Words on architecture


Descriptive language is a great persuader, as I wrote in my most recent ‘column’ (what do you call a piece of writing which has no presence on paper?) in Building Design. Elizabeth Hopkirk’s spirited defence of No 1, Poultry as a contender for the best building of the century at the 20th Century Society event held at the Royal Academy recently was a case in point. Neither she nor I, arguing for the deteriorating Shredded Wheat silos in Welwyn Garden City, achieved enough marbles (the means of voting) to make the final shortlist – which suitably enough opted for social and communal values over aesthetics and history – but her presentation galvanised the audience, many of whom I suspect might not have given the major Post-Modern building in the City (from 1997) more than a glance or even sneer until now.


But verbally spot-lit, Stirling’s late London building (Peter Palumbo’s replacement for the posthumous Mies van de Rohe tower proposed), immediately sprang into high relief. I am still taking my time to readjust to PoMo (a problem of my generation, blinded by its bland excesses, perhaps?) but my estimation of No.1 Poultry rose by leaps and bounds. In her defence of the building, Elizabeth Hopkirk pointed to the colourful interior windows around the central core court and suggested that they seem to invite washing lines strung between them. When she found herself sitting outside the Royal Exchange eating sandwiches in the sunshine, the stepped complexity of the building form as it cornered and rose above its site intrigued and pleased her. It all demonstrated to me how stale our (well, my) own viewpoint can become, and how essential is the nudge, or something more forcible, towards adjusting it, changing our approach, giving pause for thought and consideration of a different point of view. Language and figures of speech carried the argument.


Ian Nairn knew how to employ those. Fifty aficionados spent a late November Sunday on the same Routemaster (CUV 217C) that graces the cover of Nairn’s London (1966) looking at a slice of east London and the City through his eyes. Let me remind you of how he wrote (and his book is now back in print, in a facsimile edition from Penguin). At random, an offbeat analogy to conjure up an unusual City church (of St Mary Aldermary ‘Wren treated Gothic as if it were a cantankerous old aunt: with affectionate disrespect’), a joke to introduce some Gothic Revival almshouses (Holly Village, Highgate, ’an endearing group of hedgehogs’), gearing up to describe a Brutalist tower block (Eros House Catford where ‘rough concrete is put through all its paces’) or simple praise for a modernist block of flats (Highpoint 1 ‘can still provide, a little diminished, the thrill of the thirties’). It is that ability to compress a notion of the technical or the historical within a telling phrase that made Nairn, on the page or on film, the master – in print his words carefully weighed and measured, on television off the cuff and straight from the heart.


I have been writing about the youthful John Summerson recently (see AA Files 69, due any day now) and once again was overwhelmed by his elegance of language, his incisive mind and intellectual hinterland. Nairn confessed to going through Summerson’s Georgian London with a ‘toothcomb’ when writing his own masterpiece.


The challenge set by Nairn remains. Jonathan Meades has torn up the rulebook and recently brought Brutalism, by some obscure back lanes and diversions, to the portion of the nation that catches BBC4. Meades’ language is thoughtful, exultant and menacing by turn, and frequently his choice of analogy intriguingly opaque, but it all serves to burn the accompanying images into brain and retina. That’s what strong words can do for good buildings – make them better.

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Seaside snapshot

I just spent considerably less than 24 hours in Llandudno, a place that I had never visited. And am besotted. Just a neat, well kempt (I gather due to the good offices of the Mostyn estate?) entirely Victorian resort, wrapped round a slow bow of a bay marked to one end by a (mostly) green doorstop of land, to the other by the continuing curve, or an illusion of one, made by the pier.










As well as the natural embrace of the landscape, Llandudno has a modest taste for excess – ironwork porches, balconies and sometimes both combined that are as good as any I’ve seen.




And on top of this, it boasts a building that would not look out of place on Pall Mall, but this while being built as a gentleman’s club in the heyday of Wales’s largest seaside resort also doubled as a bank (which, in part, it remains) and a zany 1930s covered colonnade which winds up and away above the pier, towards a cable car, Happy Valley and much more. To be celebrated.

llandudno.gentsclub colonade











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The Ultimate Factory?

Here’s a version of my May piece for Building Design – which provoked some interesting comments. My book Factory, which came out in 2003, was a journey through the architecture of industry but BMW Leipzig was still to come.

After 1989, the haemorrhaging of employment in the former GDR, particularly in heavy industry, drew BMW’s attention east, and the Leipzig area was identified for the site of the company’s newest manufacturing centre on home soil. Production began nine years ago and currently employs around 6000.

In the city recently, with an afternoon to spare, I set out on the trail of the BMW works. They lie several kilometres out, slung low and grey amidst seemingly endless fields of vivid green and yellow, wheat and rapeseed. Wanting to see for myself a Zaha Hadid building larger than the Vitra fire station (the first ZHA building I visited) or the Serpentine café (the most recent) getting there without a car turned out to be quite a trek. It’s well out in the horizontal Saxony countryside, the local bus taking you via a small, untouched villages, one with a war memorial (a simple plinth with a helmet on it) on the central green. Then, all at once, you arrive.



It could hardly be less like VW at Wolfsburg where the works are the town. Here, out in the fields, amidst extensive car parking (but few BMWs), is a mesh of single storey, single process plants (press, body and paint shops, followed by assembly) all tied together by Zaha Hadid’s nodal Centre Block. Here the sweep and brio of the design reflects the ambition of the factory, which aims to clean up (in every sense) with a new generation of electric vehicles, BMW i3 and, next year the i8, while still continuing to manufacture conventional vehicles.


Hadid’s svelte reception area, through the turnstiles of which some of the workers were coming at the end of their shift, appearing from the furthest reaches of the immense site, is a metaphor for modernity, efficiency and clean industry. Overhead, bathed in blue sub-aqueous light, the silvered carcasses of BMWs roll quietly along on two levels, in opposite directions, a kind of Sorcerer’s Apprentice framed by the immensity of the structural concrete. In silent choreography the car shells rhythmically, and yet not entirely predictably, appear and disappear along unseen tracks. Add electronic soundtrack and it would be a fantastic performance piece. It is, self evidently, a very expensive front of house but how many other companies, even in electronics or other 21st century production facilities, can so succinctly offer an image of the processes occurring off stage?


BMW Welt, their spacey distribution centre in Munich was designed by Coop Himmelb(l)au and opened in 2007. Here in Leipzig, BMW describe ZHA’s Central Building as showing just how ‘different industrial architecture can look’. And that’s the point.


Even briefly glimpsed, (we missed the English language tour, two and a half hours of it) the endless revolving cars overhead are mesmerising. I doubt many of the teenage boys gathering for their tour will have seen Charlie Chaplin’s disturbing Modern Times – probably just as well. BMW has worked hard and with consummate skill to present and mediate modern industry within contemporary society. How many major companies, in the UK or elsewhere, would even dare to try?

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Municipal Values




In this month’s Building Design column I mull over the idea that we used to take the amenities and facilities in our towns and cities for granted.  Now some survive, most are struggling but some have sprung back to life, spurred on by local effort. I enlist an eloquent cheerleader, the late Sue Townsend, who wrote, with suitable defiance, in the Observer in 2005 that “I’m a child of the municipal. Everything good had this word carved above its grand entrance.”  In Leicester, where she was born and lived all her life, “there were municipal libraries, majestic solid buildings with beautiful entrances, windows and doors, oak furniture and bookshelves. Then there were municipal baths, which had a swimming pool and what were called slipper baths – private bathrooms for those without baths and hot water at home…There were municipal parks, which were delightful places in which to take the air. A brass band played on summer evenings…”.

Shared local pride, immediately tangible in decent amenities, quality communal facilities and congenial neighbourhoods, was not, for her (or me) a dose of sterile nostalgia but a wake-up call.  Like the busy blogger Municipal Dreams, she was capturing the ubiquity and quality of good municipal provision.

If municipal pride was sometimes flawed, more often it was magnificent.  Take the remodelled Manchester Central Library, the dome covering the intact but now acoustically transformed central reading room still belted tightly by a band of lettering, conveying the resounding words from Proverbs,  “wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.”   Vincent Harris’ 1934 exercise in (mostly false) grandeur is now afloat in a skein of interwoven levels and functions, a working by Ryder Architects that includes everything, and more, that might be expected from a state of the art public library.  That makes two expressions of civic grandeur, eighty years apart, but still under one roof.




Here, as in the newly rebuilt libraries in other major cities, Newcastle, Liverpool, and Birmingham too, a shift is signalled but not a change of direction. Considerations of public accessibility and shared values have been recast, with communal organisations and charitable trusts shouldering their share of the responsibility and drive, alongside the local authorities.

In Southwark the swimming pool (and adjacent sports hall) in Camberwell (see at the top of the piece) has recently been magnificently transformed after a local campaign group secured extra funding through the Olympic Legacy programme.  With its proud foundation stone (1891) listing all those who were responsible for setting up and building the Camberwell Public Baths, it’s now a monument standing equally for Victorian civic pride and 21st century communal energy and imagination.  


British city authorities now distance themselves from the heavy-footed civic paternalism that so easily shaded into autocracy.  Yet the saga of the Red Road tower blocks is a useful reminder of the hubris lurking in the shadows. Fifty or so years ago Glasgow, in common with most other major cities, dealt with its monumental housing and transport problems with a series of ‘swift and gigantic solutions’ in Ian Jack’s neat phrase in the Guardian.  What he terms ‘misplaced civic grandeur’ was the driving force behind the construction of the Red Road blocks, springing from the same arrogant mindlessness that suggested that their demolition on a world stage in front of billions of viewers might be an appropriate popular spectacle. 


Bull-headed certainty drove the idea (now scuppered) that the combustion of many hundreds of recently vacated working class homes would be a televised global cultural happening  – a sort of vacuous version of London 2012 and Pandemonium re-imagined for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The last minute change of heart, a response to immense local outrage, is a sharp reminder that the very best municipal enterprises exemplified sustainable values even more than sustainable buildings. 



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Writing on the wall?

Readers of these words will never again flick through their copy of Building Design magazine each week. After many decades (I first wrote for the title almost forty years ago) it will no longer be on the page, disappearing to the online world, behind a paywall. What I have written is no longer a column in the physical sense, a way of seeing text on the page, an article in print.  As wood pulp gives way to the screen –computer or tablet or phone – and there’s less and less reading material stacked up on our desks or breakfast tables, we’re all forced to look elsewhere for reading matter.


Take the growing fascination with ghost signs – those gable ends or forgotten walls that offer wonder cures or dry goods in shadowy blocked lettering, evocative reminders of forgotten remedies, vanished businesses and obscure commodities – and which lift a dull stock brick elevation in a nondescript street to new heights of interest and, who knows, might even ensure its preservation.  In France they are ubiquitous; in my family, because of my daughter’s name, we passed the long hours of holiday journeys counting the gentian blue and acid yellow Suze signs on walls in every French town and village.  The digestif still exists, but it is the signage that is as inextricably part of France as old Citroen garages.


 In Egypt, the writing has always been on the walls.  The glorious mysteries or, for the initiate, the histories and myths represented by surviving hieroglyphics are evidence of lives and beliefs of extraordinary complexity.  Whether they blanket entire surfaces or simply pepper the intervals between the figures of pharaohs, their consorts and their cacophony of deities, the marks were a coded pictorial language for the few, largely dedicated to a world beyond this.



It was not until the final years of the 18th century, that European travellers (and ‘collectors’) began to be brazen enough to carve their own names and dates onto the walls, often high up on the then engulfing sand.  Napoleon’s men used the revolutionary calendar, while the circus strongman Giovanni Belzoni (who shipped Sethi I’s sarcophagus carelessly back to London and  into the basement of Sir John Soane’s Museum) simply wrote his name a little larger than anyone else.  

In the 21st century graffiti, like the ghost signs, carries another level of  significance altogether. Take the streets of Cairo as they bring the story of Egyptian politics up to the present, with a bump. Banners are strung across street corners, blank walls and hoardings coated in a dense collage of posters from yesterday, the day before yesterday and tomorrow (I refer to a figurative timescale) telling a story which is far from easily told nor anywhere near resolved.  Some, the more slick versions of pre-election publicity (although as I write the date is not yet fixed, nor the presidential candidates named), proclaim military intelligence chief General Sisi as the heir to strongman Presidents Sadat and Nasser.  Elsewhere graffiti includes black stencilled palm prints – the menacing sign of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood – or red scrawled Arabic messages which translate into wishing Sisi the worst of all possible fates.















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Words on the Screen


This is a review sent to me by Stephen Kay, in which he discusses televised architecture in general and Ian Nairn in particular.


Cardiff City Council wants to demolish the Coal Exchange. Recently sound enough for the Fire Officer to allow it to be used as the superbly historic and richly patinated venue for the audience to gather at the end of National Theatre Wales’ performance odyssey around Bute Town, it has now become so dangerous as to require demolition. What would Ian Nairn have said of this proposed act of civic vandalism?

Mention of Ian Nairn no longer provokes the question of who he is, or was. An article by David McKie in the Guardian saw Gillian Darley’s seminal volume “Villages of Vision” back in print. Darley and McKie have now collaborated on a book reviving Nairn;  “Ian Nairn; Words in Place.” And on Thursday night a number of the usual suspects contributed to a BBC 4 programme “The Man Who Fought the Planners”. Drawing on Darley and McKie’s book, this programme certainly have included much of Nairn’s views and many outings on camera, but transcended architecture to look directly at a human life.  His strengths and his ability to fuel ways of looking at townscape, to shamelessly judge and compare elements of the vernacular, the traditional, the modern, and the utterly valueless were as honestly pictured as his sad decline into an extended alcoholic. Hagiography or academic analysis it was not, profoundly moving human drama it certainly was.

Nairn’s appearances were a surprise to anyone not having seen him before – it wasn’t Betjeman or Pevsner on screen. He had more in common with an actor displaying existential angst, a performer interpreting his reading of Jack Kerouac by driving a Morris Minor into a scrapyard. Former colleagues and fellow writers remembering him were one or two soloists, and sometimes a male chorus. Whilst Bill Patterson’s stately narration was offstage, Gillian Darley’s contribution was sustained, not only in a studio or library but at places Nairn had been filmed, period footage juxtaposed with today.

BBC 4 currently has a wealth of architecture, ranging from 1980s archive, through semi-hagiographies of “Brits That Built the World” to Jonathan Meades, whose programmes the BBC Media Centre announce as “lavish and sometimes surreal collage.” The archive BBC coverage of contemporary architecture had a budget that ran to commissioning music from Hans-Werner Henze, the semi-hags sink to supermarket or hotel lift music. The Darley/McKie book is published by Five Leaves Press, which raised the question of whether the programme would be accompanied by the music of Nick Drake. It wasn’t, but perhaps some of it should have been. From both men acute observation, both similarly idiosyncratic, sometimes elided delivery, and both great talent ended too soon. At the chime of a city clock Nairn may have delivered his opinion, the clock in many a bar slowly and sadly tolled his decline.



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A year ago in Newcastle-on-Tyne


Now that the transmission date of The Man Who Fought The Planners: The Story Of Ian Nairn has been confirmed as February 20th at 10 pm, on BBC4 (where else?!) I thought a picture or two of the very very chilly shoot last February might entertain Nairn fans. My contribution to Kate Misrahi’s film consisted of a lot of clambering up and down chares (the steep alleys that still link the city with the quayside, see above), quite a bit of standing on the castle roof, avoiding puddles of melting snow and looking out over the railway tracks (see immediately below),  and a nice long sit in the Lit and Phil (the Literary and Philosophical Society library, below that) where the major part of the interview took place. My co-author of Ian Nairn: Words in Place, David McKie did similar stints, both outdoors in the snow and indoors in the town library,  in Wigan.




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Seeking Nairn’s London


There’s a strong possibility that Nairn’s London will be back in print later this year. So David McKie and I, as co-authors of Ian Nairn: Words in Place have divided up London and its extremities (from Uxbridge to Dagenham was his ambition) and are looking around to see which of the almost fifty-year-old entries needs an indication of current condition – or its loss. To start at the end, Dagenham church, for example, is still there, but even more isolated than it was in Nairn’s day, stranded in Ford Motors’ company town, now gone belly-up. The churchyard is a nature reserve, the building is, viewed from the outside at least, in good condition, but the surroundings are dire. But without Nairn, I would never have found it. Equally, round the back of Fenchurch Street station, in the City, is French Ordinary Court. When Nairn was tramping around, the alley was threatened by development; now that development itself is elderly, but the entrance off Crutched Friars is there, as atmospheric and promising as its name (though it does not, on closer examination, deliver much beyond the street approach). Watch this space – I plan to fill the dank days of early 2014 with more dispatches from the Nairn’s London front and, very soon, hope to reveal when and by whom it is to be re-published.


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Nairn takes off!

Ian Nairn at Cardington, in his final film for BBC in the Finding Follies series

Here are some early responses

Nairn, in his raincoat and Morris Minor, was an unlikely Icarus. He flew, he burned, he drowned. As alcoholism is now recognised as a disease, we should perhaps simply say that that is what killed him, but it might also be possible to guess that, in asking architecture to fill an emotional void, he was seeking the impossible. Also, that, in wanting officialdom to feel as intensely about places as he did, he was doomed to disappointment. But anyone who cares even slightly about their surroundings should be intensely grateful for his attempt. –Rowan Moore, The Observer

I am far from alone in having the awkward, melancholic architectural writer and broadcaster as one of my heroes: partly for his deep conviction that the built environment mattered, partly for his insistence – in defiance of modernist orthodoxy – that people mattered more. One day no doubt Nairn will get a heavy-duty biography, but for the time being this elegant, rather slighter treatment does the job with charm and just the right degree of critical affection. –David Kynaston, The Guardian, Books of the Year, 2013.

Richard Strachan blog
‘As a writer and broadcaster Nairn was unafraid to speak his mind, and Darley and McKie perfectly capture his belligerence and critical force….This excellent collection of essays is an ideal introduction to a powerful writer and personality who has languished in obscurity for too long.’

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November, a busy month

Ian Nairn: Words in Place is published November 14 by Five Leaves Publications. David McKie and I take part in the LRB bookshop event on 19 November, chaired by Owen Hatherley.



On November 27 I am giving the Soane Annual Lecture on Nairn’s London at the Art Worker’s Guild




My article in the London Library magazine, ‘Ian Nairn’s London’ will be in the winter 2013 issue – due mid November.


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