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Ian Nairn: The Missing Art of Townscape


Graham King

In reviewing the contribution of Ian Nairn (1930-83) to the theory and practice of what we now call 'Urban Design' it is interesting to note that he is the first. and still virtually the only commentator who exercised his critical skills across the media,magazines, books, newspapers as well as on television.

Nairn also occupies a unique position as an outsider, a mathematics graduate and National Service RAF flyer, he was not an academic or a practitioner. Unlike the fellow Architectural Review contributors of the 1950s, he was neither an academic/writer (Pevsner, Summerson, Sharp, Richards) nor an architect/illustrator (Cullen, Browne, Holford, Gibberd). However his photographs are to be found in their volumes as well as in his own, and he flew the country as well to give his criticism another perspective.

It is, however, this critical outsider role that makes his contribution important and of a relevance that makes his work, over the years 1955-80, still well worth reading, for he leaves definitive criticism of places, procedures and people that retain a resonance if you know where, and how, to look.

His journalism, initially in the AR and the definition of Outrage, in the 1950s moved, in 1964, to the Observer and then and increasingly erratically to the Sunday Times , was accompanied by a series of books initially versions of the AR articles (Outrage (1955), Counter Attack (1957), Your England Revisited (1964), and then contributions, as the first co-writer, to Pevsner's Buildings of England volumes on Surrey (1962) and Sussex (1965).

In two volumes, Nairn's London (1966) and the Guide to Modern Buildings, published by LT (1964), he defined London to a standard only equalled in Rasmussen's 'Unique City', insofar as they combine the architectural research and skills of Summerson and Pevsner with a wider human, and humane, view as to how people use the city and their contribution, and a clearer idea of the responsibility of the planning and development systems in shaping the post-war redevelopment of the city he lived in and loved.

Your England Revisited

The 1955 Outrage articles in the AR, taking their title from the writings of Sir George Stapledon, carried on a line of criticism that the AR commenced in 1949, when they coined the term 'Townscape'. The AR articles were reprinted in book form and traced the impact of public bodies on the environment from Southampton to Carlisle. In the years following the end of the second world war and the slow peace-time rebuilding the main focus for criticism was the lack of care and attention by public agencies in their design, planning and works across the environment. The topographical and environmental judgement was at all times directed to the fact that these were all the deliberate works of man and committees, they were planned interventions and all the more destructive for the lack of professional care and attention and the rule of the lowest common denominator.

The 1964 volume acts as an update of the earlier work and includes his definition of Townscape,'The missing art of townscape midway between town planning and architecture'. It also includes an assessment of the impact of private development on the landscape and therefore provides a critical commentary on the emerging failure of the statutory town planning system to adequately protect, preserve or enhance the environment it was designed to serve.

He offers a definition of the 'chief town planning problem' as 'to bring every part of the landscape or townscape into accord. And not a forced accord, or something that the designer wants to impose from outside, but the solution that comes naturally from the particular circumstances and may work nowhere else'.

This is not, any longer an attack just on bureaucratic imposition of standardised solutions across the environment but also on the thoughtless use of designs, either modern, traditional or industrial, by the architectural establishments. This can be seen as another exclamation of the longstanding critique of standardisation to be found in Morris, Trystram Edwards, Clough Williams-Ellis, and a concern officially echoed in Design of Town & Village (1953). It is also an early expression of the school of thought that can now be seen to have taken root in concepts of architectural contextualism, regionalism, even, in a more recent AR term 'Romantic pragmatism'. In all of these a concern for the place, the activity and its function override a prescribed definition of the designers intent or prevalent school of design theory. Therefore, in these respects, the way Nairn expounded the notion of townscape, by reference to real places and by not offering preferred solutions, he managed to expand the argument without having to make illustrations of exemplars which quickly look dated, as is often the case with some Browne and Cullen proposals of the 1960s.

Nairn, Pevsner and London

Pevsner started his magisterial series, 'The Buildings of England' in 1952 and by the early 1960s he realised that further assistance was going to be required to complete the work. Nairn was selected to be co-author of the Surrey volume and he carried on work on Sussex.

The topographical descriptions and at times savage architectural judgements sit oddly against the academic, measured prose of Pevsner, but this difference was warmly welcomed by Pevsner who writes that 'Mr Nairn has a greater sensibility to landscape and townscape than I have, and he writes better than I could ever hope to write'.

A later Pevsner co-writer, John Newman, more recently has written that Nairn was ' often quite inspired' and it is true that the Nairn volumes read very well, and in a way that the early Pevsner volumes do not in giving you a clear idea of what is interesting, and why, in any place. The detail checking required of the Pevsner volumes was too much for Nairn and he left before completing Sussex, much to Pevsner's obvious disappointment. However, for a remarkable thirty year period Nairn's wife, Judy, was one of the key editors in producing the BoE volumes for Penguin from 1955-91, having the Surrey and London 3 volumes dedicated to her.

Nairn's London published by Penguin is the clearest and the best example of his writings. It gives a picture of London that draws from a wider frame of reference than architectural histories, compared to the Pevsner of the 1950s. The social and topographical aspects of Nairn's writings and an ability to take account of a wide range of architectural quality and locality makes the volume a better guide to London than any other and can be read as an appendix to Rasmussen's 1938 volume Unique London in sketching the impact of the problems the Danish academic had suggested faced London; then read the 1978 revision of the book and see how accurately Nairn has set out cause and effect and more importantly process.

Nairn's judgements on buildings and places in Nairn's London and its companion Modern Buildings in London (1964) for London Transport, give a very complete picture of the impact of the commercial development pressures and changing social mores. In fact a picture that you do not find in either the County of London plan, GLDP or in any subsequent UDP.

The LT volume includes the classic denunciation of much post-war redevelopment. In discussing the Stag Place office scheme at Victoria (1958-64) he states 'I blame the L.C.C. far more for not stopping it than I do the developers for having a go'. This raises a question: should, official volumes and studies deal with the issues that concern a writer such as Nairn? But, if they do not deal with these issues, what is the point, apart from legal conformity, of the studies and plans.

Nairn got to the core of post-war concerns within ten years of the new system of control coming into effect and the intervening thirty to forty years have not changed the need to create a public discussion and a public, not design-led, discourse on the management of the environment. Nairn, in Your England Revisited states the 'Professional books on town planning are often of no assistance and may be harmful'. 'Brighton Rock is a better guide than the Brighton... development plan'- (and it's still true today!). He eventually recommends the 1" OS and 'a pair of uncommitted eyes!'

Today we do not have anyone, with the occasional exception of Jonathan Meades, who can come close to Nairn's ability to describe places and how procedures impact upon them, at a time when Millennial madness and the curse of great architectural gestures seem set to revisit the landscape. The need for a new voice of passion, enthusiasm, concern and an ability to connect between design, environment and the public realm makes his death at the age of 52 doubly tragic.

Forty years on and we still have not learned the missing art of townscape -just look out of your window.#


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