Owen Thomas Hatherley

Interviewed by Agnė Sadauskaitė

Photographed by Aistė Dūdėnaitė and Aušra Česnauskytė

Edited by Matas Šiupšinskas

“Walking is mostly what I do”, says Owen Hatherley when describing his research techniques. O. Hatherley is a well-known author and critic writing mostly on architecture and cultural politics and widely published in variety of magazines. In his works, Owen confronts fixed ideas and contradictions about architecture or the way people think about it. How we should live with the past left from Soviet period? What do we keep and what do we throw away? These and other questions to be discussed in an interview below.

You wrote your first book when you were only 27 years old and until now you have already published six books?How was this journey as a very productive author so far? Where was the starting point?

I started blogging. I am not trained in journalism or architecture. My first book was mostly accomplished from the things that were in my blog. The second book came out as a commission which came out of blogging. I used to regularly come to my hometown in Southampton and write about its architecture on the blog. One of those articles got picked up by “Building design”: it’s an architecture newspaper that does not exist anymore. They commissioned me to write a twelve-month series about British cities, how they spend their money during boom and how it ended – it was around 2009-2010. The boom had burst and I was at the right time and the right place. From there I got my method: you go somewhere and then you walk around, walk around, walk around. Of course, there is also historical stuff, actual scientific research but walking is mostly what I do.

16You research Soviet architecture quite a lot. In most of the situations when one states that he is interested in Soviet architecture, the others usually assume that you like all the aspects of the regime or the period. Do you need to justify your beliefs or defend your position when speaking / researching Soviet architecture?

It is pretty strange. If you say that you like Baroque, people do not assume that you like counterreformation or the Jesuits.

Baroque was centuries ago. And there are still people who experienced Soviet times.

Exactly. I think that there are so many things that play here. One thing that struck, actually, when I was going through capital city guides near-by and the best one was about Vilnius*. It is fantastically subtle book and well done without usual “We know times were really bad” and whipping ourselves a little bit and only then talking about buildings. This guide seemed more enlightened. Some guides were doing this, for example, in Latvia. So one can be interested in architecture period and not be interested in politics. I don’t think one necessarily leads to the other. Still I am not; I am interested in politics.

It is an interesting place to see the contradictions as the projects. The way it is tied up with ideas of colonialism, Europeanism around here. If you read the counsels from 70-90s, people always mention other, Western or Scandinavian style and planning in Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia. Now it is evil and Soviet. At the time it was within the Soviet Union considered as closest as you can get to be Western without actually leaving Soviet Union – architecture was modelled on Western and Scandinavian influences. So yeah, you can see architecture in the detached way from politics. But I guess people are obsessed with eternal and probably unanswerable question of “How did it go so wrong?”

Massive social housing projects happened everywhere in Europe – In United Kingdom, Germany, Scandinavian countries. In Soviet Union it happened as well, just the quantity was way larger than in already mentioned countries and much more changed landscape, usual life of rural areas. Is this also the reason why Soviet architecture is seen as evil although it happened everywhere?

Exactly. This is also tied up with something a little bit aside – when industrial revolution happens in the country. It happened in 1820s in Britain, in 1860s in Germany, in 1950s in Soviet Union and at the same time in Greece, Spain, and Portugal. There is a comparison between Soviet Union and Southern Europe countries as the same happened under right-wing dictatorships: they were all industrialized at exactly the same time and were accommodated by social housing with high density. In Britain – with grim Victorian terraces near to the factory going with the railway across it; in Soviet Union – with high-rise blocks, in Greece same blocks but mostly 5-6 storey tenements. These type of buildings became dominant architecture in the countries because urbanisation happened then; people left villages where they’ve been living for centuries and went to the cities: this was modernising moment, becoming an European moment, which everybody claims to want ant they hated it. I think this is quite nice contradiction.

In many cases people were aware how monotonous architecture was and tried to create ways to make them more diverse, less tedious but it really never worked as pace was very fast. Now it has changed: urbanization is slow, population is declining. People stop and ask ”Okay, we got all of this, what do we do with all of it?”

These are the questions that are sensitive at the time, in Lithuania as well. Not going into particular cases, what is your opinion about Soviet architecture as a heritage? Should it be preserved, especially when discussion is about mass housing districts such as Lazdynai?

It varies from example to example. It is important not to be too precious about it. Something as Lazdynai or similar districts, for example in Warsaw, have those huge housing estates. First when I went to those districts, I had mixed feelings. At first I thought “Oh, this is pretty good” and then gradually: “It does not stops and it goes forever!” It is a big difference with Western examples – it just goes on and on and on. Still what interests me that buildings were reinforced, painted different colours and these very simple measures make buildings look good. Just a small thing has to be changed – houses should be insulated, lifts to be replaced, and people visually would still could say that, well, these houses are not palaces, but it is a good housing.

Social housing was not supposed to be spectacular architecture; it is all about layouts, how it related to forest, green zones. If you can preserve that it does not matter if you could preserve individual building or paint or clad them. And in cases of mass housing only exceptional cases should be preserved.

1In the interview for Deep Baltic you described buildings that are ugly for you. I found it quite surprising, I mean the usage of the word. How do you define it in the architecture? What makes a building disastrous?

Ugliness is in the eye of a beholder. That is why I was talking about use. People accept ugliness in different places. The obvious thing that defenders of brutalism would do is point to castles and say “Look, castle has no ornaments, it is asymmetrical, out of context, and still everyone likes it because it is a castle and a heritage.” The same happens with 1960-70s architecture when people say it is ugly as it is concrete. This is automatic chain of responses and you do not need to look deeper.

Architectural criticism could shape the responses and make look at things. And there are a lot of things that are fixed as ugly or nice. Everyone knows it is ugly, everyone knows soviet architecture is brutal… and you say, okay, slow down and start explaining. Do we really look that often? There was a programme on TV about 10 years ago on demolition and they were asked to the public what buildings should be demolished. Some of them were listed buildings, for example, Trinity Square Park in Gateshead in North-west England designed by Owen Luder. This building always had its defenders it appeared in the film**, became a bit of a cult. Architect agreed to give an interview and they were asking “Why is it like this, why is it like that?” He explained why building was built like this and that, what constructions supposed to do. People were coming round.

Moment of revelation?

Yeah, I guess so. It was before just an annoying car park in the middle of the town. Before nobody cared to explain, nobody ever bothers and of course sometimes these things are quite challenging. People do not get enough of architectural education. Nobody likes dereliction. It is important to point out that it is not just dereliction, it has become derelict for a reason and it could be different.

* Vilnius 1900-2016: an architectural guide, ed. Reklaite J., Dremaite M., Leitanaite R., Lapas, 2016.

**The movie is Get Carter, released in 1971.

Paskelbta: December 30, 2017

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