Ah, Europe, I remember it well…
Owen Hatherley’s book was written two years after the EU referendum but before the endless negotiations on fish that were to follow. This book is about the architecture of some European cities, some well-known, some less well-known in this now less European nation.
Not all come out well. Paris, for example, won’t be hurrying to give Hatherley the freedom of the city soon but Skopje’s council must have been tempted to hire a hitman other than they blew all their money on “a diarrhoea of statuary…. variously celebrating Ancient Macedonia… sundry medieval kings and folk heroes, a rotunda decorated with Third Reich-esque golden statues … and of course a triumphal arch…” The latter is pictured with the caption “Come and see the sights”. No thanks. “The effect is North Korea without the planning…” Let’s move on. But maybe not to Dublin unless we like “luxury flats” or the “stunning offices” that developers like to foist on us.
But at least Dublin does not have the (literally) Fascist Edificio España of Madrid, “a stepped, stone-clad ziggurat”, which has become a hotel since this book was published. Look it up on Google images. You will regret it. Fortunately Hatherley’s image does not show the building in all its Francoist glory. Indeed, I have to mention the photographs in general. They are poorly reproduced, in the paperback and the earlier hardback. If you are describing buildings like the Modernist Aarhus City Hall, for example, designed by Arne Jacobsen and Erik Møller, whose clocktower “is both chic and jolly” with “its serif Roman numbers incised into the clock-face, which is attached to the concrete frame” there’s something you need to see here and you can barely make out that something in the photograph. By the way, I specifically mention Jacobsen by name here as Hatherley reminds us that Christine Keller sat in a Jacobsen chair – that chair – in 1963.
Hatherley does make me want to go to many places – Rotterdam, to see the public housing estate Kiefhoek which “consists of tiny terraces, painted in the De Stijl colours – crisp yellow metal window frames, red doors and white stuccoed walls.” The Five Leaves’ logo is based on De Stijl designs so we have an interest here. But also because I want to see something he describes as an “hysterical church, a white cube with a chimney that could pass as a boiler house”. And while there, why not nip over to Hilversum to see “what appears to be a police station for Hobbits.”
By now you will have guessed that I love Hatherley’s writing, but his work is serious. He understands cities, though questions why Stockholm, with Sweden’s enlightened asylum and immigration policy, has housing that appears to be segregated. Yet the Husby estate, which houses the poorest, with high rates of unemployment and which is overwhelmingly non-white (and was the place of a past riot) is “better maintained than Hampstead”. In passing Hatherley often talks about the high level of maintenance by those who run social housing and those who live in them compared to the UK. But again the pictures are not good enough to prove what he was saying.
So… for the moment, let’s pretend Covid is over and you can go where you want. Of all the places described the one that draws me in is….. sound of trumpets…. Hull. Actually, I really like Hull, with its Georgian terraces (well, there are some), its Old Town, the Hepworth Arcade, a street called The Land of Green Ginger, the smell of mud as you walk out to the sea… And you arrive in a wonderful station, one you can sit in. I was in Hull on the launch night of Hull being a city of culture, staying in the most comfortable and affordable hotel (with the most boring breakfast) to join 10,000 others at nightfall to be showered with feathers by high-wire dancers dressed as angels (perhaps you had to be there…). Anyway, read Hatherley’s chapter and go to Hull. You won’t regret it.
Trans-Europe Express is available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/trans-europe-express-tours-of-a-lost-continent/