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Did someone say ‘Who’s Ian Nairn?’

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Everyone’s writing about Ian Nairn now, says Rory Olcayto

I’m toying with the idea of entering the AJ Writing Prize. Pseudonymously, of course. The guidelines are clear: ‘The essay can be on any topic relevant to architecture and must be no longer than 1,000 words’.

How about an essay on Ian Nairn? He’s relevant. Everyone’s writing about Ian Nairn now - Jonathan Meades, Owen Hatherley and, just last week in The Observer, Rowan Moore, in which he mentioned a new book on Nairn by Gillian Darley and David McKie. That’s a whole lot of Nairn. Should I jump on the bandwagon? But what could I say that hasn’t already been said of the long-dead, boozy, never-studied-architecture critic?

What about comparing the right now very hot British architectural criticism scene with, say, ’90s Britpop? Hatherley is obviously Noel Gallagher, in that he’s revived popular interest in British Modernism, which would mean Meades is Modfather Paul Weller, which makes Nairn … deceased former Small Faces singer Steve Marriot? No?

Okay. I could write about how it’s become taboo to say a word against Nairn and that you risk a dressing-down from his heavyweight pals if you do. In his collection of essays Museum Without Walls - in paperback now! - Meades ridiculed Kester Rattenbury, formerly of these parts, for being unaware of Nairn’s profile when, in a piece she wrote for a book about architecture and the media, she took issue with his ‘unqualified’ take on the Smithsons (roughly: ‘they’re rubbish’). Meades writes: ‘One would have expected an architecture critic - I presume that is what this person presumes to be - writing on such a subject would know who Nairn is, just as a literary critic would know who Cyril Connolly was. But no.’ And I’m presuming you know who Nairn is, even though all his books are out of print and you don’t have any Architectural Reviews from the ’50s in your library.

Hatherley too, has been caught sneering at the profession’s general ignorance about the ‘autodidact’s autodidact’. Check this out, from a comment in Building Design: ‘I was amazed once to find that none of London “radical Postmodernists” FAT, seemingly so congenial to his approach, had read Nairn until encountering non-architects writing about him on blogs.’ Crikey! And Hatherley and FAT are mates. (Sort of. They’re curating the British Pavilion at the next Venice Biennale together.) Not that this is great example, but it does put in mind the bullying tendency architectural writing seems to encourage. Is that why it’s so male-dominated? Is it just another weird form of macho? Or maybe it’s just that the best writers on architectural matters are more than willing to offend, nay, are compelled to offend.

Funnily enough, Rattenbury has blown FAT’s trumpet for years, so maybe they’ve revelled together in their mutual ignorance of Nairn. Maybe even had parties celebrating the fact they didn’t know who Nairn was, singing, ‘Who are ya? Who are ya?’ at dartboard photos of him while genuinely not knowing that it was the blessed Ian Nairn they were throwing darts at. Maybe.

More probably Rattenbury and FAT are just too damn architectural for their own good. As Meades has pointed out: ‘Architects are pathetically unable to accept the criticism of non-architects.’

Actually, that would’ve been a better topic for the AJ Writing Prize. Too late now though, I’ve sent the email with my piece on Nairn. Fingers crossed. Ahh, what the hell. If it doesn’t get shortlisted I’ll use it for Black box. Seriously though: you do know who Ian Nairn is, right?


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