No line on architecture

Away from the headline showdowns some of the Marxism sessions saw SWP comrades free to speak their minds (on architecture). Emily Orford reports

Owen Hatherley’s outstanding contributions to the left’s understanding of the architecture that was designed, built and quickly decayed throughout the Blair years deserves canonical status in our literature. The session entitled ‘Journeys through urban Britain’, which he presented, was billed as the launch of his fourth book, A new kind of bleak (Verso, 2012),1 where Hatherley examines the effect of the continuation of the neoliberal aesthetic on Britain’s so-called ‘built environment’.

The session was well attended, considering it was timetabled to coincide with the festival’s big showdown between Alex Callinicos and David Harvey. Here, many of the bright young things of the SWP were allowed to break from the party’s rigid lines (one assumes there is no line on architecture) and the general level of intelligent contributions was refreshingly high. Points of interest included the Militant council’s rebuilding of Liverpool’s estates, which paradoxically mirrored Thatcherian suburbia, as well as the ‘easily defendable’ enclaves of Belfast, which were designed in part by the army. Another controversial topic was Hatherley’s understanding of the green belt regulations, kept in place to serve the bourgeoisie, leaving Britain’s workers trapped in the smallest houses in Europe.

Topically, the regeneration of the Elephant and Castle area of London was discussed, allowing for conjecture on the nature of multiculturalism, gentrification and the destructive cycle of neoliberal regeneration. Despite his deep-set admiration for the brutalist “bid to level with the stars” (to use Alex Niven’s phrase), which many of us share, Hatherley dreamed that after the revolution, the working class should be able to live in whichever architectural forms they desire, be it in cul-de-sac comfort or high in a tower on the hills.

Talking of David Harvey, his presence at Marxism revealed the uncomfortable space between the Occupy movement and the SWP. Despite latching onto Occupy and similar tendencies, left movementist groups have had to walk a tightrope between the horizontal nature of these new forces, and the top-down, bureaucratic structure of their own. Harvey’s meeting, ‘The urbanisation of class struggle’, which discussed his new book Rebel cities (Verso, 2012), was a subdued affair, only enlivened briefly by his direct criticism of the SWP’s tendency to neutralise grassroots struggle through their concentration on recruitment.

Johnny Jones, deputy editor of International Socialism, welcomed Harvey’s attendance, but for myself, having heard him speak both in front of St Pauls and at Marxism, it is clear where his ideological home really lies.


1 . See a review of his book Uncommon on the Red Mist website: http://redmistreviews.com/?p=450.