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Nairn's towns

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Until recently too rare and expensive to get hold of, the reprinting of Ian Nairn’s essays for The Listener magazine in the 1960s is a long-overdue opportunity to understand what the hype is about, writes Rory Olcayto

I came late to Ian Nairn. I first heard of him just six years ago while visiting an architect who wanted the AJ to publish a review of his building. The architect clutched a dog-eared copy of Nairn’s London and was eager to tell me how special it was. How Nairn’s recollection of a particular sequence of buildings would cast a spell upon his senses. And how Nairn, his favourite writer, was guided more by instinct than by historians or other critics. He also told me Nairn was out of print and very hard to find, and no, sorry, I couldn’t borrow his copy.

I decided there and then that I should have my own Nairn’s London, but was quickly put off by the absurdly high prices Amazon’s network of rare booksellers were charging for any of his books. It’s still the same today. Britain’s Changing Towns (1967) for example, which visits Chester, Glasgow, Derry, Norwich, Liverpool and the burghs of Fife among others (there are 16 townscape tours in all) is priced at £139.50. That’s for a hardback copy in ‘good’ condition. But there are only two copies available. The other, in ‘very good’ condition, is an astonishing £1,714.55 – despite missing its dust cover! Thank goodness then, for Notting Hill Editions, a smart publisher ‘devoted to the best in essayistic non-fiction writing’. Late last year it published Nairn’s Towns, a beautiful cloth-bound hardback of those same collected townscape essays Nairn first wrote for The Listener magazine and that now command a fortune on Amazon. This new edition is enhanced by an introduction and postscript to each essay by Owen Hatherley, whose Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (2010) did as much to remind us of what is special about our cities as Nairn’s writing once did. Nairn’s Towns is the one book about buildings and places that you should read this year. But don’t borrow; buy. It’s only £10. And better late than never.
Extracts from the book follow:


View over Newcastle. Photo: RIBA Library Photographs Collection.

View over Newcastle. Photo: RIBA Library Photographs Collection.

July 1960: Newcastle has a fine tradition of radical change. It is built on one side of a 100-foot gorge, and the medieval town struggled up it from the quayside, producing dozens of sets of steps or ‘chare’, which even in their present neglect can produce a kind of topographical ecstasy as you go up and down, perpetually seeing the same objects in a different way. On the flatter land at the top the early 19th century grafted a new town on to the old pattern – not replacing it, but superimposing itself, so that today’s walker in Newcastle can have the benefit of both. The 19th century threw bridge after bridge across the river, and, with a terrifying optimism I would not ask anyone to imitate today, coolly built a rail link across the old city between the castle keep and its gatehouse, spanning the old streets at an immense height. All these, acting together, have produced today’s Newcastle, a typical view is of its steps, alleys, smooth classical buildings, railways bridges, all in the same view. Anything new must add to the polyphony, not erase it and replace it with banality. And the place where new life must start – this may be a surprise, because nobody seems to care two hoots for it at the moment – is the quayside.


Hutchesontown C by Basil Spence, Gorbels, Glasgow. Photo:Henk Snoek/RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Hutchesontown C by Basil Spence, Gorbels, Glasgow. Photo:Henk Snoek/RIBA Library Photographs Collection

October 1960: With the 18th century Glasgow’s story stops being a matter of individual buildings and becomes a kind of topographical epic with the buildings as incidents, good though they are. Until the breakdown of classical traditions (which in Glasgow was not until the 1880s) the whole sum of building is the struggle to get a style which matches the Glaswegian spirit at the same time money is available to build it. (This, I suppose, in a feckless way is a kind of universal truth.) It is like a Beethoven symphony played over 150 years, and this working out in time has a power that superimposes itself on the topography. At every street corner you know where you are in time as well as space – not as an antiquarian exercise, but through the living pattern of the city. Where Newcastle is superimposition, and the pattern is the shock of contrast, Glasgow is one organic growth like a vast forest tree. And lucky accidents caused it to grow, tree-like, up and out in one direction, to the west.


Park Hill, Sheffield. Photo: RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Park Hill, Sheffield. Photo: RIBA Library Photographs Collection

April 1961: The four biggest cities in England are easily named: London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool. The fifth is not so easy. It in fact Sheffield, and it is typical of this exciting, exasperating city that it never seems to assume its true importance. It has always been so: it is the capital of an area which exists in fact, but not in administration – Hallamshire, or the missing South Riding. The main roads missed it. The industrial revolution gave it a character which is not quite Midland, not quite Yorkshire, not quite Pennine, yet at the same time kept the confused intricate market town plan without making any kind of central gesture.

Why then include it in this series? First, because potentially Sheffield has one of the most exciting sites in England. It is all steep-sided hills running down to the Don and Sheaf, with the Pennines away to the north-west and open hillsides within easy walking distance of the centre in two directions. And secondly, because Sheffield is trying to do something about its lack of character. Without any doubt, the buildings put up in the last 10 years and projected for the next twenty are as interesting and exciting as al the older buildings in the city put together; and this, for Britain, is quite an achievement.


Norwich City Hall. Photo: Architectural Press Archive/RIBA Library Photographs Collection.

Norwich City Hall. Photo: Architectural Press Archive/RIBA Library Photographs Collection.

August 1964: Norwich is many things: a cathedral city, a considerable traffic jam, a regional centre, the home of a surprising range of industries, an oft-cited exemplar of provincial culture. For me it is also the place where I spent two eventful years before trying my luck in London. This has two consequences, and neither is much of an aid to impartiality. One is that I know exactly how much character has ebbed away in the past 10 years, instead of feeling a vague sense of loss, as I might in York or Chester. The other is that even on a short stay I felt all the suffocating self-containedness of Norwich flooding back at me. Where Liverpool reminds me of all the reasons why I am now fed up with London, Norwich brings back forcibly all the reasons which sent me there in the first place.


Liverpool University physics department, designed by Basil Spence. Photo: Architectural Press Archive/RIBA Library Photographs Collection.

Liverpool University physics department, designed by Basil Spence. Photo: Architectural Press Archive/RIBA Library Photographs Collection.

June 1964: Half a mile to the north, Frederick Gibberd’s ‘crusader’s tent’ is going up on the vast crypt of Lutyens’ design for the Roman Catholic cathedral. Lutyens’ superstructure was abandoned on account of the cost: a wise decision, because the design reflected senility rather than maturity. Instead, there is Gibberd’s much smaller circular church, with its inward-leaning concrete ribs – poignantly small in the desolation around. It will need to shine with a correspondingly more intense light to match up to Liverpool’s massive tradition. Behind is Basil Spence’s sparkling, black-on-white theorem that houses the physics department of Liverpool University, built in 1960 and far more fresh than the other university buildings put up since. It is the best new building in the city; but what draws the crowds is the dramatic stone bridge thrown across the newly built nave of the Anglican cathedral. And fair enough, too: even good Modern architecture is not enough here. It must be way-out, possessed of the huge scale of drama of the city itself. And it must have these things from its own nature, not as applied sensations. It is a tall order, but then Liverpool is probably the tallest city in Britain.

I have kept off The Beatles because I don’t want to add more than I can help to the nonsense that has been written about them. But I do know that the exuberance and defiant grandeur of a song like Twist and Shout brings this great place like a gust of sharp air into the comfortable, leafy, slightly soggy London square where I am writing this. The Mersey glints sullenly in the haze, cargo boats hoot, seagulls scream, and Scouse pies are on sale in The Vines. Ey-ayaddy-Oh, this city’s got me hooked.


Nairn’s Towns, by Ian Nairn, introduced by Owen Hatherley, Notting Hill Editions, 2013, £10


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