A new kind of guidebook for exploring European cities deserves a place in your luggage. Print editions of travel guides were once essential items when setting off on a trip to somewhere foreign but are less so now given the haemorrhage of information available with a click or a swipe.
Many of the guides that are still printed – “Rough Guides” being an honourable exception – tend to adopt a listicle mentality, content to provide dumbed-down inventories of the places where you’re most likely to be crowded out by tourists taking selfies.
Owen Hatherley’s “Trans-Europe Express” is in a different class altogether, a tightly written, agreeably idiosyncratic guide to the buildings of Europe’s metropolises.
Divided into geographical regions – Atlantic, Mediterranean, Central, Balkan, Baltic and North Sea – a chapter is devoted of each of two dozen cities and there is no mincing of words as regards what is praiseworthy, interesting or downright objectionable.
He begins with a comparison of his hometown of Southampton with Le Havre, noting the similarities in their backgrounds but seeing the car-centered English city as inferior to La Havre’s loose zoning, unhappy with the tendency in Britain to separate shopping, leisure and living dimensions.
Hatherley likes to begin with a train station before working outwards to explore a city’s architectural personality. Before getting down to details, he quickly sketches historical parameters and political factors that have shaped or are shaping the structures that form the furniture of a locality.
The magnificent success of Bologna in preserving everything within its historic city walls, for example, is traced to the fact that communists were in charge of local government from after World War II to the 1990s.
His views can be challenging – in Dublin, he considers the central bus station, Busaras, to be a contender for the city’s finest twentieth-century building (really?) – and always evaluative.
He despairs over Skopje’s embarrassingly ersatz remake of its centre but loves Porto’s ‘demented topography’ and wonders why everything seems to be so well made and attractive there:‘Strong trade unions, craft traditions, historical backwardness are all candidates for explaining [this] puzzling fact.’
Half a dozen capitals are included but more common are small cities like –Łódź, Lviv, Split, Aarhus and Hull – where, always sensitive to architectural idioms, he draws attention to buildings and neighbourhoods that would never find their way into a tourist travel guide.
Aachen in Germany, Maastricht in the Netherlands and Liège in Belgium are treated as one EU conurbation and he praises Aachen’s University Clinic as ‘an organism, hairy, sinewy and wiry’. Liège’s Guillemins station is designed by Santiago Calatrava (presently working on the Greenwich Peninsula project), an architect whose work has come in for much deserved criticism.
Hatherley well understands this dislike of Calatrava – his Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro has provoked some hostile comment – nevertheless he finds his railway stations ‘among the great guilty pleasures of contemporary architecture: sentimental, thrilling, contrapuntal’. If travelling to one of Hatherley’s cities, squeeze a copy in your wheelie.
“Trans-Europe Express” by Owen Hatherley is published by Allen Lane.