In this extract from his new book, Owen Hatherley outlines how a grand vision to ‘Europeanise’ Britain’s cities gave way to a insular reality

It is hard to recall how insular and grim mainstream British architecture was in the 1980s. Urban redevelopment schemes well up until the late 1990s were pinched and anti-urban, defined – no matter how central or dramatic the site – by cul-de-sacs, squat mock-Victorian offices and endless surface car parks, all of it based on a paranoid and misanthropic notion of “defensible space”. 

Part of Ocean Village, Southampton, built in the mid-80s on the city’s docks
Part of Ocean Village, Southampton, built in the mid-80s on the city’s docks © Owen Hatherley

A rainy walk ended at Ocean Village, a development built in the mid-80s on a small, derelict part of the city’s docks, which are mostly still in use. Formerly on the site was the late-1940s Ocean Terminal, a streamlined design for the luxury travellers for whom Southampton was a more long-winded precursor to Heathrow. That was demolished in favour of a miserable collection of pitched-roof housing complexes in cul-de-sacs and vaguely postmodernist office blocks surrounded by car parks, as well as an American-style exurban multiplex cinema and shopping mall. This latter was one of several car-centred, big-box malls built in the city centre since the 1980s. The mall was demolished after less than 20 years and replaced with a skyline of extremely dense luxury flats along a boardwalk, packed tightly together so not a penny’s rent goes uncharged.

On a map, you can see a peninsula jutting out into Southampton Water, the estuary that leads to the Solent. But there’s no view of the estuary here for the public. Amazingly, the designers of the executive housing estate here managed to create the same sort of insularity you’d normally find on the city’s outskirts. There’s one place you can see out to the sea – a hard-to-find corner, through a fence marked RESIDENTS ONLY. 

In 1995, a new building was opened there: Harbour Lights. Here was a building that was elegant, confident, oriented towards the water rather than to a parking space, and, most of all, a building that felt European. It was one of several buildings, often on watersides, that were the harbingers of a “Europeanisation” of urban space in Britain. Bradford would be an Italian hill town, Gateshead would be the new Bilbao, Salford would become as outward-looking as Rotterdam, Sheffield would model its public spaces on Barcelona. Each one of these places voted in the majority to leave Europe. What went wrong?