Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Ian Nairn’

We unapologetically re-publish this four year old review of a fifty-three year old book. Originally published in London Historians Members’ newsletter January 2015. By LH Member Simon Fowler.


 

What’s the best guide to London’s buildings?  There’s the superb and very comprehensive English Heritage’s Survey of London and, of course, the appropriate volumes of Pevsner. But might I suggest a 50-year old book by Ian Nairn? First published in 1966, Nairn’s London has recently been republished as a Penguin Classic after many years out of print. And not a moment too soon!

nairn01Ian Nairn (1930-1983) was perhaps Britain’s greatest architectural critic.  According to Owen Hatherley he was “Arguably the finest architectural writer of the Twentieth Century…vivid, sensual descriptions of buildings, a way of writing about architecture that I’d never imagined possible before.” Today he is remembered for several series of iconic TV programmes in the late 1960s and early 1970s: many of which are now available on BBC iPlayer.

But his greatest work is Nairn’s London. In it he describes nearly five hundred buildings, some famous, many obscure and some plain perverse. In the preface Nairn writes that:
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 – and I have tried to get behind conventional aesthetics to an in internal reality of which beauty is only facet. What I am after is character, or personality, or essence.

During the mid and late 1960s there was an explosion of books about the city, many capitalising on the metropolis’s brief notoriety as ‘Swinging London’.  There was even a Good Loo guide. But whereas these guides are almost without exception dated and hackneyed, Nairn’s London remains as fresh as the day it was published. His descriptions match exactly the building, or bring some aspect to the reader’s attention that they might otherwise have overlooked. Best of all he makes you want to go there. Take 12 Langford Place in London NW8 for example:
Sheer horror: a Francis Bacon shriek in these affluent, uncomplicated surroundings at the end of Abbey Road.  It looks like a normal St John’s Wood villa pickled in embalming fluid by some mad doctor. Two very pinched gables and a bay window like the carapace of a science fiction insect. There is something far beyond architectural wildness here, even Victorian wildness. The design radiates malevolence as unforgettably as Iago.

Ian Nairn is remembered for his opposition to modern architecture.  In a February 1966 article for the Observer titled ‘Stop the architects now’ he asserted that: ‘The outstanding and appalling fact about modern British architecture is that it is just not good enough. It is not standing up to use or climate, either in single buildings or the whole environment.”

Yet Nairn’s London is full of entries praising contemporary buildings. Indeed this is one of the book’s great strengths: separating it from other such guides.  Of two blocks of council flats – Waltham House and Dale House in Boundary Road – which were designed by Armstrong and MacManus and built by St Marylebone council in the 1950s, he says:
Plain dealing: an outstanding and far too rare example in London of what honest design and professional self-respect can do with the leanest of programmes.  Just four-storey flats and maisonettes, respectively: just yellow brick, just long-stepped terraces with some planting in front. But all the simple things have been cared for, not fussed over and not made into ‘features’, but treated as straightforwardly as the nineteenth century dock and warehouse men would have. 

Inevitably, some of the buildings here have disappeared.  It would have been nice for example to have walked past Sir Charles’ Reilly’s Lodge Road Power Station of 1904 (and demolished in 1973) which had “all the ornament florid and curling over, everything saying this is a bloody great shed.”

Nairn was a great pubman. Indeed beer destroyed him in the end: he died as a chronic alcoholic of cirrhosis of the liver in 1983. It is perhaps little wonder that there is a postscript on London beer, which is one of the few entries that has dated.  The capital’s pubs are now awash with good beer: something he would have appreciated.

Some of the best entries describe pubs – there are thirty entries – such as the long gone Ward’s Irish House, near Piccadilly Circus: “It is not trying to be Irish, it just is.  A big bare room with a central zinc-topped bar, no concessions to comfort, but on the other hand some of the best draught Guinness in London.” Or the Red Lion in Duke of York Street close by, which is happily still with us much as the author would have known it: “If I could keep only one pub out of the whole London galaxy, this would be it…It is a place to walk out of ramrod-straight, reinforced by those proud sparkling arabesques.”

Ian Nairn drinking in a pub

It has to be stressed that this is a very personal guide.  The original blurb on the back claimed that: “there has never been a guide like it…[it is] an intensely subjective search for the good things in London.” There are many omissions – the area (and pubs) around Little Venice for example. But it matters not one jot.  As the great modern architectural critic Jonathan Meades notes: “Nairn’s London belongs to no genre except its own, it is of a school of one. The masterwork.”

If you live in London or are fascinated by the capital’s history and buildings then this guide should be on your shelves.

Nairn’s London has been republished by Penguin Books, price £9.99 (ISBN 978-0-141-39615-6).  All the original rather grainy photographs have been included and there is an excellent afterword by the late celebrated architectural critic Gavin Stamp.


See also: Nairn.


For the past three years London Historians has marked Ian Nairn’s birthday (24/08/1930) with a pub crawl through establishments mentioned in the book. This year it’s Saturday 24 August. Watch out for more news on this.  

nairn03

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »