Nairn’s Towns by Ian Nairn

Ian Nairn was a vague TV presence when I was growing up; he faded out of view after his death but recent reappraisals plus the acclamation of his work by such luminaries as Jonathan Meades and Owen Hatherley have awoken interest in his writings. He was most definitely something of a maverick and Wikipedia says: “Ian Douglas Nairn (24 August 1930 โ€“ 14 August 1983) was a British architectural critic and topographer. In 1955, Nairn established his reputation with a special issue of the Architectural Review called “Outrage” (later as a book in 1956), in which he coined the term “Subtopia” for the areas around cities that had in his view been failed by urban planning, losing their individuality and spirit of place.In addition to his journalism, Nairn became for a time a familiar face on television, producing various series called for the BBC, starting with Nairn’s North in 1967 and concluding with Nairn’s Journeys in 1978. He died on 14 August 1983, aged 52, from cirrhosis of the liver and chronic alcoholism. Consumed with a sense of failure, he sought refuge in drink and in his later years wrote almost nothing.”

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Most of his books are long out of print, but fortunately Notting Hill Editions saw fit to reprint his classic “Britain’s Changing Towns” under the title “Nairn’s Towns” with foreword and updates by Owen Hatherley – so it was kind of a no brainer that I would be picking up a copy. Like all NHE books, it’s a gorgeous little clothbound hardback, with lovely thick creamy pages and also a number of photographic illustrations within the text – so, a thing of great beauty, then, before you even start to read. The original book evolved from a series of articles Nairn produced for the “Listener” magazine in 1960-1 and 1964. When they were gathered together in book form in 1967, Nairn provided updates to his earlier thoughts. This lovely version is introduced by Owen Hatherley, one of my favourite architectural writers, who also provides 2013 Postscripts which are fascinating in themselves.

The original version

The original version

Nairn was a passionate man; you only have to watch one of his TV shows to see how he wore his heart on his sleeve, and wasn’t afraid to shows how much he cared about a particular place or building. Wonderfully, his writing voice is just the same as speaking voice, and equally as engaging. Nairn didn’t start in architecture – he was a maths graduate and spent time in the RAF – but he discovered a niche saying what he felt about buildings, celebrating those he loved and verbally damning those he despised.

The big Perpendicular churches of England are a fascinating and utterly neglected psychological study. Then as now, some designers must have felt at odds with their society while some revelled in it. Chipping Campden, in particular, must have been built by a man unhappy to the edge of hysteria.

“Nairn’s Towns” takes us on a journey round the country to a variety of locations, some predictable and some rather unusual! He finds Newcastle-upon-Tyne superlative; that Sheffield has many possibilities, poised as it is on the brink of some dramatic modernist development which has since, alas, become much decried in certain quarters. Norwich, Liverpool, Derry, Brighton and many more get the Nairn treatment. Llandiloes in Wales, perhaps an unexpected choice, gets much praise from Nairn.

… there are plenty of people who would dismiss it as just sentiment or untidiness. They probably can’t see the point of cuddling their wives either.

The essays are little time capsules; views of a country still breaking away from the ways of the past, struggling to rebuild after the Second World War and trying to decide the best way to do it. And the process is erratic, piecemeal and down to the local planners, with little guidance from elsewhere. Owen Hatherley’s 2013 updates highlight the successes and failures and add the perfect coda to each piece.

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Ian Nairn’s tone throughout is wonderful – chatty, opinionated, funny and immensely readable, he’s the eternal optimist, always looking for the best in a place and hoping that the planners and developers will get it right. And his writing is so refreshing as he’s very much guided by the heart and not the head, refusing to subscribe to any particular ism but instead going in open-minded and open-hearted, as he puts it, ready to judge a place and its buildings by their merits. If only everyone could approach things like this! And you have to love someone who can describe a building as “the longest boardroom speech in the world made visible.”

This was such a delightful, stirring and satisfying read. In an alternative universe, Britain would have a Department of Planning controlling everything that was built in the country, and Ian Nairn would be in charge of it. Alas, we are instead subject to the maniac whims of architects wanting to leave their mark on a town or city without any thought for those living there (and Nairn always has the people who have to live in a place in the centre of his vision). But at least we can revisit the invigorating writings of this maverick and dream of the architecture we might have had.

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, very excitingly Penguin have now republished the classic work “Nairn’s London” – it looks absolutely lovely and I’m so pleased to have this to look forward to. How about “Nairn’s Paris” as well, please, Penguin! ๐Ÿ™‚

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