely safe concrete tower became a death trap… coated in shiny flammable cladding… so that Kensington residents would no longer have to look at something so offensively concretey and council in appearance”. It is a neat summary of the cruelty and recklessly shortsighted Project Management ideology of our time. “What Grenfell demonstrated above all”, he argues, “was the importance of the demand – central to municipal socialism in London from the LCC’s Works Department onwards – of democratic public control over construction”.
Hatherley quotes liberally from graffiti left both by Grenfell’s neighbours and Londoners elsewhere, some of which is very funny (“Cllr Peter John is a toe nail”; “Let’s hang Boris!”) and I particularly enjoyed the author’s own jibes in acerbic image captions (“London held captive – view from within Bloombergs”).
Housing in London today – development at Vauxhall Nine Elms
‘Red Metropolis’ was begun in the long, depressing hangover following the last general election, when the prospect for a renewal of municipal socialism seemed to have retreated. Now that the Covid pandemic seems to have converted even the Conservative government – however briefly – to acceptance of the central role of the state in British life, the ideas and ideals described so eloquently by Hatherley no longer seem like ‘News From Nowhere’. Once again, they seem the only sane and practical response to our situation: socialism or barbarism, indeed.