Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances: Refreshing ways to talk about buildings

Book review: Eoin Ó Broin on essays that pick apart market-led colonisation of cities

Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances: Finding a Home in the Ruins of Modernism
Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances: Finding a Home in the Ruins of Modernism
Author: Owen Hatherley
ISBN-13: 9781839762215
Publisher: Verso
Guideline Price: £18.99

There is an important intellectual tradition in English popular culture of outsider writers, steeped in philosophical and political tradition but operating outside the academy. These essayists, journalists and broadcasters refuse to be confined by the boundaries of occupation or form. Their breadth and depth of knowledge is impressive. Their point was always to challenge orthodoxy, to confront social injustice, and to argue for a better world. Their books, essays, plays and TV dramas have defied genre, reaching out to an ever wider audience.

Owen Hatherley can rightly lay claim to be part of this tradition. The British writer’s latest collection of essays, Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances, rightly reminds us of his own breadth of knowledge and interests and his perpetual challenge to orthodoxy. The 20 essays date from 2005 to 2020 and cover topics from music and cinema, to architecture and urbanism. While aesthetics and popular culture are the principal terrain, politics is never far from the surface.

Hatherley is strongest when writing about architecture, its form, history and politics. Strange, Angry Objects: The Brutalist Decades is a case in point. First published in the London Review of Books in 2016, it is part book review, part manifesto. The author uses his discussion of eight publications by architects, critics and enthusiasts to examine the ideas and intentions behind the postwar period’s least-loved building style.

Architects including Peter Ahrends (whose ABK practice designed the Berkeley Library at Trinity College Dublin) and Peter Smithson (who along with partner Alison pioneered the postwar modernist British comprehensive school) are set against critics of brutalism such as Reyner Banham in a lively discussion on the limits and merits of the architecture of the welfare state.


Hatherley laments how much of the brutalist revival, including  coffee table books by Elain Harwoods and Peter Chadwick, miss much of what is important about these buildings. They are not art objects, but spaces to be used by people: libraries, schools, hospitals and council housing. Indeed, people are singularly absent from the many striking photographs of concrete in its finest hour reproduced in these books. And where people are present, such as in Stefi Orazi’s Modernist Estates series, they are not low-income retail worker council tenants, but art world creatives, the gentrifying pioneers of the now listed former council estates.

If Hatherley’s intention in Strange, Angry Objects is to rescue the civic function of the architecture of the welfare state, his aim in A High-Performance Contemporary Life Process is very different. Focusing on the work of Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, this essay is sympathetic to the Russian Constructivist influences on one of late modernism’s most creative architects while critical of the political function of her work.

For Hatherley, Hadid’s buildings are to the era of Blairite new-liberalism what Neave Brown or Erno Goldfinger were to the high watermark of postwar Britain’s Wilsonian social democracy. From hedge-fund financed academy schools to commercial temples of the post-industrial age, Hadid’s practice has, in Hatherley’s words, “produced a concrete monument to the demented extravagance of the derivatives-led boom of 1997-2008”.

These essays provide a refreshing way to think and talk about buildings, understanding the relationship between form, function and finance. It also offers those of us interested in the future of our cities a range of options for the buildings and streets of tomorrow.

Hatherley’s essay on Jane Jacobs is also very refreshing. I share his ambivalence to the writer and campaigner who has had such a profound influence on contemporary debates about urban planning and the future of the city. Jane Jacobs Says No is an essay written through a series of reviews of key writings by one of North America’s leading authorities on the design of cities. While she is best known for The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Hatherley pays equal attention to her other works, including Eyes on the Street and Vital Little Plans.

His reading teases out the complexities and contradictions of Jacob’s approach to the city, warmly welcoming her return to the street while warning against the complicity of her work with the neo-liberal turn against welfare-state intervention to improve the lives of the many.

Hatherley is, to paraphrase his own nod to writer Mike Davis, another “rare dissenter from the church of St Jane”, who Davis described as “the Mother Teresa of urbanism”. The point of the essay is not to trash Jacobs, but rather to warn us against an uncritical reading of her work.

While not his intention, there is some wisdom in Hatherley’s quotation of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who urged, “build like Moses with Jane Jacobs in mind”. My preference would be to build like Camden’s Sydney Cook with Copenhagen’s Jan Gehl in mind, but most urbanists will get the idea.

The final essay in Clean Living is a moving tribute to cultural critic and blogger Mark Fisher, who tragically took his own life in 2017. Fisher was a mentor and friend of Hatherley and a collaborator in that other very English subculture of post-Thatcher cultural pessimism.

Aptly titled From Boring Dystopia to Acid Communism, the essay takes us through Fisher’s writings, cultural tastes and political interventions. Not only is it a valuable introduction to a writer little known in Ireland, but also confirms the traces of Fisher’s thinking in Hatherley’s own work.

Hatherley remains committed to the progressive, modernist project of postwar democratic socialism. Clean Living seeks to remind us of the successes of that project, whether in Warsaw, Vienna or Southampton. This is not a nostalgia for a simpler time, but an antidote to the market-dominated colonisation of our cities. He celebrates the civic values that drove politicians, civil servants and architects to build good quality affordable homes, well-stocked public libraries, hospitals and schools, where people had universal access to healthcare and education.

If more joined him in that celebration, our cities would be immeasurably better places to live, work and play.

Eoin Ó Broin TD is Sinn Féin’s spokesman on housing and author of Home: Why Public Housing Is the Answer and Defects: Living with the Legacy of the Celtic Tiger (both Merrion Press)