There have been several books and articles recently on an iconoclast:
December 6, 2013 6:47 pm
Ian Nairn: flight from Subtopia
Thirty years after his death, the architecture expert is again attracting interest as a distinctive voice on urbanism
There was a time, many years ago, when the BBC, and sometimes its commercial rivals, would regularly discover erudite enthusiasts and send them out with producers to make TV documentaries. One of the best-known and best-loved was Ian Nairn, a self-taught expert on architecture. Indeed, his passionate eccentricity made him perhaps the epitome of the breed.
Nairn didn’t even have a script: he pottered round in his Morris Minor convertible, saw buildings he either loved or loathed, said his piece, usually looking uneasy and unsociable, and moved on. He was a hugely influential figure in alerting the populace to the disasters created by the architect/planner/government-knows-best attitude that prevailed.
One might think the whole subject of what, how and why the British build had suddenly become fashionable. When isn’t it? However, there is an increasing sense of urgency to the debate. This week the critic Jonathan Glancey completed a three-part Radio 4 series called The Politics of Architecture (complete with boom-noises when he mentioned the word demolition). Nick Boles, the planning minister, and Roberta Blackman-Woods, his opposition shadow, both made holy statements about empowering local communities. What they meant is that people can have a say about the details of exactly what is built around them, provided they do as they’re told and accept the general principle.
Britain needs more houses largely because its population increasingly has difficulty living with one another, so that the mummy-daddy-John-and-Jane family is getting ever rarer, but also it is receiving a large net inflow of migrants. Furthermore, the London-led property market is insane, driven by the overseas rich wanting not homes, but bricks-and-mortar investments, tax breaks and emergency bolt-holes.
The process of building anything new anywhere is loathed because Britain has limited green space and cherishes it, and the British experience of development is that anything new – even a single house – is almost invariably nasty. We are all Nimbys, and quite right too: it shows we care. Nairn still speaks directly to us, the mass of people who could not make a precise distinction between modernism and brutalism, nor explain the difference between an architrave and an archbishop – but know very well what we don’t like.
It still seems miraculous that, aged 25, he managed to persuade The Architectural Review to allow him to let rip in a special issue called “Outrage”, in which he coined the word “Subtopia” for the process whereby all England would soon be covered by a characterless sprawl. As he memorably put it: “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.” Which is not far off true.
Ian Nairn: flight from Subtopia - FT.N
Futures Forum: The Politics of Architecture: choosing bricks and mortar
Ian Nairn, a brilliant, idiosyncratic architectural critic in print, on radio and television from the mid-Fifties to the mid-Seventies, was partial, passionate and political, to borrow Baudelaire’s resounding dictum. But his politics are sometimes hard to see clearly. In his introduction to the reissue of Nairn’s Towns (Notting Hill, £12), Owen Hatherley calls him a “Tory anarchist”; but he’s perhaps better described as a selective humanist: “Brighton is what London might be like if the duchess, the spiv and the cockney were left and the great grey middle was rinsed away.”
Ian Nairn: Words in Place, by Gillian Darley and David McKie, review - Telegraph
Nairn is one of those figures who is unknown to most people but worshipped by a small cult of enthusiasts. Once you discover him, which in my case was through my dad's copy of Nairn's London, you want to read everything he's written. Writers and journalists love him, mainly because he writes beautifully but also because he was himself a hack of sorts. He had no architectural training. He turned out weekly columns for 20 years – first in the Observer, for a bit in the Telegraph and finally in the travel pages of Harold Evans’s The Sunday Times. He was a hack who wrote in an original way, though. As Meades says (in an essay collected in Museums Without Walls), “there is a long tradition of journalists who don’t write journalese”. Nairn belongs in that.
He was a literary romantic, with a poetic sensibility and an interest in human personality. He had many heroes and he celebrated them – Soane, Thomas Harris in Chester, John Foster in Liverpool, modernists like Eric Lyons, but most of all John Nash – “the lazy, careless, semi-scrupulous, plebeian and, I suspect, rather lovable John Nash”. He dedicated his best book, Nairn's London, to Nash.
His real subject was his emotional response to buildings and places – pungent, highly subjective, often wistful. That is the attraction. The following clip shows him as if he might be about to start crying, his voice trembling, in Northampton Market Square with its doomed arcade ("It's a bit difficult to talk about the arcade at the moment… If this turns out to be an obituary I'm very sorry…"). Note also his Morris Minor.
Ian Nairn: poet of place, enemy of arrogance - Telegraph
Ian Nairn's voice of outrageIan Nairn's voice of outrage | Art and design | The Guardian
Outrage revisited | Art and design | The Guardian
Ian Nairn - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia