Nairn’s London by Ian Nairn

Reviewed by Karen Langley

nairns londonIan Nairn was a regular TV presence in the 1960s and 1970s, but faded out of view towards the end of his life.  Born in 1930, he rose to prominence in 1955 with a special issue of the Architectural Review magazine called Outrage (later issued as a book) in which he attacked the planning failures of urban areas outside of cities, labelling them as “Subtopia” and claiming they had lost all individuality and identity. This was followed by journalism and television series’ for the BBC, until his untimely death from alcohol in 1983 at the age of only 52.

For many years he was a forgotten face, but recent reappraisals, a documentary in 2014 plus the acclamation of his work by such luminaries as Jonathan Meades and Owen Hatherley have awoken interest in his writings. Nairn’s London was first published in 1965, and after the documentary there were calls for Penguin to reprint what is considered his seminal work (and even an online petition, I believe!). Penguin responded with this beautifully-produced replica of the original, complete with large plate section (linked to from within the text) and an afterword by Gavin Stamp. The result is a lovely, chunky and attractive looking volume with Nairn on the front cover grinning from a London bus, almost identical looking to the original but at a very reasonable price (compared to those being asked by online sellers during 2014).

The book is something of a love-letter to London and its architecture. Nairn states his credo upfront in his introduction, where he says:

This guide is simply my personal list of the best things in London. I have all the time tried to be rigorous – not any old Wren church or view or pub, but the good ones – and I have all the time tried to get behind conventional aesthetics to an internal reality of which beauty is only one facet. What I am after is character, or personality, or essence.

The book is never going to be a traditional, blanket guide to all the obvious places in the city that a tourist would visit; instead, Nairn picks and chooses, pointing out the quirky and the unusual, the successes and failures, and guiding the readers to some intriguing places tucked away that they might never have come across. For example, I was fascinated to discover that there are a series of murals painted on a church wall in Leicester Square by Jean Cocteau, of which I wasn’t aware before.

Nairn’s London is divided up into 11 sections, roughly following areas of interest in London. Thus, section 1 covers the City of London; a later part, section 4, covers the South Bank; and section 11 stretches out as far as London Airport. It’s a wide-ranging survey, allowing Nairn to focus on the particular architectural idiosyncrasies and delights he finds in each area. The entries are not always the ones you might expect, and he’ll often throw in a reference to somewhere in passing just to let you know that he doesn’t actually intend to cover it! He’s also very egalitarian in his outlook, focussing on things which have quality which he recognises, regardless of source.

…the book has no barriers. I just don’t believe in the difference between high- and lowbrow, between aristocracy and working class, between fine art and fine engineering. All are tilting-horses erected by paper men because they can’t or they don’t recognize the golden thread of true quality. This book is a record of what has moved me, between Uxbridge and Dagenham. My hope is that it moves you, too.

Nairn was a passionate man; you only have to watch one of his TV shows to see how he wore his heart on his sleeve, and wasn’t afraid to show how much he cared about a particular place or building. Wonderfully, his writing voice is just the same as his speaking voice, and equally as engaging. Nairn didn’t start in architecture – he was a maths graduate and spent time in the RAF – but he discovered a niche saying what he felt about buildings, celebrating those he loved and verbally damning those he despised. Ian Nairn was a romantic at heart, preferring a building to look grubby and lived in, wearing its years visibly, than all scrubbed up; he’s quick to condemn here the cleaning of St. Paul’s, for example.

Nairn’s tone throughout is wonderful – chatty, opinionated, funny and immensely readable, he’s the eternal optimist, always looking for the best in architecture and hoping that the planners and developers will get it right. And his writing is so refreshing as he’s very much guided by the heart and not the head, refusing to subscribe to any particular ism but instead going in open-minded and open-hearted, as he once put it, ready to judge a church, a building or a district by its own merits. If only everyone could approach things like this!

33-5 Eastcheap: Victorian wildness can come from half a dozen causes, from mere fashion to cantankerousness. But this is truly demoniac, an Edgar Allan Poe of a building. It is the scream that you wake on at the end of a nightmare… Demolition is in the air; but it must be preserved – not as an oddity, but as a basic part of human temperament, and one which doesn’t often get translated into architecture.

Idiosyncratic, individual and never dull, I’d highly recommend this book to anyone with a love of London and its buildings, nooks and crannies, albeit with one small caveat. Although Nairn’s London is much, much more than the simple term implies, with its remarkably wide-ranging and varied viewpoints, it *is* structured as a Guide Book; and therefore might be better dipped into in smaller chunks rather than attempting to read it all in one go. That way, the reader risks being overwhelmed with the wonderful descriptions and fabulously opinionated thoughts of Ian Nairn, so that their impact is lost.

In an alternative universe, Britain would have a Department of Planning controlling everything that was built in the country, and Ian Nairn would be in charge of it. Alas, we are instead subject to the manic whims of architects wanting to leave their mark on a town or city without any thought for those living there (and Nairn always has the people who have to live in a place in the centre of his vision). But at least we can revisit the invigorating writings of this maverick and dream of the architecture we might have had.

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Ian Nairn, Nairn’s London (Penguin: London, 2014). 9780141396156, 280pp, paperback.

Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and is most comfortable studying architecture from her armchair.

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  1. Pingback: Five out, two in – and a small collection begins… | Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings

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