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Many ways to heaven

The writings of Ian Nairn on London’s architecture reveal an eye for unexpected and frequently ‘brutalist’ treasures, says CONRAD LANDIN Nairn’s London by Ian Nairn (Penguin Classics, £6.99)

WHEN the name Ian Nairn does not draw a complete blank, the architectural writer tends to be recalled either as “the man who fought the planners,” the instigator of conservation or the decrier of demolitions.

Clips from his BBC documentaries from decades ago show Nairn in unequivocal mode, blasting materialist youth culture at the Munich Oktoberfest or pleading for the future of Northampton’s doomed Emporium arcade.

Nairn’s London, which first appeared in 1966 and has now got a reprint, is a record, he writes, “of what has moved me, between Uxbridge and Dagenham.”

Its 450 entries, full of both savage denunciations and overblown praise, are an unlikely recipe for a successful critical analysis. “There are many ways to heaven and this is one of them,” he declares of the public tour of Parliament and Paddington station is “lyric poetry.” Yet Hampstead is “a bit of a joke.”

Nairn can somehow navigate between such extremes in the space of a sentence and more than get away with it. Yet it is surely for his unique hyperbolic nuance that Nairn should be celebrated. “In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king,” he writes of Roehampton’s Alton West Estate. “The eye of technique and elegance in individual buildings is wide open; the eye of understanding and feel for a total place is firmly shut. Architecture, like patriotism, is not enough.”

It never was. Even a moron in a hurry would understand that Nairn was no Prince Charles or even John Betjeman — “brutalist” architecture frequently comes out on top in his critique. What he despised was lack of ambition, alongside ambition without regard for purpose.

Schemes that artificially manufacture vitality usually fall short, as another renowned architectural writer Jane Jacobs — inspired by Nairn’s work — argued so famously. That’s not the case with Brixton’s Electric Avenue which, Nairn says, “lives by free growth, like a great hedgerow tree” and is dependent on the “humble light bulb” as a tree depends on leaves. “Naked and without frills, binding the whole place into a web of stars at eye level. Electric.”

Now “regeneration” threatens the nearby Brixton railway arches and Nairn’s lyrical tribute becomes a rallying cry against the idiocy of destroying successful townscapes.

But perhaps Nairn’s analysis is insufficient today. The planners and architects of his age at least had benign intentions to rehouse slum dwellers and experiment with new models of living.

Nairn is notably quiet on the politics of this aspiration, perhaps because class distinctions are “tilting horses erected by paper men because they can’t or daren’t recognise the golden thread of true quality.” Now, as writers such as Anna Minton have chronicled, today’s urban development — from the demolition of structurally sound houses to the redesign of our city centres — is purely motivated by profit.

The quaintness of some of Nairn’s more practical advice reminds us that this tome is largely defunct as a guidebook. We can only dream of entering London Zoo for a cost “no more than a Scotch and soda,” though today’s visitor might find Tate Britain as “pompous” and “confused” as Nairn does.

But, more importantly, Nairn’s London challenges us not just to look better at our surroundings but to dissect the components of a successful, exhilarating, uncomfortable or boring place.

When the enemy is not foolish planners but crooked developers and their stooges in government, this understanding must be put to a different use. But its value is far from diminished.

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