Saturday, 28 December 2013

Ian Nairn: Outrage at the failures of urban planning

How do we and how should we shape our surroundings?
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.
What drove the great Ian Nairn to his early death? – Telegraph Blogs
Ian Nairn: poet of place, enemy of arrogance - Telegraph

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.

Ian Nairn's voice of outrage

His attacks on the banality of Britain's postwar buildings made Ian Nairn an inspiration for a generation of architectural critics. Jonathan Glancey celebrates the scourge of 'subtopia'
15 May 2010
A brilliant "angry young man" whose searing "outrage" quickly turned into a book that won the hearts of newspapers from the Daily Mirror to the Manchester Guardian, was published a year before John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. Nairn went on to write for the Daily Telegraph, the Observer and the Sunday Times, and presented a long run of heart-on-sleeve films for the BBC in the 60s and 70s. A tireless traveller through Britain and across Europe, Australia and the United States, he co-authored the Surrey (1962) and Sussex (1965) volumes of Nikolaus Pevsner's indispensable Buildings of England series, and was a guiding spirit among the younger generation that continued the crusade for conservation in the footsteps of another former Architecture Review assistant editor, John Betjeman. 
He made his instant mark with "Outrage", a fearless and revelatory attack on what was fast becoming the unbridled banality of Britain's landscape and "townscape", as the AR labelled the art of the way we should be making our towns and cities. For Nairn and the AR, a journey, by Morris Minor, from Southampton to Carlisle said it all. He forged a word for what he saw: Subtopia – "its symptom will be that 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." And the outrage? "The Outrage is that the whole land surface is becoming covered by the creeping mildew that already circumscribes all of our towns ... Subtopia is the annihilation of the site, the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern."
This could have been William Cobbett riding his hobby-horse across southern England: "All Middlesex is ugly," he thundered in 1830 in one of the pugnacious chapter openings of Rural Rides. Much the same theme had been taken up by John Ruskin, John Betjeman, the architect Clough Williams-Ellis, who gave us Portmeirion in north Wales, and Thomas Sharp, a 20th-century town planner who believed that postwar modern architecture and development could be reconciled with the humane ideal – felt by Nairn in the bones of his burly frame – of compact towns co-existing with a truly green countryside of which we are stewards, not consumers or despoilers. 
Writers and journalists, including JG Ballard, Will Self, Jonathan Meades, Patrick Wright, Iain Sinclair, Gavin Stamp (Private Eye's perennially outraged "Piloti"), as well as a younger generation of commentators such as Owen Hatherley and the mysterious blogger, Ghost of Nairn, have all been influenced one way or another by Nairn, who so wanted everywhere to be different when everywhere was threatening to be the same.
Ian Nairn's voice of outrage | Art and design | The Guardian
Outrage revisited | Art and design | The Guardian

Ian Nairn - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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