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Blurred vision: revisiting Ian Nairn's Subtopia

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Looking back at the peripheries, edges and endings of Subtopia, it seems little has been learned 

Ian Nairn was a mathematics graduate of Birmingham University, a dissatisfied RAF pilot with a passion for architecture and a hatred for the suburbs. Gaining fluency by the minute but lacking a regular outlet, his name first appeared on the masthead of The Architectural Review in 1954, aged 24. Outrage was published in a special issue of the AR in June 1955 and soon afterwards as a book. The subject was ‘Subtopia’, a term which Nairn coined to criticise the universalisation and idealisation of suburbia. Gratifyingly it entered the language without delay, meriting an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary that year.  

Subtopia

Subtopia

Outrage, a special issue of the AR published in June 1955: (clockwise from top left) Ian Nairn coined the term ‘Subtopia’ to describe insatiable urban sprawl; before and after sketches by Gordon Cullen; the ‘Route Book’ documented a course from Southampton to Carlisle; nightmarish amalgamation of suburban detritus as depicted by Cullen

A windy introduction, strongly intimating managing editor Hubert de Cronin Hastings’s own style and concerns, included an attempt to give the international view (‘Holland is already a suburb, Switzerland a hydro. Baghdad has trams’). It went on to offer ‘a prophecy of doom’, to make an urgent call to arms, both in its polemics and its graphics, against environmental degradation. The innumerable topics and dizzying number of images that Nairn provided were anchored by inspirational bold graphics; coloured inserts, photographs used in blocks beside or below the text, and, at intervals, art editor (and architect) Gordon Cullen’s own strong charcoal drawings, showing in an only slightly exaggerated manner the chaotic signage within a standard street scene or the grim environment generated around an arterial road or defence establishment. Cullen also employed the simple device of the before and after image including the hallowed precincts of the Radcliffe Camera, Oxford. But Outrage really took fire with a section titled ‘Route Book’. England was dissected by a north-south line from Southampton to Carlisle, 400 miles away. Each 30-odd miles was then examined forensically, Nairn having travelled every inch of the route. Cullen’s hand-drawn maps ran continuously along the top of each page. Below, Nairn’s numbered photographs (little more than snapshots) illustrated the horrors while his descriptive text ran on coloured half-page inserts alongside. 

Criticisms of suburbia in Outrage came tangentially, bundled up with other strands of argument, including attacks on every level of authority and, implicitly at least, the failure of the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 to engage gear. But the gradual national roll-out of the Green Belt deserved modest celebration. Nairn thanked Essex County Council for ‘keeping its share of the green belt truly green (apart from wholesale incursions by the LCC)’. At the core of the campaign was the urgent need to engage ‘the man in the street’ (a preferable term to the ‘little man’ which Hastings liked to use) in a fight-back against the degradation of his surroundings. A tough kind of civic virtue and assured visual literacy were the crucial objectives, comfortably apolitical, and all for the greatest good.   

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Nairn’s Subtopia Outrage

Nairn’s Subtopia castigated the fusing of urban and suburban standards rather than retaining and celebrating their distinct identities. This basic tenet of visual planning was illustrated in the withering attack on planners, local authorities, developers and government that was Outrage

Outrage was followed the next year, 1956, by Counter-Attack, again edited by Nairn. This claimed to be a ‘plan of action’ and he (and Hastings) brought in specialists for answers, ranging from Elizabeth Denby to Peter Shepheard, and resulting in a somewhat indigestible furore of examples and suggestions, on topics ranging from analyses of urban density to tree planting, ending with a so-called ‘Plan for Planning’. It placed the AR centre stage in the national discussion on topics such as the suggestion that all agricultural land be frozen as Green Belt, enormously exacerbating commuter pressure on the countryside but which would be alleviated by ‘taut urban redevelopment and full use of land in the existing suburbs’. By now Nairn was out of his depth, an impression intensified by the intensely meaningless final sentence. ‘The planners’ job is to be able to generalize in an age bedevilled by specialists: to make each mystique of technology or each political manoeuvre come to terms with the landscape.’  

‘Sitting stationary in the family car, on chocks in the garage, Nairn leafed through maps and dreamed of being anywhere but Surrey’

The AR claimed that its readers, architects, planners and citizens, had inundated them with a ‘flood of enquiries’ and was setting up a Counter-Attack Bureau (in reality little more than Nairn’s own desk). On the back of this, Nairn and Cullen looked west, to the USA, to celebrate the strengths of the ‘townscape’ of a number of cities. (Townscape was a term coined by Hastings and Cullen in the late 1940s.) The results of a thrilling 10-day tour, Cullen’s drawings based on Nairn’s photographs (the former did not fly) and accompanied by Nairn’s extended captions, were published in Fortune magazine and then within a book, The Exploding Metropolis (1958) in which Jane Jacobs was a leading contributor. Nairn built on that with a 10-week study tour, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, in late 1959. That sweep through the anomie of mid-century, middle American sprawl was only alleviated by returning to some of those urbane cities, San Antonio, Pittsburgh, Boston and more. The resulting book The American Landscape (1965) was a rambling damp squib.

On home soil, Nairn couldn’t help putting his fingers to the fire. During the decade that separated Outrage from the most personal of his books, Nairn’s London, published in 1966, he kept returning to the blight of what he termed ‘no-man’s land’. He liked ‘clean edges’, that moment of switching from town to country kept ‘sharp, without mediation’. Nairn celebrated the concentrated urbane form, the pattern that he admired so wholeheartedly in the work of Span, when from 1948 onwards Eric Lyons, Geoffrey Townsend and Ivor Cunningham used the characteristics of mature landscape, a limited palette and typology of interlocking terraces and courtyards to pull off numerous admirably coherent housing schemes, as, here and there, did the early architects of the New Towns. (Lyons also worked at Harlow so the beneficiaries were not only owner occupiers.)

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An unremarkable new housing development is juxtaposed with its splendid natural setting

An unremarkable new housing development is juxtaposed with its splendid natural setting. Photograph by Polly Tootal

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Little has changed since this image of ribbons of identikit buildings published alongside Outrage in 1955

Little has changed since this image of ribbons of identikit buildings published alongside Outrage in 1955

Lionel Brett’s Hilltop Town Centre at the New Town of Hatfield New caught Nairn’s eye since the ‘shape is right and the feeling is right’ but viewed formally it needed to be folded into a valley, rather than set on higher ground where the ‘views are always spilling out, the space is always leaking away’. (An oxymoron, since Nairn often gloried in stolen views and spatial generosity, so long as they were well contained.) Unfortunately, at Hatfield he also had to admit the literal failure of the design (writing in his London Transport guide, Modern Buildings in London of 1964). The sweep of monopitch single-storey housing lost its roofs in a hurricane in 1957 since, as Nairn, briefly an RAF Meteor pilot and still an aviator, pointed out, it acted as an aerofoil (its curves well suited to lift-off). However, elsewhere he admired the masterplan of Cumbernauld, where the exposed layout took in ‘a great sweep of trees’ and promised to provide identity in a ‘basic enfolding gesture’. It had a marked edge, as Subtopia never had. 

Nairn was arguing for a careful stasis, one which always played to the particular circumstances of a site, especially its contours and existing landscape features. The alternative was creep by default or what he preferred to term ‘witless chaos’. He pointed the youthful readers of Your England Revisited (1964) to George Orwell who had ‘put the whole thing into his Coming up for Air’ (written in Morocco just before the outbreak of the Second World War). For them he compares a 1954 photograph of the edge of Carlisle to the outer edge of Carlisle half a mile further on in 1960, detached bungalows strung along the roadside. Nothing had been learned.

After the explosive exciting pages of Outrage, and the confusions which grew on closer examination in Counter-Attack, Nairn sought comfort in the familiar, for all that he disliked it. Nikolaus Pevsner had invited him to share the editing of Buildings of England: Surrey, published in 1971, and suggested he also write the introduction. As Pevsner realised, Surrey was terrain ideally suited to Nairn’s particular brand of forensic topography and careless generalisation. He distinguished between the ‘true suburb’ while acknowledging that, like Southern California, most of Surrey only existed to serve ‘urban man’, Green Belt or not. With demonstrable satisfaction he observed that ‘the history of the suburb could almost be written without going out of the county’. And he knew it well. He spent his childhood in suburban Surrey since his father worked for the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. Frimley was on the wrong side of the social tracks from comfortable Camberley. Sitting stationary in the family car, on chocks in the garage due to war-time fuel shortages, Nairn leafed through maps and dreamed of being anywhere but there. Two decades later he was ideally placed to settle the score.

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Serried ranks of characterless housing (above) that could be anywhere in the UK

Serried ranks of characterless housing that could be anywhere in the UK. Photograph by Polly Tootal

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The monotony broken only by colossal advertising billboards as depicted in Outrage

The monotony broken only by colossal advertising billboards as depicted in Outrage. Perhaps gin is the appropriate response

Happily, at Cranham, the furthest east in Nairn’s London, he found a precise point, at which ‘the outward swell of building stopped dead, two fields away’. As he put it, ‘of all the ways in which London meets its countryside, this is the least credible’ and the explanation was the Metropolitan Green Belt. Beyond what he considered ‘an unspoilt Essex hamlet … rough and honest’, he pictured a familiar deluge, that ‘terrifying forty miles of solid brickwork behind those demure-looking semis half a mile away. You feel as Canute might have on the beach, but unexpectedly successful’. 

Visit Cranham today, the M25 motorway pounding away just a couple of hundred yards east, there is still something of what Nairn observed more than 55 years ago. But it also illuminates the porosity of the countryside. Green Belt designation has not prevented, and indeed encouraged, the farm buildings to become a mews development with electronic gates, while the grassland is now devoted to golfers rather than a milking herd and the most attractive current cash crop are the banks of solar panels.

Lead image: A lamppost on an anonymous street corner in present-day English suburbia complete with CCTV. Photograph by Polly Tootal

This piece is featured in the AR May 2019 issue on Periphery – click here to purchase your copy today