It is now 50 years since one of the most famous editions of The Architectural Review appeared: Ian Nairn's June 1955 'Outrage' issue, which attracted so much comment it was later published as a hardback. Nairn, then only in his mid-20s, meant it as a wakeup call. It was 'less a warning than a prophecy of doom'. He thought Britain was succumbing to 'subtopia' - the erosion of distinctions between town and countryside through mundane low-density development and thoughtless visual clutter, a virus that made one place indistinguishable from the next.
'Its symptom will be that the end of Southampton will look like the beginning of Carlisle; the parts in-between will look like the end of Carlisle or the beginning of Southampton, ' wrote Nairn. To prove the point, the bulk of the 'Outrage' issue was based on a drive between those two cities, mostly on the A34, presenting photographic evidence of the horrors en-route.
Half-a-century later, the artist Andrew Cross (profiled in AJ 28.1.99, when he was director of the Landscape Foundation) has taken a very similar trip - in his case, from Southampton to Manchester. He has made a 110-minute film about it, which is now on show at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum and is included as a DVD with his book, An English Journey. So has Nairn's prophecy come true?
It happens that Cross only discovered the 'Outrage' issue after he'd completed his film.
He had in mind a still-earlier publication, JB Priestley's English Journey of 1934, in which Priestley partly anticipates Nairn by seeing a 'new' England of 'arterial and bypass roads, of filling stations and factories', and concluding: 'There is about it a rather depressing monotony.' Those arterial roads have become motorways: Nairn's A34 now only exists in part, and though Cross travels on it for a while, his route north includes a long stretch on the M6. He shoots his film from the cab of a heavy goods lorry, so his position is more elevated than the average motorist's. Views directly ahead through the windscreen alternate with ones out of the passenger's window, which combine the passing scene with reflections in the wing-mirrors.
The trip begins at Southampton Container Terminal, where the lorry collects its cargo.
Once out of the city and journeying through Hampshire towards the Berkshire Downs on what's left of the A34, it seems for a while that Nairn was unduly alarmist - or perhaps that 'Outrage' had its desired effect. For what we see is almost continuously green: meadows, copses, hawthorn bushes in bloom (it's a sunny day in May) - the pastoral landscape thought to be 'traditionally English'. There are also stretches later on where, beyond the edges of the motorway, this rural England apparently survives, not impinged upon too much.
But evidence to the contrary gradually mounts, and becomes blatant at the midpoint of Cross' trip, as he reaches the DIRFT Logistics Park near Rugby. Occupying 148 hectares, this is the biggest distribution centre in the UK, with container lorries endlessly arriving and departing. It's a zone of standard-issue metal sheds, anonymous apart from their logos, linked by dual carriageways overlooked by lights; the kind of place where someone in a JG Ballard novel suddenly runs amok.
From here until Cross' destination at Manchester's Trafford Park - a late 19thcentury industrial estate given a recent makeover - anonymous sheds and anonymous containers dominate his film. The sheds could, of course, be anywhere; they exist without reference to place, to any sense of genius loci, in just the way Nairn feared.
So what did Cross make of Nairn's 'Outrage' when he read it after his journey? 'I thought it was a bit of a rant, ' he says. In a way, that's true. Few issues of the AR have been written with such a passionate sense of purpose. Nairn was setting out to make people angry: 'When sufficient people become sufficiently angry, that will be the end of subtopia.' Cross is much more laid-back. 'Sitting high up in the cab, I was struck by the endless, rolling, luscious green landscape; it can still look like a Constable, ' he says. 'And as well as large areas of land which haven't been built on, there are places where the landscape has been tidied up since Nairn was writing. Somewhere like Cannock, for instance: where once there were coal mines, there are now market gardens and golf courses.' Maybe Cross read On The Road at an impressionable age, because even a trip on the M6 seems to be a treat for him. If that puts him in a minority, he points out that:
'We may not like motorways, but we still insist on having the services and the lifestyles we desire - we have to have our organic avocados or whatever in the shops. We don't think about how they got there.'
As for the DIRFT Logistics Park, he says: 'At times of day these buildings are quite beautiful, when the light is right.' It's true that artists can make such buildings look beautiful, or at least can reconcile us to them; they make them 'work' as images. In 'Outrage', Nairn's aggressively grey little snapshots make everything look grim; they're polemical. Whereas photographers like Lee Friedlander or Stephen Shore can turn a forest of signs at a road junction (just what Nairn deplored) into a striking composition. Is that such a good thing?
In discussion of John Prescott's 'sustainable communities', there has been some focus on the threat of identikit housing estates proliferating throughout the UK, as mediocre and uniform as Nairn predicted. But Cross' film shows another agent of sprawl and uniformity: the anodyne shed, insidious and ubiquitous, which neutralises each landscape it's imposed on. The Constable illusion won't last much longer, as one photo in An English Journey implies. In the foreground is a field of waving corn, but what's that on the horizon? Yes, the silver glint of sheds.
Those sheds have their apologists. In his book, Terminal Architecture (AJ 21.5.98), Martin Pawley seems to love them; maybe DIRFT is his idea of heaven. But if Nairn was around today (he died an alcoholic in 1983), and could visit DIRFT, I'm sure his invective would match anything in 'Outrage'. Which is why that issue of the AR deserves rereading:
its message has not been heeded yet.
Andrew Cross' exhibition is at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum until 16 March, and then at the Castlefield Gallery, Manchester. His book and DVD, An English Journey, costs £10 from Film and Video Umbrella (tel 020 7407 7755)