Book Review: Architectural Character

Form Nairn copyBy Michael Webb

Nairn’s London. Ian Nairn. Penguin Classics, £9.99.

There never was and probably never will be another architectural critic as impassioned, omnivorous, and outspoken as Ian Nairn (1930–1983). Largely self-taught, he conducted a one-man crusade against the outrages of post-war British architecture, which he contrasted with the best work of past centuries. But he was no reactionary: He found excellence and mediocrity in every era, dismissing one Gothic cathedral as mechanical and unfeeling—the same deficiencies he found in the widely acclaimed Royal Festival Hall of 1951. “What I am after,” he wrote, “is character, or personality, or essence.” He accepted the wartime destruction in London as the price paid to defeat evil; now “It is burning again, but this time only to satisfy developers’ greed, planners’ inadequacy, and official stupidity.”

In the past three decades, that greed has intensified; Nairn would weep to see how much of the character of London has been lost or preserved in aspic. But much remains, and his take on celebrated landmarks and overlooked treasures is as fresh as it was half a century ago. The first, 1966 edition of this guide to the architecture of Greater London has long been out of print, and a revised version was much criticized, so it’s cause for celebration to have this reprint of the original with its period black and white illustrations. As a bonus, there’s an afterword by critic Gavin Stamp, who describes Nairn’s opus as “Gloriously opinionated, a classic; one of the finest and most evocative books ever written about a city.”

Nairn drew on 10 years of exploring every London borough, going boldly to the seedy fringe where no critic had ventured before. He adored the quirky and disdained the polite. He had a special fondness for Victorian churches and pubs, and there’s a page on London’s best beers, which he loved all too well. Alcoholism carried him off at an early age. But his reviews are sober, ranging from ecstatic to ferocious in tone. One is tempted to quote them at length, but why spoil the surprise and delight that awaits every new reader?

I grew up in London, and remember going to work at the Country Life office in Covent Garden when that produce market still thrived, and exploring the docklands along the Thames before they were gentrified. So it’s poignant to read Nairn’s comment on the change that was overtaking the metropolis, forty years ago: “The old contract which bound clubman, chorus-girl and costermonger to form a city has been torn up,” he wrote, “and London has moved into a limbo in which….even the ordinary street contact is becoming unsympathetic.” Happily, a majority of the buildings have survived even as the society that nourished them expired. Some are imperiled. Nairn’s motto, “see it while you can,” has added urgency today.

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