Ian Nairn: flight from Subtopia

Ian Nairn: Words in Place, by Gillian Darley and David McKie, Five Leaves, RRP£10.99, 162 pages

Nairn’s Towns, by Ian Nairn, edited, updated and introduced by Owen Hatherley, Notting Hill Editions, RRP£12, 242 pages

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.

The BBC still has documentaries but usually the star turn is someone already famous for something else on telly, and they are invariably over­produced and gimmicky. (The broadcasters think the audience has become more stupid; the truth is the reverse.)

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.

The critic Deyan Sudjic sees him as one of four men who shaped the way Britain saw its architecture 30 and 40 years ago, along with the cataloguer Nikolaus Pevsner, the lyrical nostalgist John Betjeman and the Los Angeles-lover Reyner Banham. Pevsner and Betjeman have never gone out of fashion; Banham’s exuberant theories have not weathered well.

Nairn, meanwhile, was the youngest of the four but the first to die – in 1983, aged 52, of cirrhosis. The drink had already done for his career as both a broadcaster and writer. For two decades he had blazed across the scene, first in the architectural press, then in books, finally on TV and in the Sunday newspapers. The creative industries have some tolerance for wayward geniuses but it is always finite, especially when alcohol makes them intolerable, and Nairn had stretched the tolerance beyond its limits. The obeisances were muted when he died, and then he was largely forgotten.

The comeback has been so swift as to be almost supernatural. A week ago, contemplating this commission, I started thinking about Nairn’s near-tearful 1972 TV denunciation of the council in my own home town of Northampton over the impending demolition of a beloved but neglected building called the Emporium Arcade. A day later, quite unbidden, a friend sent me the YouTube link.

There are these two books – a biography by Gillian Darley and David McKie, and Owen Hatherley’s revamp of articles Nairn wrote originally for The Listener. A BBC reassessment is due next year. And surely someone must again reissue the acknowledged 1966 masterpiece, Nairn’s London. Even though there have been two small reprints, the latest in 2002, all the editions are fetching insane prices on the second-hand market and there is a queue stretching towards infinity to borrow the sole copy at the London Library.

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.

He was one of us, in the sense of being completely outside the architectural establishment. A child of the suburbs, he got a maths degree from Birmingham and qualified as a pilot doing his national service in the RAF (which somewhat belied his image as a klutzy intellectual), occasionally using his fighter jet to do unauthorised aerial reconnaissance of East Anglian churches. 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.

From there, he went – as we would now say – viral, and international. Part of Nairn’s genius was that he was never narrow-minded nor predictable. At home he preferred the north to the south, the neglected to the overpraised: he would eulogise Wigan and damn York. He loved Belgian cities. In the US, he fell for old Boston and Pittsburgh, for Chicago and San Antonio, but hated small-town New England. In New Mexico he preferred Albuquerque, despite it being “a fearful mess”, to phoney, kitschy Santa Fe: “Albuquerque is the honest whore, Santa Fe is the wife who cheats.”

His style was always electrifying, and his opinions powerful. Pevsner allowed him to take charge of one and a half counties in his Buildings of England series: Surrey and half Sussex. The Surrey volume is a marvellous anomaly, full of sharp sideswipes, in contrast to the plodding detail that was Pevsner’s hallmark. What a wonder the other books might have been had Nairn taken charge. Unfortunately, as Pevsner soon realised, they might not have been completed in a dozen lifetimes. Nairn was not a man for the long slog.

What one also senses is that he lacked any overarching belief system. This is not necessarily a fault: it was architectural dogmatism that had created so much ugliness, whereas people loved towns that had developed organically and empirically. Nor was he consistent: he fell in love with the plans for Cumbernauld New Town in Scotland and out of love with the reality.

Had he lived longer, Nairn might have had the chance to recant some of his infatuations for the modern: for shopping centres such as the 1960s Bull Ring in Birmingham and the Tricorn in Portsmouth, both condemned and executed by popular demand; and the bullying and intimidating University of East Anglia in Norwich. In Northampton, however, time has justified him spectacularly: had the Emporium Arcade been spared and refurbished, it would have turned into a boutiquey triumph precisely in tune with the 21st century. Instead, Northampton has nothing.

The Darley-McKie book looks a little messy, both design-wise and because of the well-intentioned but confusing interruptions for essays by the likes of Hatherley, Sudjic and Glancey. But this short biography is still a very good read and the centrepiece of the Nairn revival, a welcome and essential introduction to an understanding of the man.

Nairn’s Towns is a beautifully produced pocket hardback, covering British places as diverse as Glasgow (“the most friendly of Britain’s big cities and probably the most dignified and coherent”) and little Llanidloes in mid-Wales (“a delight”). By the time one has read Nairn’s original 1961 essays, his postscript from 1967 when they were first collected in book form, and Hatherley’s extended comments on the past half-century, it is hard to know what to think oneself. But this is a joy too, and anyone who helps perpetuate the memory of this brilliant man is a friend of mine, and of good architecture. Let’s hope this improbable new phenomenon gathers pace.

Matthew Engel is an FT columnist. His book about the English counties, ‘Engel’s England’, is due to be published by Profile Books next year

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