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Ian Nairn, who died 30 years ago, was one of the great architectural journalists of the 20th century. Never afraid to upset the architectural profession, his writing and broadcasting attacked impersonal modern developments and celebrated character Gavin Stamp

One doesn't keep journalism, does one?', Sir John Summerson, that great architectural historian, once remarked. But some architectural journalism is well worth keeping. Indeed, it can be more influential and beneficial than any scholarly historical volume. This is particularly true of the writing of Ian Nairn (1930-83; Fig. 1), about whom the architect W.G. Howell had the grace to say--after Nairn had upset the profession by declaring that 'The outstanding and appalling fact about modern architecture is that it is just not good enough'--that he knew 'of no-one who has done more to try to open the eyes of the environment-blind British'. Nairn has been credited with inspiring the foundation of the Civic Trust in 1957 and of Anti-Ugly Action a few years later (see Apollo, January 2005). His architectural journalism was so good, and today so historically significant, that much of it will shortly be republished (in Ian Nairn: Words in Place, due from Five Leaves in November 2013). And a forthcoming television profile of Nairn is further proof of growing interest in him.

I must be one of many whose interest in architecture was encouraged by that personal and idiosyncratic guide to the capital, Nairn's London, published in 1966 (Fig. 3). It was a book which took me not only to the Hawksmoor churches and sublime Victorian gothic creations by Butterfield, Brooks and Teulon, but also to obscure and unlikely spots like Sun Street Passage (now deceased) and the Bankside warehouses (now tarted up where they survive). For what Nairn cared about was not just architectural importance but character and atmosphere. He hated the drab and impersonal, and liked places such as the railway lands behind St Pancras (now utterly changed), which he found 'incredibly moving: tunnels, perspectives, trains on the skyline, roads going all ways. If you get nothing from it at first, stay there until something happens: it is really worth the effort.'

Nairn burst onto the architectural scene--and beyond--with the publication of a special number of the Architectural Review in 1955, subsequently republished in hard covers. Entitled Outrage (Fig. 2), it was a polemic against the planning dogmas and bureaucratic attitudes which were making Britain a drab, uniform landscape of suburban houses, roads, concrete lamp standards, wire fences, mutilated trees and 'Things in Fields': 'the end of Southampton will look like the beginning of Carlisle; the parts in between will look like the end of Carlisle or the beginning of Southampton.' He coined the word 'Subtopia' to describe 'the universal suburbanisation not merely of country, or of town, but of town-and-country--the whole land surface. Suburbia becomes Utopia. Utopia becomes suburbia.'


After leaving the Architectural Press in 1962, Nairn wrote for Sunday newspapers, published a guide to Modern Buildings in London, and worked with Nikolaus Pevsner on two volumes of the Buildings of England--for Surrey and Sussex--although he soon found that he could not bear to write the detailed descriptions of buildings which were required. He also made radio broadcasts for the BBC, which were published in the Listener and eventually gathered together as Britain's Changing Towns in 1967 (Fig. 4). This is one of Nairn's best and most revealing works; he added a postscript to each evocative town portrait, expressing his growing disillusionment with modern architecture and the damage it was doing, along with comprehensive redevelopment, to city after city. Indeed, Nairn was one of the first seriously to question the utopian vision and industrialised aesthetic of modernism.

In February 1966--more than two years before the Ronan Point explosion--Nairn published an article in the Observer under the headline 'Stop the Architects Now'. Displaying his masterly talent for invective, he objected angrily to relentless rectangular design: 'At worst it is the true arrogance of man stamping over the landscape in jackboots; it was the boasted trademark of Le Corbusier, that arch-priest of arrogance.' And he pointed out how 'both the architects and the planners are treated by the public, in general, with contempt. They see the architect as a wet kind of nuisance, eternally fingering his bow-tie on the edge of real life, and the planner as one of the drearier inhabitants of a dreary local government structure.'

The architectural profession was furious at having its armour of moral righteousness penetrated by someone it assumed was an ally. But Nairn was unrepentant: 'My intention was not ... to shoot the pianist, but to suggest that the piano is waiting to be played in another room altogether. It is too big to be moved, so it is the pianist that must shift--even if it means moving altogether out of the door marked architect or planner.' And he argued that what really matters are 'the things that really affect people: e.g. climate, loneliness, open space, mateyness, lack of freedom'.




This list perhaps offers a clue to Nairn's own state of mind, for after the 1960s he gradually descended into depression and alcoholism. He did nevertheless succeed in making a series of television films for the BBC--Nairn's Journeys--in which, despite his surprisingly weedy voice, his sense of place and love of the eccentric came across powerfully. The last was made in the late 1970s. After that it was just the pub. Writing his entry for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, I encountered his terrifying death certificate--'Hepatic insufficiency / d/t cirrhosis of the liver / chronic alcoholism'--and discovered that, on his deathbed in hospital, he had maintained that he was a Geordie. In fact Nairn was born in Bedford, which he once described as 'the most characterless county town in England'. And herein lies a curious theme in his life: flight. Nairn's father was an airship draughtsman at the Royal Airship Works at RAF Cardington near Bedford and, in 1930, shortly before his son's birth, went aloft on the final test flight of the ill-fated R101. After the R101 came down at Beauvais on its maiden flight, Nairn senior was out of a job and became a civil servant, moving south to Frimley in Surrey. This was an environment which 'produced a deep hatred of characterless buildings and places' in his son.

Two decades on, Nairn joined the Royal Air Force as a pilot officer, eventually flying Gloster Meteors. This seems apt, given the rapid trajectory of Nairn's later, brilliant career, although it does seem alarming that the future shambolic journalist was ever allowed to be at the controls of Britain's first operational jet fighter, apparently flying over Norfolk navigating by church towers and looking for minor works by Soane on the ground below. Later, he would pilot a slower aeroplane to allow the Architectural Press's photographer, Bill Toomey, to take aerial shots. And the interest in flight persisted until the end, when he asked to be buried under the flight-path to Heathrow--a wish that was granted.

Ian Nairn died 30 years ago this August, but he is far from forgotten. So much of what he wrote, excoriating the impersonal, is all too relevant today.
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Author:Stamp, Gavin
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 1, 2013
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