A look back at the work of the angry and passionate Ian Nairn, the outspoken critic of England’s ‘subtopian’ demise
‘Ian Nairn was this country’s first popular architectural journalist,’ began Colin Boyne’s obituary of the architectural critic whose alcoholism finally got the better of him in 1983 at the age of only 53. Nairn is currently enjoying something of a revival, including Gillian Darley and David McKie’s short celebration of his life and work, Ian Nairn: Words in Place, a re-release of Nairn’s Britain’s Changing Towns updated and introduced by Owen Hatherley, and a television documentary.
In case you haven’t already learned via the above Nairnmania, his stellar career, warmed by the odd pint of beer, included being architectural critic for The Observer and then The Sunday Times, as well as presenting several series of television and radio programmes for the BBC on architecture and planning. But Nairn started his career in policing architectural taste at the AR, famously plaguing the company offices until he was given a job. Boyne’s obituary noted that, ‘The editors in 1954 had little choice in the matter. Calling at Queen Anne’s Gate almost daily, still wearing a dyed RAF overcoat and constantly submitting articles, he demanded a job and in the face of such conviction an intrigued H de C Hastings gave it him.’
Nairn contributed several short pieces to the AR, starting with a positive review of Thomas Sharp’s book on Oxford in November 1953, demonstrating to his future employers as much as his readers his appreciation and knowledge of Hubert de Cronin Hastings’ Townscape ideals. He was offered the post of Assistant Editor Production in July 1954.
Nairn’s contributions were low key until the June 1955 issue of AR called ‘Outrage’, which he edited and almost single-handedly produced at the age of only 24. This bombshell of architectural criticism brought Nairn instant fame even beyond the usual confines of architecture. As Darley & McKie note, ‘Within days of publication, the Duke of Edinburgh had mentioned the word Subtopia in a speech and the BBC showed growing interest in the topic, as did several members of the House of Commons.’
Subtopia was the neologism Nairn coined to describe the crime of ‘the annihilation of the site, the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern’ or ‘the legalization of the urge to dump on a national scale.’ In short, ‘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.’ Nairn demonstrated this on a journey in as straight a line as possible (a habit acquired during his time as an RAF pilot perhaps?) between the two cities, documenting the journey in sections of roughly a page for every 25 miles. He focused specifically on clutter and the townscape elements that destroyed the visual quality of the place such as wires, lampposts, signs and adverts, with which planners in particular were littering the country. Nairn strongly believed in the individual, both place and person, even going as far as to argue in ‘Outrage’ that ‘our whole existence as individuals is at stake’. The reason he loved being in pubs so much, apart from the background company they afforded, was that they were ‘the apotheoses of Be-Thyself’. This visceral expression of genius loci perfectly complemented the Townscape principles that the editors of AR had been campaigning for over the past decade. Hastings had found the ideal Angry Young Man of architectural criticism to champion his cause.
Nairn started at the AR a little over a year after Reyner Banham appeared on the masthead as Assistant Literary Editor. The two young Turks would appear to be similar, both arriving at architecture from a working-class background via the romance of aeroplanes rather than buildings. Both are described as Angry Young Men, but only Nairn was really angry. Banham was too incorrigibly a believer in progress. Darley and McKie’s passing comment that ‘Nairn and Banham did not, on any grounds whatsoever, see eye to eye’ is consistent with Jonathan Meades’ snipe in his recent mind-altering documentary Bunkers, Brutalism, and Bloody-mindedness: Concrete Poetry about Banham as ‘a man who would have trampled on his grandmother to snuggle up to a passing trend’. Elsewhere, Meades has called Pevsner’s protégé the Smithsons’ ‘representative on Earth … an architectural critic whose prose may cause all but the entirely insentient to wince’.
Hastings not only approved of the enthusiastic amateur approach to architectural criticism, but also loved to contrive creative tension between his writers and by employing the two young critics perhaps he was hoping to conjure up some of the antagonism that he enjoyed all too briefly between Pevsner and Betjeman.
It is nowhere evident if Banham, as the older of the two and the first to arrive at Queen Anne’s Gate, resented the unqualified upstart. A far more sociable breed, he was perhaps too busy networking with the upcoming architectural talent at the ICA, finishing his PhD at the Courtauld, and being a midwife to the Smithsons’ New Brutalism. Only six months after ‘Outrage’ appeared, his now celebrated explanation of this emerging movement was published in the AR. The piece is written by the serious art historian Banham rather than the cool cat he later became and shows his desire to establish movements. The promotion of the New Brutalism actually sat uneasily in the AR’s overall editorial trajectory and if anything, it was Banham who was the loose cannon working behind enemy lines and who would have been more at home at the more avant-garde Architectural Design with Theo Crosby and the Smithsons.
Banham was always more interested in the object than the place, the destination than the journey. You only have to compare his 1972 film Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, with Nairn Across Britain from the same year or Nairn’s Travels of 1970. Banham was casual in open orange shirt, shades and cloth cap, optimistically hep in his large American sedan, while Nairn drove a Morris Minor convertible and maintained his white shirt and suit passionately preaching from the vandalised pulpit in St Saviour’s church in Bolton, or from inside the soon-to-be-demolished marketplace in Northampton. But Nairn also appreciated a good pile of Brutalism, for example praising Portsmouth’s Tricorn by Owen Luder and Rodney Gordon as ‘a great belly laugh of forms’ and Preston’s bus station by BDP as a ‘truly great building’. Neither was he provincial, taking every opportunity to travel across the US and Europe.
As well as inspiring the birth of the Civic Trust, Nairn followed up the success of ‘Outrage’ with a more positive issue called ‘Counter Attack’ in December 1956 where he attempted to offer some solutions to the problems he had previously identified. He even established a ‘Counter Attack Bureau’ with Gordon Cullen at the AR to provide aesthetic planning advice to local authorities, a service that was well used. While Banham may have endured more in the architects’ imagination, Nairn always spoke more to the planners and public so it can easily be argued that the latter had a greater influence on the form of our current towns and cities.