This heady, informative guide shows Nairn at the pithy peak of his powers, before disillusionment and drink began to blunt his prose
Ian Nairn has long been cherished by architectural historians. In the last decade, this esteem has ripened into a cult. His books have finally been reprinted, repackaged as holy writ, with choice extracts blocked on their cloth covers. The angry melancholy of his TV series is smeared across YouTube; his truncated life was recently plotted in an excellent BBC documentary. A torrent of deeply repetitive articles in broadsheets and journals is still in full flow, and critics scatter Nairn’s gutsy opinions into texts as an instant remedy against insipidity.
In the process, Nairn has been transformed into a caricature. Or, more accurately, a series of caricatures. To be fair, his swingeing prose, beguilingly awkward TV persona and early, alcohol-related death make this hard to avoid. With a brief career in the RAF behind him, and no architectural training, the 24-year-old burst onto the scene in 1955 with his Outrage issue of the Architectural Review (‘a prophecy of doom …. of an England reduced to universal Subtopia’). His heyday was brief – 15 years perhaps – but long enough for him to turn against the architectural profession (‘The outstanding and appalling fact about modern architecture is that it is just not good enough’) and produce one classic: Nairn’s London (1966). He faded from view as depression and drink took hold, vainly waving his fist once more in Outrage: 20 Years After (1975). He died in 1983 of cirrhosis of the liver, aged just 52.
Nairn’s passing was overshadowed in architectural circles by Nikolaus Pevsner’s death the same month and, for the next 25 years or so, by a macho obsession with his tiresome hepcat contemporary Reyner Banham. Now, however, everyone and their dog has rediscovered Nairn, branding him as their own: the lugubrious tap-room poet; the contrarian outsider, contemptuous of reputation; the anarcho-Tory, raging against ‘blind men in high places’; the disappointed humanist or bitter misanthrope; the proto-conservationist; and, perhaps most alluring of the lot, the tragic drunk.
Perhaps he was all those things, but, above all, Nairn was an architectural historian. In 1961, after a protracted courtship, he persuaded Pevsner to hand over most of the Surrey volume in Penguin’s Buildings of England series into his care. The result – a beautiful blend of Nairn’s gifts of description, perception and judgement with the constraints of the series – was acclaimed. Pevsner for one was delighted when the introduction was mistaken for his own work. But its rigours proved too arduous to repeat: Nairn abandoned Sussex when it was half-complete and, as the years passed, became dismissive of date and classification as measures of worth.
There was one other book in which Nairn subjected himself to a confining structure and a canonical publisher. Modern Buildings in London, written for London Transport in 1964, boasts only 260 entries on 260 individual(ish) buildings, ranging from Guildford Cathedral to the Bata estate in East Tilbury. Unlike Nairn’s London, it is a handy guide (with transport instructions) intended to be enjoyed in the field, not on the sofa. Its tone is matter of fact, informative, entertaining and, of course, judgemental. Nairn starts by making the dubious claim that he has chosen projects on merit, then proceeds to bestow faint praise or outright condemnation liberally – he even resorts to Blake when slamming the new Shell Centre as one of a set of giants ‘hired by Satan to depress art’. Nairnian exasperation occasionally slips through – the LCC Housing Division makes him ‘angrier than all the angry young men’.
Even so, this is the last book in which Nairn approaches London, and modern architecture, as sites of potential and optimism, not desecration and betrayal. Modern design is supple, fluent, humane: ‘no longer obliged to prove anything, it can just be itself’. Nairn’s descriptions are crisp and crackling, with praise lavished in unexpected places (old people’s homes, timber yards, ambulance stations and boys’ clubs); pithy asides (the neo-Georgians come in for particular stick); and genuine celebrations of talent: Denys Lasdyn, Eric Lyons (‘the modern Nash’), Powell & Moya, most of the Hertfordshire schools, Charles Holden’s tube stations and Stockwell Bus Garage (‘probably the noblest building in modern London’). Gatwick Airport gives him a ‘cerebral thrill rather like seeing a perfectly played hand of cards’. Compliment and wider critique are often combined in the same sentence – HT Cadbury-Brown’s Royal College of Art ‘has the greatness … that so many of the physically great new buildings in London so conspicuously lack’.
Some will miss the viscerality and placemaking of Nairn’s London. Few will miss its bathos and hyperbole, with schoolboy sneers slapped at the end of entries recycled from Modern Buildings. The ‘smouldering’ RCA now has, it seems, ‘too much of the feeling of God’s elect’. Nairn’s increasingly blurry sentimentality for both cockney and spiv rouses in him an impotent anger over the destruction of their sense of identity: the erosion of singularity, purpose, pubs and livelihoods at the hands of planners and politicians.
Nairn’s despair that others did not care as he did eventually overwhelmed his prose. Modern Buildings is written just before the tipping point. Clarity of purpose, of apprehension and description, a sense of hope and agency, and a sincere wish to understand and instruct prevail. This is a heartfelt, humorous update of the Buildings of England format, and my favourite book by Nairn. And it has a beautiful cover by LT regular Peter Roberson too.
This article first appeared in Icon 172