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Owen Hatherley is master curator of architectural ugliness. He has surveyed the “new ruins” of modernist Britain and formulated “a new kind of bleak” in its benighted town centres, housing estates and concrete jungles. He has an extraordinary eye for concrete. But these were minor pursuits against his latest project, a journey round the huge developments built under the aegis of Soviet Communism during the twentieth century, now housing some two-thirds of Eastern Europe’s population. They rank among the world’s most astonishing yet inhumane creations.
I cannot imagine anyone will repeat Hatherley’s enterprise and we can only marvel at his commitment. To him, architecture is the physical manifestation of politics. It is power literally in bricks and mortar. In this respect he is unusual and, I believe, right. But he is handicapped at every turn by his belief, worn on his sleeve, in the nobility of the socialist cause. This can be an asset as he wrestles manfully to evoke the spirit of places from which most of us would turn in horror. But in time his 600 solid pages of travelogue can seem as interminable as the avenues of a thousand proletarian triumphs down which he tramps. He wills us to see their good intentions, though at times Orwell’s phrase about a boot forever stamping on a man’s face comes to mind. We welcome the periodic company of the Polish girlfriend, Agata Pyzik, who must merit the Mrs Eric Newby award for long-suffering literary companionship.
Hatherley acknowledges there is “a large and mostly disreputable history of those from western Europe going east to see what they want to see and finding it”. He is not romantic. He accepts that Communism’s decisions about how and where people should live were despotic, “made, as often as not, by power against its subjects”. Yet he remains under the spell of a socialism he clearly yearns to see working, like a church guide constantly asserting the validity of the Second Coming. […]