The Civic Trust for Wales

Nairn’s vision

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Snelling House, Bute Terrace. Designed in 1966 for British Gas by Alex Gordon and Partners

BBC 4: The man who fought the planners — the story of Ian Nairn (broadcast 20 February 2014)

Ian Nairn (edited by Owen Hatherley), Nairn’s towns, London, Notting Hill Editions (2013) ISBN: 978-1-907903816

Gillian Darley and David McKie, Ian Nairn: words in place, Nottingham, Five Leaves (2013) ISBN: 978-1-907869877.
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The man who fought the planners is an affectionate, but no holds barred, profile of Ian Nairn. Nairn died in 1983, but for twenty years he was a blunt critic of the tawdriness of post-war development in British towns and cities. He criticised the emergence of ‘subtopia’ — the blurring of town and country, and the way towns were coming to seem drearily alike. Subtopia was the product of mediocre imagination and standardised design — of houses, public buildings, street furniture, signage. It is Nairn’s subtopia we all live in, but the trends he identified in the fifties and sixties became even more acute as the worship of the market has made public benefit and public spiritedness issues of little concern to developers, and as the local state has been deprived of the resources it needs to help shape more humane places in which to live and work.

I remember the programme in which Nairn visited Cardiff in his convertible Morris Minor, and the way he singled out the great green glass box of Snelling House (now the Big Sleep Hotel) as an example of good building in an otherwise unimpressive city. Almost everything around the box has gone, but Nairn’s judgement has proved sound. Uncompromisingly modernist the building may be, but it has proved more rooted than anything that has grown up around it — least of all the weak façadist treatment that demeans the adjacent Alto Lusso tower. This is a reminder that while Nairn became associated with an angry critique of modernist architecture, it wasn’t modernism he grew to loathe, but bad building, building that ignored the relationship between people and place that gives a town a character all its own. Good building, he thought, responds to the local context and the local community, and all the meanings they contain. It wasn’t a battle of the styles he launched, but a plea for public benefit, sense of place and local amenity.

Architectural critic cum TV pundit was an unlikely career for a state school graduate in Maths who flew as a jet pilot in Gloster Meteors. But it was apparently his pilot’s eye view of the way towns were changing that set him brooding on the mistakes society was making as it remodelled shattered cities and provided new homes to replace the slums. It’s a personal trajectory that was described with the help of former colleagues and extracts from his own TV programmes. We were reminded of the dour bluntness of his TV persona, and also of the personal loneliness that his restlessness concealed. Nairn died of beer. If there is a criticism, it’s of too glib a title for this programme. Nairn had planners and architects in his gun sights, but he wasn’t a critic of planning or architecture, even if he bruised the egos of some of those tasked with the rapid reconstruction of cities and towns mauled by bombing and scarred by rotten housing.When we look harder it’s bad design and insensitive planning that he hated. The vitriol sometimes disguises what he really valued.

Two books published to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of his death fill out his character and help us to understand exactly why Nairn was angry and why he remains important. Darley and McKie front eight short essays from writers who either knew Nairn personally or, like Owen Hatherley and Jonathan Glancey, were inspired by him. Glancey, for example, assesses Nairn’s TV career, while Hatherley considers his opinions of architects and planners. Others discuss his first great blast in Outrage against the evils of subtopia, his career as a ‘Pevsner’ editor, and his magnificent Penguins on London and Paris.

Outrage (1955), a special edition of the Architect’s Journal, for which the fighter pilot has become a writer, produced a hoo-hah that culminated in the founding of the Civic Trust by the great and good around Tory housing minister Duncan Sandys. But Nairn rightly feared that the Trust was too establishment, and would be too concerned with prettiness, and kept away. He thought the Trust’s famous pastel paint job on Magdalen Street, Norwich, was ‘cruelly out of touch with the local colour-range’.

Hatherley has edited Britain’s changing towns of 1967, and given it a new title to fit with his introduction, and the commentaries he appends to each of Nairn’s essays, themselves containing reflections on articles originally published in the early sixties in the long lost Listener. Hatherley’s Nairn is to an extent a reflection of Hatherley, who elsewhere has written with respect on the ethics behind modernism and post-war public building, but his assessment rings true.

Nairn is portrayed as a man not bothered by theory or systematising, but an angry critic who believed that we need to conserve good old buildings, the essentially Georgian and Victorian legacy of towns and cities, at the same time as he demanded good modern building that respected context and local character. Britain’s changing towns shows how good Nairn was in responding to place and pinning down the character of the great regional cities, Cardiff amongst the ranks of Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and others which include, amazingly, Llanidloes.

The Llanidloes essay dates from 1960, with a 1967 postscript. It’s a jewel of a piece which pinpoints the little town’s character in a way no formal characterisation study could do better. In fact, in its idiosyncratic way, its a model of character analysis, recognising the importance of the hill country setting, noting the visual delights that stem from the off-centre crossroads at the town’s heart, picking out keynote buildings, exulting over the living tradition of sign-writing that dignifies the facades of shops and pubs, and cherishing the town’s fine shopfronts. Nairn found the town ‘diminished’ on his 1967 visit, but Hatherley visits today and finds that Llanidloes, luckily, still retains the character that was prized in 1960.

Snelling House, December 2013

So what of Cardiff? I find this essay a little disappointing — maybe because he misses stuff I have always liked. That’s the trouble with the quick in-and-out approach.It can be a bit hit and miss.

Nairn arrives on a rugby day in April 1964 (Wales 11 Scotland 3 — it was the eleventh of April). He instinctively responds to the basic friendliness of the city, and must have had a great night out in the city centre pubs (‘cram-full, taking up the singing so that the whole room vibrated’). He pinpoints the disappointments of arrival in Central Square (still not fixed) and regards the now lost Empire Pool as ‘joke modern’. All to the good. But he misses the quality of the Victorian city centre, although he has a good word for the arcades, and his imagination is caught much more by the Castle, the Cathedral and Castell Coch.

He responds to Bute Street and Mount Stuart Square with more enthusiasm. His Bute Street (‘a straight mile of shops and cafes facing the long dockyard wall: suicidal, but in an almost noble way’) is largely gone, but the Square ‘is a Victorian commercial core of the utmost probity’ and Windsor Esplanade is ‘a single unimpeachable terrace, gazing out across the mud flats to the open sea and the tower of St Augustine’s on the hill above Penarth’. By contrast the civic centre is ‘one weary neo-classical hulk after another, lumped down on a regular grid’, the rococco City Hall its only success.

So back to Snelling House. This is the modern stand-out amongst the mediocre new offices going up in the city centre, ‘a precise, beautifully detailed tower of curtain-walling, seven storeys of true Welsh repartee among all the alien blather’, albeit by Leonard Beaven, Gordon’s Buckinghamshire partner. Here’s a clue to the way he wants to see the city. He’s looking, as always, for the genius loci, a sense of Welshness in local building, just as he’s excited by regional character when he visits English towns and cities. In Wales, he thinks, style is imported, not authentic, unless one considers Prichard’s work at Llandaff, or the way Welsh chapels reflect playful adaptations of Gothic or Classical.

But if his Cardiff essay is something of  a misfire (Hatherley issues a gentle reprimand for his take on Cathays Park), it’s forgiveable, not least because he would now surely be angry at the neglect of Mount Stuart Square and its jewel in the crown, the Coal Exchange, and angry too at the ‘cheap and tacky’ quality of Mermaid Quay in the ‘regenerated’ ‘Cardiff Bay’.  A people as friendly as the locals deserve more visual achievement. He wants a sense of place to match the sense of community in which he revels.

That should, of course, be a reminder of what perhaps really endures in Nairn’s vision. We may question some of his responses to what he sees, but not what he prizes. He wants building to respond to character and place. And that character isn’t as a rule to be discovered in conservation areas alone, but is part of a larger construct of local identity.

Graham King, writing last November on rudi.net, is perceptive when he recognises that Nairn, in his quick-fire, judgemental, blunt and occasionally boozy way, is an apostle of ‘the missing art of townscape midway between town planning and architecture’. Solutions lie in design that is rooted in the recognition of the particular ‘and may work  nowhere else’. He likes architecture that works when it responds to real places. He sees the special in the ordinary and demands a professional response that recognises the relationship between building and community.

That understanding may be the yellow brick road that leads us out of subtopia.

Matthew Griffiths

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