Born at [4 Milton Road], Bedford, Nairn's father was a draughtsman on the R101 airship programme based at Shortstown. The family moved in 1932 when the airship programme was terminated, and Nairn was brought up in Surrey. It was the balancing-act nature of this essentially suburban environment which he stated "produced a deep hatred of characterless buildings and places". Nairn had no formal architecture qualifications; he was a mathematics graduate (University of Birmingham) and a Royal Air Force pilot.
In 1955 he made his name with a special issue of the Architectural Review called "Outrage" (later a book, 1959) in which he coined the term Subtopia for the areas around cities that had in his view been failed by urban planning, losing their individuality and spirit of place. The book was based around a nightmarish road trip that Nairn took from the south to the north of the country – the trip gave propulsion to his fears that we were heading for a drab new world where the whole of Britain would look like the fringes of a town, every view exactly the same. He also praised modernist urban developments such as the Bull Ring shopping centre in Birmingham, which eventually became one of the most unpopular buildings in the UK and was demolished in the early 21st century.
The Buildings of England
Nairn admired Nikolaus Pevsner's work (if not his methodology) on the then fledgling Buildings of England series, and had approached Pevsner in the early 1960s as a potential co-author. In common with several architectural writers and academics at the time, Nairn had already made small contributions to the series – in his case the volumes on Essex and Northumberland. Pevsner was initially reluctant, having thus far written the guidebooks alone. He was also aware of Nairn's views on the 'house style' of the series from reviews Nairn had written on earlier volumes. However the scale of the project began to demand assistance and Pevsner eventually handed almost all responsibility for writing the Surrey volume to Nairn, whose text ultimately constituted almost four-fifths of the finished volume.
Pevsner was content to give sole authorship to Nairn for the volume on Sussex, however as work progressed Nairn felt that his approach was increasingly at odds with the relative objectivity Pevsner required. Nairn began to feel that this was acting as a constraint on his writing, and ceased work on the Sussex volume before it was completed. Consequently the guide was published with Nairn being given credit for the West Sussex section and Pevsner East Sussex.
Nairn's style was more easily accommodated in his own architectural guidebooks, which he prefaced as being completely subjective and personal. Several were planned; ultimately only two were ever published: Nairn's London (1966) and Nairn's Paris (1968).
Nairn's writing style is concise, and often very amusing, and he describes both his loves and hates, sometimes describing a passage between buildings rather than the buildings themselves, or a single detail, such as the elephant on the Albert Memorial that "has a backside just like a businessman scrambling under a restaurant table for his cheque-book". Despite their differences, Pevsner said of his style that "he writes better than I could ever hope to write".
In addition to his journalism, Nairn became for a time a familiar face on television, producing a series called Nairn's Travels for the BBC in 1970 and Nairn Across Britain in 1972.
He was fond, perhaps too much, of pubs and beer, and both his architectural guides and television journalism are full of descriptions of pubs, and recommendations of which beers to drink. He said of a recently disused signal box in Longtown that he could imagine it being converted into a pub, with the lever frame as beer pumps. This was part of his love of local and regional distinctiveness.
In his concerns about the encroaching blandness of modern design, he was the heir of literary men who had similarly been critics of the spread of an Edwardian suburbia, such as E.M. Forster ("success was indistinguishable from failure" there), and John Betjeman ("red-brick rashes"), and which fed into the Campaign to Protect Rural England among others. This strain of thinking was, however, to become largely concerned with conservation of the heritage in affluent areas, rather than with Nairn's urban fringe. And like Betjeman, Nairn fought against the forces of subtopia, the obliteration of British heritage – though the forces of subtopia invariably prevailed; one example, his defence of Northampton's Emporium Arcade – 'if they do pull this place down it'll be a diabolical shame.' It was demolished June 1972.
He died aged 53. 'As surely as town planners wrought havoc on his beloved landscape, Nairn destroyed himself. Consumed with a sense of failure, he sought refuge in drink and in his later years wrote almost nothing. He died of cirrhosis of the liver.' He is buried in Ealing, in a Victorian graveyard. Significantly perhaps, it is now one of Ealing's conservation areas – a posthumous victory for the passionate and angry Nairn.
Writers and critics influenced by Nairn include J.G. Ballard, Will Self, Patrick Wright, Michael Bracewell, Iain Sinclair, Gavin Stamp, Owen Hatherley and Jonathan Meades, who said of his account of Surrey:
Mere architectural description could not suffice for that land of joke-oak and real rhododendron; what it demands is an acute sense of place and the gift to render that sense. Nairn possessed both, and in his London book he showed a third gift, that of the realization of the emotional power of townscape. That trinity of gifts made him a great poet of the metropolis.
In 1997 Michael Bracewell toured some of Nairn's subjects in Surrey for the Travels with Pevsner TV series. In the 2005 film, Three Hours From Here Andrew Cross retraced the extensive journey across England that Nairn took to research and write Outrage in 1955.
- Outrage: On the Disfigurement of Town and Countryside (Architectural Review special 1955; book: 1959)
- Counter Attack Against Subtopia (1957)
- Your England and how to defend it: A cautionary guide (Introduction only, 1960)
- Surrey (1962) (with Nikolaus Pevsner), Yale University Press, 2 edition Revised and Enlarged (1971), ISBN 978-0300096750
- Modern Buildings in London (1964)
- Your England Revisited (1964)
- The American Landscape: A Critical View (1965)
- The Buildings of England: Sussex (1965) (with Nikolaus Pevsner), Yale University Press, ISBN 978-0-300-09677-4
- Nairn's London (1966)
- Britain's Changing Towns (1967). Re-issued as "Nairn's Towns" in 2013 by Notting Hill Editions with an introduction and updates by Owen Hatherley. ISBN 978-1-907903-81-6
- Nairn's Paris (1968)
- Nairn, Ian and Pevsner, Nikolaus (1962) Surrey. Penguin Books.
- Harries, Susie (2011) Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life Random House, p.554
- Pevsner, N. (1965) The Buildings of England. Sussex, Foreword. Penguin Books.
- Michael Rosen speaking on a 2005 edition of The Culture Show, BBC2
- Meades, Jonathan (1988) Nairn's London (revised Gasson), Introduction.
- The Bruiser of Subtopia, David McKie, The Guardian, 8 December 2005
- Roger Ebert, Foreword to 2002 edition of Nairn's London ISBN 1-58579-044-3.
- The Voice of Outrage, Jonathan Glancey, The Guardian, 15 May 2010