I first heard about the architectural critic Ian Nairn when I read an article about him by Jonathan Glancey, three and a half years ago. At the time, my interest in architecture was an offshoot of my interest in Ruskin, but it was Glancey’s portrait of Nairn as a tragic and outspoken figure that first captivated me. Mercurial and melancholic, he eventually diluted his talent with alcohol and died in relative obscurity. In the 1950s and 60s though, Nairn was one of the most savage and beguiling voices in his field, a self-taught outsider who brought an iconoclast’s perspective to the profession, and who was one of the most persuasive critics of planning and redevelopment in post-war Britain. I was eager to read more by him, but his books were all out of print. The library of the university where I worked at the time carried none of them on its shelves, and opportunists online were charging ridiculous sums for volumes like Outrage, Nairn’s London, and his editions of Pevsner’s Buildings of England: ‘Surrey’ and ‘Sussex’. I may have badly wanted to read Britain’s Changing Towns, but not to the extent of paying £1700 for it.
Happily, and probably as a result of Glancey’s article (and the short films which accompanied it), Nairn seems to be undergoing a mild renaissance. Always championed by writers like Jonathan Meades and Owen Hatherley, both of whom contribute short entries to this excellent collection of critical essays about the man, Nairn’s books could hopefully re-enter print. Indeed, Hatherley has just edited a new edition of Britain’s Changing Towns under the title Nairn’s Towns, issued by Notting Hill Editions this month. Even more happily, at the university where I now work I have just managed to secure a copy of Nairn’s London from the library stacks. I’m looking forward to reading it.
Darley and McKie approach Nairn’s career chronologically, which is also to approach it thematically. They take us from the early Outrage period, when he was writing for the Architectural Review, through to his broadcasting career making films for the BBC about British and European towns and buildings, and then on to his sad decline after a successful stint as a Sunday broadsheet features writer. By the 1980s Nairn had descended into alcoholism, and he died an early death, essentially unemployable. Jonathan Meades, who met him not long before he died, recalls that Nairn sank 14 pints over lunch. No one can live like that and not expect the worst.
As a writer and broadcaster Nairn was unafraid to speak his mind, and Darley and McKie perfectly capture his belligerence and critical force. He offered a purely visceral, sensual, subjective opinion of the styles and designs that moved him. Neither a conservative nor an arch-modernist, Nairn responded most to harmony and character, and he never lost sight of a fact that many architects and developers seem to have abandoned some time ago – the built environment should be subordinate to the people and the communities who live in it, not the other way around.
This is not to say that he favoured the bland over the dynamic though. Nairn could go into ecstasies about the best of Le Corbusier, even as he excoriated Corbusier’s more arrogant, self-parodic efforts. Brutalism can be harmonious too, in other words. In a way, his perspective was postmodern. He was drawn to a multiplicity of styles, gauging each only on its value as a lived experience. For Nairn, this meant an experience in context, not in the abstract.
There are a couple of his 1970s programmes on YouTube, and they exemplify both his humanising approach to the built environment and the way he seemed to take bad planning personally. His presenting style is certainly unique; hesitant, diffident, scruffy and conversational (and unscripted), Nairn strolls his way through ‘Across Britain – From Leeds into Scotland’, extemporising on the towns and villages he finds on the route. Carlisle exasperates him for its lack of control and blurred focus; Riccarton depresses him for the waste of its half-mile of platform, disused since the junction was closed down. There’s a wonderful scene at Hawick where, moved by the virtually abandoned storage depot buildings in the town’s grand railway station, he stands on a bridge over the empty line and gasps with disgust at all this useless dereliction. He flinches and looks away from the camera, his voice breaking as if he is going to start crying with rage.
Some would argue that Nairn’s humanising approach is, or would be in any other field, mere anthropocentrism (or even anthropomorphism), and he would probably agree. Buildings and places are not just designs to him, and he often referred contemptuously to ‘paper architects.’ He admires buildings and places for their character, as one would admire a person. Buildings ‘come out fighting’; features ‘leer’ or ‘grimace’, while flat roofs are often ‘inarticulate’ – they have nothing to say.
Although by all accounts devoid of a personal politics, Nairn’s disgust at the unthinking paternalism and elitism of much of the planning process is inherently political. Those who have the most to gain or lose from the quality and utility of the built environment are always those who have the least say in its design and production. No thought is ever given to them. This remains the case today, as the government’s housing policy is essentially a system of bribing the construction industry to build expensive flats for the benefit of buy-to-let landlords, who will rent them out at exorbitant charges to the very rich; or, on the other hand, to bribe potential homeowners with the ‘help to buy’ scheme, which guarantees mortgages irrespective of income, in an uneasy mirroring of the ‘sub-prime mortgage’ fiasco which brought the financial system crashing down in 2008. Architecture, then, remains the only artistic field in which both practise and criticism can have both aesthetic and political/social consequences. As Nairn spent his life arguing, it is too important to be left in too few hands.
Beyond all this, Nairn’s perspective was one of delight and disgust in the unique capacity of architecture to define place. Its marriage of science and art enthralled him, and he wrote and broadcast about it with vigour and passion. This excellent collection of essays is an ideal introduction to a powerful writer and personality who has languished in obscurity for too long. It is time to rediscover Ian Nairn, and through him to rediscover the cities, towns and villages in which we live.