Ian Nairn Words in Place Gillian Darley and David McKie

Words in Place
Words in Place

This book is described as ‘a celebration of a great British writer who for two decades lit up the sky and then disappeared into oblivion’, writes Paul Lincoln.  Thirty years after his death, the writers’ aim is to resuscitate his reputation as a hugely important writer on architecture, landscape and urban design.

One of his best-known books is Nairn’s London about which Gavin Stamp says, ‘it was the book which opened my eyes to architecture and to the delights that London had to offer….a model of what architectural criticism and of what architectural history, can and should be.’

Although he is described as an architectural historian, one of Nairn’s strengths is his ability to write about the landscape and the way in which post-war regeneration was destroying any sense of unique place.  He believed that the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act had achieved little given the ‘whole philosophy of dispersal, expanded towns, new towns and every house with a garden…’.  He condemned this as a characterless ‘subtopia’ in which ‘the end of Southampton will look like the beginning of Carlisle; the parts in between will look like the end of Carlisle or the beginning of Southampton.’

Nairn’s mission was to illustrate the ‘steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern.’  He also argued that ‘the more complicated our industrial system, and the greater our population, the bigger and greener should be our countryside, the more compact and neater should be our towns.’ Many of the worst offences were committed by highway, housing, utility, military and other public authorities.

Nairn wrote extensively about the American landscape; ‘on the art of the environment, the art of placing objects together so that the result is something better than any of the original elements, the art of giving identity to places; and hence to the people living in them.’ That art he called ‘townscape.’ He observed that American beat writers, and he was a contemporary of Ginsberg and Kerouac, ‘were the reaction against placelessness in its purest form’.

Nairn also wrote the Surrey edition of Pevsner’s Buildings of England, the first time that Pevsner had agreed to another author writing a complete volume.

His career included several years at The Architectural Review, a series of programmes for the BBC and a long stint on the Observer. The book is a long essay interspersed with short pieces by Jonathan Meades, Owen Hatherley, Andrew Saint, Deyan Sudjic and Jonathan Glancey.

There is clearly considerable admiration for a man who made a big impact on post-war architectural writing. His rediscovery is soon to be followed by a TV evaluation by Jonathan Glancey.

This rediscovery is an exciting opportunity to review Nairn’s methods as well as his subject matter and to compare his approach with some of our contemporary writers on architecture and landscape.

* The book is published by Five Leaves Publications and costs £10.99.

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