Ian Nairn

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Ian Douglas Nairn (24 August 1930 – 14 August 1983) was a British architectural critic who coined the word ‘Subtopia’ to indicate drab suburbs that look identical through unimaginative town-planning. He published two strongly personalised critiques of London and Paris, and collaborated with Nikolaus Pevsner, who considered his reports to be too subjective, but acknowledged him as the better writer.

Early life[edit]

Ian Nairn was born at 4 Milton Road, Bedford, England. Nairn's father was a draughtsman on the R101 airship programme based at Shortstown.[1] 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".[2] Nairn had no formal architecture qualifications; he was a mathematics graduate (University of Birmingham) and a Royal Air Force pilot.

The Architectural Review and "Subtopia"[edit]

In 1955, Nairn established his reputation with a special issue of the Architectural Review called "Outrage" (later as a book in 1956), 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 increasingly unpopular due to the subjugation of pedestrians to cars and was demolished in the early 21st century.[3]. "Outrage" was followed by "Counter-Attack Against Subtopia" in 1956 (published as a book in 1957). Both books were influential on Jane Jacobs, who was then working at Architectural Forum, the most widely read US architectural magazine.[4] Jacobs cited "Outrage" and "Counter-Attack" in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and she recommended Nairn to her contacts at the Rockefeller Foundation, which funded Nairn's book The American Landscape: A Critical View (1965).[5]

The Buildings of England[edit]

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. Pevsner, who wrote about "Visual Planning and the Picturesque", was influential on the formation of the Architectural Review's "Townscape" series of columns, which evolved into the movement to which Gordon Cullen and Nairn were key contributors.[6] 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.[7] 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. According to Pevsner, in the Foreword to the Sussex book, "When he (Nairn) had completed West Sussex, he found that he could no longer bear to write the detailed descriptions which are essential in The Buildings of England. His decision filled me with sadness...."[8] Consequently, the guide was published with Nairn being given credit for the West Sussex section and Pevsner East Sussex.

In the Foreword to Sussex, Pevsner paid Nairn the compliment of acknowledging that "he writes better than I could ever hope to write." However, he continues: "On the other hand, those who want something a little more cataloguey and are fervently interested in mouldings and such like, may find my descriptions more to their liking."[9].

This contrast between exhaustive description (Pevsner) and passionate, sometimes emotional, enthusiasm (Nairn) is noted by Alec Clifton-Taylor in his review of Sussex in the Listener on 15 July 1965. "Dr. Pevsner... is inclined to tell us everything about a building except whether it is worth going to see. Mr Nairn, more subjective, occasionally perverse...never leaves us in any doubt about this aspect."[10]

Later career[edit]

Nairn's style was more easily accommodated in his own architectural guidebooks, which he prefaced as being subjective and personal. Ultimately only two were ever published: Nairn's London (1966) and Nairn's Paris (1968). Planned guides to London's Countryside, The Industrial North, and Rome and Florence were announced but never appeared.[11]

Nairn's writing style is concise, and often humorous, 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".

In addition to his journalism, Nairn became for a time a familiar face on television, producing various series called for the BBC, starting with Nairn's North in 1967 and concluding with Nairn's Journeys in 1978.

He was fond 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 in 1972 of a recently disused signal box in Longtown, Cumbria that he could imagine it being turned into a house, with the lever frames left in place and converted to beer pumps.[12] This was part of his love of local and regional distinctiveness.

When he did the Yorkshire section of Nairn's Journeys, he, in his own words "bumped into" the great bluesman Champion Jack Dupree whilst doing a section of the programme in Halifax. The two got on rather well and maintained a close correspondence almost right up to his own death. 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 on 14 August 1983, aged 52, from cirrhosis of the liver and chronic alcoholism.[13] Consumed with a sense of failure, he sought refuge in drink and in his later years wrote almost nothing. He is buried in the Victorian Hanwell cemetery in west London.[14] It is now in one of Ealing's conservation areas.


Writers and critics influenced by Nairn include J.G. Ballard, Will Self, Patrick Wright, Michael Bracewell, Jonathan Glancey, Iain Sinclair, Gavin Stamp, Owen Hatherley and Jonathan Meades,[15] 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.[16]

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. Jonathan Glancey undertook a similar odyssey for The Guardian in 2010.


Television Series[edit]

Ian Nairn completed around 30 films for the BBC, all of which survive but none of which have yet been released on DVD. The three-part series Nairn Across Britain is currently available to view in the UK on the BBC's iPlayer internet television service.

  • Nairn's North (1967)
  • Nairn at Large (1969)
  • Nairn's Europe (1970)
  • Nairn's Journeys (1971–78)
  • Nairn Across Britain (1972)


  1. ^ http://www.shortstownheritage.co.uk/#/ian-nairn-architecture/4558012406
  2. ^ Nairn, Ian and Pevsner, Nikolaus (1962) Surrey. Penguin Books.
  3. ^ "The Bull Ring" http://billdargue.jimdo.com/placenames-gazetteer-a-to-y/places-b/the-bull-ring/
  4. ^ Laurence, Peter (2006). "The Death and Life of Urban Design: Jane Jacobs, the Rockefeller Foundation and the New Research in Urbanism 1955-1965". Journal of Urban Design 11 (June): 145–172. 
  5. ^ Laurence, Peter (2006). "The Death and Life of Urban Design: Jane Jacobs, the Rockefeller Foundation and the New Research in Urbanism 1955-1965". Journal of Urban Design 11 (June): 145–172. 
  6. ^ Pevsner, Nikolaus (2010). Visual Planning and the Picturesque. LA: Getty Research Institute. ISBN 978-1606060018. 
  7. ^ Harries, Susie (2011). Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life, Random House, p.554.
  8. ^ I.Nairn and N.Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Sussex, Penguin, 1965, p.11.
  9. ^ Nairn and Pevsner, Sussex, p.11.
  10. ^ Quoted by J. Meades, "Nairn & the Buildings of England", in G. Darley and D.McKie (eds) Ian Nairn - Words in Place. Five Leaves Publications, 2013, p.64.
  11. ^ Gavin Stamp, Ian Nairn, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online (DNB), accessed 8.12.2013.
  12. ^ Ian Nairn (Summer 1972). Nairn Across Britain - From Leeds to Scotland (Television production). BBC. Event occurs at 21:10. Retrieved 18 April 2014. It could become a house, I wouldn't mind living in this! Keep all the stuff, and convert these to beer pumps. 
  13. ^ Stamp, DNB.
  14. ^ Stamp, DNB.
  15. ^ http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/may/15/architecture-ian-nairn
  16. ^ Meades, Jonathan (1988). Nairn's London (revised Gasson), Introduction.

Further reading[edit]

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