The Twentieth Century Society

Classic Book: Gavin Stamp on Nairn’s London

‘Stay there until something happens…’

Gavin Stamp on Nairn’s London, first published in 1966

I still have the copy of Nairn’s London that I bought in 1966 – the year it was published – when I was still at school. A Penguin paperback costing all of 8/6d (that’s 42½p), it was one of the three books that taught me about architecture and about London, and made me want to go and seek out buildings (the others being Betjeman’s First and Last Loves and Pevsner’s London except...). Looking at it again after, oh dear, almost half a century, I am struck again by how acute, how stimulating and how unusual the late Ian Nairn’s judgements on buildings were. S S Teulon’s St Mark’s, Silvertown: ‘A hard punch right in the guts… It is the nearest thing to a mystic’s revelation that London has.’ How could one resist? And not just buildings, for part of Nairn’s greatness was that he was interested in the character of places: ‘The whole of this place at the back of St Pancras is incredibly moving: tunnels, perspectives, trains on the skyline, roads going all ways. If you get nothing from it at first, stay there until something happens: it is really worth the effort.’

No longer, for the area behind the two great railway termini has changed radically (though at least they are still there, for in 1966 both were threatened with demolition). Inevitably, therefore, Nairn’s London is now a period piece. But while the character of many of the places he loved can no longer be appreciated – the developers and the planners he came to despise have seen to that – comparatively few of the buildings he described have disappeared, and so the book is still well worth reading for Nairn’s judgements and (often perverse) opinions as well as for the vivid, evocative style of his writing. It remains a classic, one of the great books about London.

I see I bought my copy at the Elephant & Castle, that much-abused part of South London which was then in unhappy transition and which Nairn found ‘half-finished and mediocre’. The book was written at an interesting stage in Nairn’s development: the angry young author of ‘Outrage’ in the Architectural Review was still angry, but becoming disillusioned with the modernist experiment. He anticipated, or pioneered, the great reaction against modern architecture and comprehensive redevelopment which took place in the 1970s. This can be seen in the 1967 postscripts he added to his texts in Britain’s Changing Towns. And in the year Nairn’s London was published he attacked the architectural profession in the Observer: ‘Stop the Architects Now… The outstanding and appalling fact about modern architecture is that it is not good enough…’.

Some of the London buildings Nairn included were indeed Modern, but younger members of this society who find the 1960s more impressive than I am able to should consult his guide to Modern Buildings in London published by London Transport in 1964. In his 1966 guide he was still able to approve some of the famously approved of – New Zealand House and the Economist Building get due praise – but it is interesting to read his account of the Royal Festival Hall, whose original colourful exterior had just been rebuilt: ‘an unsuspected tragedy…  The old elevations were an honest muddle – the new ones are a faceless smoothing over of dissension: the difference between the political climate of the forties and that of the sixties.’ But, ever unpredictable, Nairn was able to enthuse about a few less obvious Modern buildings: flats in Boundary Road by Armstrong & MacManus, for instance, and the once-celebrated Tulse Hill School. He was also broad-minded enough to praise Bracken House – once the target of the Anti-Uglies (whom Nairn had inspired) which became the first post-war building to be listed: ‘It seems unbelievable that Sir Albert Richardson could have turned up trumps with a modern office block. Yet the conviction grows with every visit that Bracken House is a friendly, logical, lovable personality – and there is certainly plenty of faceless stuff around to check by.’

But there is more to London than post-war architecture, thank God, and Nairn’s London sent you off to the great churches by Hawksmoor and the gaunt brick Victorian churches by Brooks in the East End, to railway stations and pumping stations, like Abbey Mills. And he sent you to pubs. As Owen Hatherley recently pointed out in Building Design, Nairn enthused over no less than 27 pubs – many, many more than are cited in any other general London guide (perhaps not surprising given that Nairn eventually managed to drink himself to death). And of these, twenty survive today – another reason why Nairn’s London is still worth consulting. Try the famous Red Lion in St James’s with its cut-glass mirrors: ‘Nothing is fuzzy, but everything has incredible depth and compassion combined with brilliance… It is a place to walk out of ramrod-straight, reinforced by those proud, sparkling arabesques.’

What Nairn also knew is that places are more than architecture. He revelled in contrasts, in the ordinary, the gaunt, the peculiar; what he hated was the bland, the characterless. He lamented the steady erosion of real cockney London, and how ‘all that architects and planners have done – private, borough or LCC – is to dump down old and new clichés irrespective of the site.’ Inevitably, therefore, many of his evocations induce nostalgia (at least in me). There was Sun Street Passage beside Broad Street Station – gone, of course: ‘You enter amongst the affluent flurry of the City. You leave, after just one exhilarating glance up into the frilly roofs of Liverpool Street, in the sad emptiness of south Shoreditch: warehouses, railway tracks, Hawksmoor’s church peering over from the wrecked grandeur of Spitalfields.’ Now, thanks to the Big Bang, tourism, yuppies, Thatcherism, Blairism, such shabbiness has gone and we have glittering walls of glass instead.

And then there is Southwark, so close to the poor old Elephant where I bought my copy of Nairn’s incomparable guide. Bankside, ‘the longest and most exciting connected walk in London’, is still there, and yet it isn’t any more because the few once-shabby warehouses that survive are cleaned up, while on the north bank they are extinct. ‘Look on to the dirty water slapping around the bows of barges, and the grand unselfconscious row of warehouses on the City side, with St Paul’s suspended above at just the right height. If it doesn’t move you then nothing else will.’ You now have to read Nairn to understand what has been lost here, while also appreciating the gains. But I don’t suppose Nairn would have much cared for the stupid Shard.

Nairn’s London is out of print.