Trans-Europe Express: Tours of a Lost Continent

by Owen Hatherley, Allen Lane, £16.99 (hardcover)

By Ben Eastham

Trans-Europe Express: Tours of a Lost Continent, by Owen Hatherley

During the giddy first years of Tony Blair’s government, the public square in my provincial hometown was redeveloped as part of what Owen Hatherley describes as the ‘Europeanisation’ of Britain’s urban spaces. Yet the attempt to bring Continental café-culture to a rainy medieval settlement on the Welsh borders was only partially successful, and the latest scheme to reinvigorate a depressed town centre takes a different tack: the replacement of three shopping centres with one vast indoor mall.

This movement away from perceived European ideals of communal living towards a model based on private investment and commercial consumption – repeated across the United Kingdom – has left an architectural record of the broader shift in attitudes that culminated in Brexit. In this series of essays on the architecture of Europe’s smaller cities, Hatherley reads the built environment as an expression of the political, social and economic forces that shape a society and the lives of its members. The superior design of Hamburg, Rotterdam and Łódz ́ presents convincing evidence – if any more were required – that the break with our neighbours was another victory for those who would sacrifice the quality of life of the many to further enrich the few.

The potted histories of these and other cities are told through erudite, witty and wide-ranging studies of their most demonstrative buildings. The book’s title hints at Hatherley’s predilection for the postwar, pancontinental, social-democratic Modernism to which Kraftwerk gave musical expression, as well as his tendency to begin his tours at the train station, the architecture of which can generally be relied upon to reveal something of the society that built it. He visits the ‘iconic’ buildings liable to be included in online lists of landmarks to see before you die, but is most engaging when considering the less celebrated housing projects, cultural institutions and municipal buildings that are the best indicators of the esteem in which a society holds its ‘ordinary’ residents.

Hatherley’s admiration for the European cityscape, and the political principles it embodies, is neither blind nor universal. The desecration of Skopje, in which a hastily assembled collection of bombastic pseudo-classical monuments obscures a radical architectural legacy, offers depressing evidence of how nativism, despotism and, frankly, stupidity manifest in a city’s bricks and mortar, glass and steel. It contrasts with Sofia, where disparate but complementary architectural styles suggest a city that has been willing and able to integrate different cultures, eras and religions into its self-identity. Nor is he afraid to read architecture in ways that might seem contrary to his own politics: when invited by a leftist magazine to rail against Hamburg’s gentrification, Hatherley cannot suppress pangs of jealousy that the docklands of his native Southampton were not redeveloped with such consideration and care. 

The only British entry is Hull, picked out because the decline (in architectural and other terms) of one of the country’s great cities – a history acknowledged by its term as the UK’s ‘city of culture’ last year – embodies how consecutive governments have forsaken what he identities as the basic principles of urban planning: accessible social housing, a fair rental market, housing regulations that protect the poor, an integrated public transport network, a labour policy premised on retraining rather than deskilling and a decentralised local government not in thrall to developers.

That these ideals might seem like pie in the sky to millions of Britons explains why Hatherley so laments the decision to leave the European Union. But it also illustrates why the residents of towns and cities such as Hull elected to deliver, as the author puts it, ‘an enormous fuck you to a political class that felt it could abandon at worst, patronise at best, an entire city and its population like this’.

From the Summer 2018 issue of ArtReview