Friday, 20 May 2016

Radio Review: 20 May

How architectural critic Ian Nairn battled the planners

Written by Louis Barfe
Louis-Barfe-colour-176There has recently been a very welcome renaissance of interest in the architectural critic Ian Nairn, who died in 1983. A BBC Four documentary and his own superb 1970s TV work on iPlayer led to reprints of his books. I can’t visit the capital without my Nairn’s London, treasuring especially his guidance on aesthetically excellent pubs. He first came to prominence in the 1950s as an ‘angry young man’ railing eloquently against what he named ‘Subtopia’, a mixture of suburbia and Utopia. Dull uniformity had taken over, making the edge of Carlisle resemble the edge of Southampton, and planners were ‘making the same sort of mess’ in the countryside.

In Archive on 4, Gillian Darley, a distinguished architectural critic herself and a Nairn evangelist, used some glorious archive material and genuinely illuminating talk with experts like Gavin Stamp and Janice Murphett, as well as photographer Gareth Gardner, who is retracing the steps of Nairn’s grand tour, to ask whether Nairn’s worst fears came true.

In some ways, they have: look at any modern housing estate. In others, we’ve made progress. I loved the clip of Gilbert Harding egging Sir Hugh Casson on in his hatred of the shanty town that once infested the apron of King’s Cross station. Casson declared that three days with a bulldozer would put things right. It took nearly 60 years, but King’s Cross is now as Casson would have liked.

If you listen, and I implore you to do so (please watch the TV stuff too), I suspect you’ll find Nairn hugely likeable, for all his spikiness. He cared, and by golly, he was funny. He hated pointless signs. Seeing a placard saying ‘Grit’ in a pile of grit by the side of the road, he mused, ‘What do they think it is? Passion fruit?’

Louis on Twitter: @LFBarfe or email:

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