Soane Museum Annual Lecture: Nairn’s London by Gillian Darley
On Wednesday 27 November the Soane Museum is looking forward to its Annual Lecture given by writer and biographer of Soane, Gillian Darley. Here Gillian introduces the subject of her lecture: the British architectural critic and topographer Ian Nairn (1930 – 1983). His work, Nairn’s London (1966) is also the subject of Gillian’s latest book Ian Nairn: Words in Place (Five Leaves Publications).
Ian Nairn was a star who shot across the architectural sky for some twenty years in the middle of the twentieth century. It had all begun for him, literally, in the air, when he was a young RAF Flying Officer stationed outside Norwich. He’d hardly begun to pilot Gloster Meteors than he realised that they could be handy for his own observational purposes. Quite how the Air Force allowed him to wander the skies of Norfolk in a jet fighter noting the survival (or not) of early Soane country houses remains obscure and, perhaps, contributed to his very short RAF career (two years). He shared his observations with a fellow enthusiast, Dorothy Stroud. Their letters (exchanged in the early months of 1954) are lodged in the museum and unlocked for me one of the most surprising episodes (among many) in Ian Nairn’s professional life, a remarkable one that David McKie and I hope to introduce to a new audience with our book, Ian Nairn: Words in Place (Five Leaves Publications).
Nairn's London (1966) original book cover
Nairn became known for Outrage, the special issue of the Architectural Review published in 1955 (when he was twenty-four) that drove a campaign, in which he coined the term Subtopia, denoting all that was messy, degraded and careless about the post-war built environment from street furniture to defence establishments. Nairn’s voice was unmistakable – angry, insistent and memorable.
He became a mainstream journalist, broadcaster (making some memorable BBC films in the late 1960s and early 1970s) and author, while descending into melancholy alcoholism, dying in his early fifties.
The book that made his name and the reason for bringing him to an audience perhaps more interested and attached to John Soane than to a maverick architectural commentator of the last century, is Nairn’s London (1966)– an entirely subjective selection of buildings, spaces and vistas across and around the capital. Employing scintillating prose, since he was, unquestionably, one of the great writers of the twentieth century, he brought the work of Hawksmoor, Vanbrugh, Nash and Soane to life (just as he celebrated that of Eric Lyons, Denys Lasdun or Powell and Moya). But he was always unpredictable, willing to change his mind or offer an entirely fresh judgement, as much on contemporary work as on his architectural heroes. Passionate about the Soane Museum, he had reservations about the Dulwich Picture Gallery, yet cheerfully quoted John Summerson’s alternative view to sustain an amiable argument on the page. He took his own fine photographs and Nairn’s London was soon followed by Nairn’s Paris – an equally remarkable book even if less confident in the facts. Several more were promised, but his publishers, Penguin, waited in vain. No more were delivered.
His view of London was as different as it could be from David Piper’s conventional Companion Guide to London (1964) or, for that matter, from his own Modern Buildings of London (1964) which he produced for London Transport. In its pages his eye was firmly on the present and recent past, but always (as best in these things) informed by an immense hinterland, not just his knowledge of architecture, but his reading, film going, travel and more.
The Soane Museum lecture will be an introduction to Ian Nairn, idiosyncratic, inspirational, maddening and brilliant. Sounds a bit like John Soane? I think the passion that Nairn held for Soane the architect (but always jostled by Nash, the co-dedicatee of Nairn’s London) was tinged with a sense of fellow feeling. I think that those who come to listen to my talk, will see the connections.