Firstly let us agree that any product of architectural criticism which avoids the scylla of boosterism and the charybdis of obscurity is a very good thing. Owen Hatherley's much praised book takes a long look at recent British urban architecture in an extended homage to the legacy of J.B. Priestley, Ian Nairn and (briefly) Beryl Bainbridge. He surveys the topography and landmarks in a knowingly futile search for the genius loci of contemporary Britain. This is a romantic quest because industrialisation, post-war planning and service-sector regeneration have surely corroded the very possibility of discovering it.
So what is the book's purpose? Three years into the credit crunch which curtailed the period of rapid construction he discusses it can surely be nothing more than an essay in retrospect if not nostalgia, especially as very little is offered as a positive product of emulation. The Climate Camp, for example, offers as little in the form of social architecture as Greenham Common did. Environmentalism will only be truly effective when adopted within conventional society, not as a form of exile from it or a trustafarian hobby. Hatherley's abiding preference, however, would appear to be for the firm smack of top-down planning as expressed in the architecture of the pre-Thatcher era. But that ignores the miseries created for many by the failed deck access utopia of Park Hill or the Hulme Crescents. As Sally Stone's testimonyimplicitly asked in a recent Radio 4 programme was any architectural vision worth being mugged for cat food?
Familiar targets provide the opportunity for a bit of knockabout. Make, Urban Splash, and rather perversely BDP get it in the neck, the last however also praised for Liverpool 1. But a curious absentee from Hatherley's account is the figure of Micjhael Heseltine. The great bogey-woman Thatcher (and her immediate heir Major) would surely have left few architectural monuments behind if he had not been her Environment Secretary, proponent of Docklands development, 'Minister for Merseyside' after the Toxteth riots, and following her fall the minister responsible for the largest wave of pit-closures and the initiation of the Millenium Dome. He, surely, established the competitive jungle which was the British cityscape whence the Blair / Brown projects sprang. But then, of course, it is a standard response on the left to reserve most of scorn for the fellow-travellers on your own side.
Ultimately the book is a document of an era and an attitude. It might be part of the story itself rather than an objective account of the period. But then it is too soon to be able to write that history. One has only to consider the posthumous fate of another 13 year period of government, characterised by conformity, deference and a consumer boom. Despite the disillusion which ended their control, between 1951 and 1964 under the Tories many historians would have us believe we enjoyed a golden period of architectural production, beloved of all right-thinking heritagistas. After current events have played out maybe the architecture of Blair and Brown will appear equally utopian.