Nairn's London by Ian Nairn (Afterword by Gavin Stamp) - review by Jonathan Meades

Jonathan Meades

The Architects’ Adversary

Nairn's London


Penguin 280pp £9.99 order from our bookshop

Ian Nairn famously made his name with an edition of the Architectural Review entitled ‘Outrage’, a noisy jeremiad against the uniformity, insipidity and imaginative bereavement of the suburbs he encountered on a long, dispiriting drive from Southampton to Carlisle.

That was in 1955. The date is significant. Building licences had been lifted only a few months previously. Materials were in short supply. Rationing, officially abolished the previous year, continued in effect. Construction was in the doldrums. Britain was not yet being remade. Architects were waiting to be called on. Nairn was only twenty-four years old. His widely disseminated vituperation against what he called ‘subtopia’ (essentially dull sprawl and characterless terrains vagues) was matched by a touchingly naive faith in the curative power of architecture, a faith that is perhaps easily professed when architecture remains on the page or a matter for discussion. It was a faith he was to lose. He felt betrayed by the men of clay in bow ties. In early 1966 he published a two-page article in The Observer entitled ‘Stop the Architects Now’. Architects, he contended, more often than not delivered a ‘soggy, shoddy mass of half-digested clichés’ (plus ça change).

This prompted a number of enjoyably bitter ad hominem attacks from, inter alia, the old fool Lionel Esher (president of the Royal Institute of British Architects), the apparently rather dense editor of Architects’ Journal and countless affronted dunces demanding they be told what ‘qualifications’ Nairn held to mete out such sweeping condemnation. He relished all this. And when Nairn’s London was published in the summer of 1966 he can hardly have been surprised that it was to a far from uniformly laudatory reception: ‘a near-Liberace level of self parody’; ‘romantic fiction’.

What members of the mostly sub-literate architectural establishment failed to fathom was that Nairn was no longer writing for them (if he ever had). He was not, much as they might have wished it, their creature – he was no one’s creature. Even though he had begun his brief, stellar career as a sort of maverick architectural journalist, he was largely indifferent to practitioners, to their professional politics, to their jockeying and pecking order, to their reputations. He avoided them socially. The matter of authorship did not overly tax him. He did not bother to delve to discover that the designer of Eros House in Catford was Rodney Gordon. He described the 53-year-old Jim Cadbury-Brown as ‘young’. Nor did he ‘interpret’ architects’ essays, as his singularly preposterous sometime colleague (though never friend) Reyner Banham did. He maintained a supreme detachment from his architectural contemporaries – but not from their work, nor from the work of their precursors.

He was wholly unclubbable, independent, the far side of bloody-minded and stubbornly protean. By the time he composed Nairn’s London his voice was no longer callow and hectoring. He had realised the futility of ‘engagement’ (and had indeed refused to involve himself in those organisations, such as the Civic Trust, which ‘Outrage’ had inspired). He had unlearned modernist dogma and had come to appreciate caprices he would previously have scorned: the Tudorbethan weirdness of Queen’s Drive in west Acton; Ernest Trobridge’s hilariously dotty cottages and toy fortresses in Kingsbury. And he had come to appreciate too the melancholy beauty of terrains vagues. He writes, with wonderful succinctness, of the cooling towers and pylonscape at Beddington Lane near Mitcham: ‘It is always four o’clock in late November here.’

Do not feel tempted to go and see for yourself. He did his work at a desk, not when he was shuffling about, all eyes and raw antennae, in his slept-in suit. The description – a distillation of a specific perception – is invariably superior to the place which it evokes, which it invents. The compact is, or ought to be, between writer and reader, not between place and tourist. Only if we suffer a profoundly defective misunderstanding of places as subject or as catalysts of mood or as topographical correlatives do we hurry to the Teme Valley when we read Housman or to the Marshwood Vale when we read Household.

We should take Nairn’s London’s claim to be a guidebook with a pinch of salt. That’s its disguise, no doubt a PR device intended to help it find its pigeonhole. What it is actually is a series of ruminations on buildings, urbanism, suburbanism and places. It comprises amateur architectural historical descriptions, winces, yelps of joy, strange gags, expressions of emotional rawness and sheer wonder, spine-tingling aperçus and so on. There are as many idioms as there are subjects. It is doggedly unsystematic. Nairn was as contemptuous of literary theories as he was of architectural theories; hence, almost half a century after it was published, Nairn’s London is still not part of the architectural syllabus in the way that the work of jargon-crippled bores like Kenneth Frampton and Colin Rowe is. What would architectural students learn from it apart from just about everything?

Nairn’s eschewal of formula is at least partly occasioned by the head-on collision between his restless responsiveness and a city which, more than any other, mutates every few hundred paces. London’s genius loci lies in its piecemeal heterogeneity. It is a city which abjures consensus. Its grandest plans (Wren’s, Nash’s) never quite came off, never really endured. Its governance has always been afflicted by short-termism. It is characterised by rude juxtapositions of style, preposterous lurches of scale, barneys about colour and materials. It is resistant to order. Nairn and London were made for each other. The unknowable megalopolis is as disordered as its greatest 20th-century laureate and as excessive as he was. That property – excess – is the only constant strain throughout this marvellous book: excess of perception, sentiment, energy, anger, reaction, scorn, enthusiasm and, when day is done, malt.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

OUP Niven

Follow Literary Review on Twitter