Sunday, November 24, 2013
Love and outrage
For ten days or so, English Buildings turns into a book blog as I review some of the new publications that have struck me this year. To begin with, a book about a presiding spirit of this blog, the writer and broadcaster, Ian Nairn...
Gillian Darley and David McKie, Ian Nairn: Words in Place
Published by Five Leaves Publications
There's a YouTube video in which Iain Sinclair and Jonathan Meades discuss their work. Before long, the name of Ian Nairn comes up, an inspiration for both writers for his fresh reactions to places, his combative stance towards architects, and his bracing prose style. His guidebook to London (Nairn's London, 1966) is singled out for particular praise. In the comments accompanying the video, some young, interested watchers exchange views: 'Who is that bloke they talked about? Ian Nunn? Ian Nenn?' Ian Nairn: Words in Place tells them what they need to know, combining a study of his work with such biographical facts as are useful for an understanding of the man and his writing.
Briefly, born in Bedford in 1930 and raised in Surrey, Nairn read mathematics at Birmingham University before going into the Royal Air Force. As he flew, he looked down towards England's towns and villages and landscapes: the first of the series of views from odd angles that drove his career. He realised that his aerial views of England gave him unique insights into the buildings on the ground – that he could often see what earthbound architectural historians could not. Oddly, he could do the same thing when standing on terra firma too. By the early 1950s he was sending articles to the Architectural Review.
Ian Nairn: Words in Place describes this unusual career. It begins with the story of how Nairn exploded on to the scene of architectural writing in 1955 with his first masterpiece, Outrage. Outrage was Nairn's special edition of the Architectural Review chronicling the destructive effects on the environment of the tendency to reduce once-individual places to the same mediocre and uniform pattern. To make this point, Nairn drove from Southampton to Carlisle, taking photographs of everything grim and similar – lamp posts, semi-detached houses, telegraph poles, badly designed signs, misplaced factories, gauche roundabouts, wires, wires, wires. For the result he coined a new term, subtopia, a word that suggests suburbia and well as dystopia, and that was intended to embody the fact that soon 'the end of Southampton will look like the beginning of Carlisle' with everything in between looking the same too. Outrage, trenchantly argued, angry, emotional, laid out with the graphic flair that characterized the AR in the 1950s, caught the imagination and fired people up. It was soon republished as a book, and spawned a sequel, Counter-attack, which suggested what to do about the mess, with examples of good planning and design. Outrage and Counter-attack were Nairn's seminal early works.
Darley and McKie chronicle the creation and impact of these early triumphs (the formation of the Civic Trust was one result). They continue with the other landmarks of Nairn's career – his book on America, The American Landscape; his work with Pevsner on the Buildings of England volumes for Sussex and Surrey; his guidebooks to London and Paris; his relationship with the professions; his journalism; and his television work. Each chapter is accompanied by a short commentary in which another writer describes their response to a specific part of Nairn's oeuvre – Jonathan Meades on Nairn and the Buildings of England, Owen Hatherley on Nairn and the Professions, and David Thomson and Andrew Saint on Nairn's London, for example.
It's Nairn's London that stands out as the other masterpiece, a love-song to a great city in the form of a guidebook, as radically and whackily positive as Outrage was negative. As ever with Nairn, what stand out are the unusual choices of buildings (27 pubs, a timber merchant's, the Agapemonite Church in Clapton, gloomy alleys, a boat-builder's Swiss chalet, the odd council estate, Eros House in Catford), the striking and sometimes assertive prose, the insistence on the importance of being moved, emotionally, by what he sees. It's that emotion that's the key. When a building moves him, when he loves a place, his prose takes off and you want to dash out and look at the place yourself. How could one resist a church that resembles an orgasm, or a bank that looks like something left when the seas receded, or a bit of public art that is 'energy made visible'? The arresting prose can be mind-boggling, but it always conveys something about the place. Nairn's London can still tell you more about the capital than a dozen newly-minted, media-savvy, buzzword-saturated guidebooks. It is good to know that there are plans to reprint it.
Ian Nairn: Words in Place is a celebration of all this, but it's also an elegy to a man who died too soon. Alcoholism got him, and, with a sheaf of ideas in his trademark raincoat pocket for further, unwritten books (Nairn's Industrial North – if only), he died, at just 53. His books, very much of their time, have been little reprinted, but Nairn should remain important to all who think about Britain's places and buildings. Never a favourite with architects (though appreciative of many modern buildings, he wrote a famous Observer article headed 'Stop the architects now!') he has always been read by people who, like himself, care about architecture but have no architectural qualifications. He still deserves to be read, and so does this engaging account of his work.