The First Step is Admitting We Have a Problem

Before I start this post, I would like to point out the title is a reference to my struggle with writing my proposal and Ian Nairn’s view on Britain and Subtopia. It is not to be viewed as a bad taste reference to his eventual alcoholism.

Since I started this blog it has been decidedly quiet. This is down to two things:

• The first is down solely to laziness. Adjusting to the concept of working on a self negotiated body of research has taken some time.

• The second is the fact that I have been working on my final proposal for registration. This has been both a rewarding and soul destroying activity, with endless drafts and feedback going backwards and forwards. It has however forced me to strip the project back to its bare bones and look at what is really important.

Over the next few posts I am going to look at the elements that have informed my thinking, and are at the forefront of the project.

The first of these is Ian Nairn and his concept of Subtopia. Nairn was born in 1930 and in his early career flew Meteor jets for the RAF. Upon leaving the forces he started working for the Architectural Review and at 25 years undertook a journey from Southampton to Carlisle that would lead to the publication of a special edition of AR and cement his place as the fiercest of architectural critics.

Ian Nairn
Ian Nairn

‘The issue started out being called Outrage in the Name of Public Authority, but in collecting the material it became clear that the issue was much wider… Public authotities are responsible for nearly all the faults exposed…  they have the most power and often the least awareness of visual responsibility that should go with it, but they are only the corporate reflection of what goes in the mind of each of us. So the title simply became outrage.’
Foreword to Outrage (1955)

The first section of Outrage published in 1955, part introduction, part manifesto, part battle cry paints a bleak picture of Britain. ‘This issue is less of a warning than a prophecy of doom: the prophecy that if what is called development is allowed to multiply at the present rate, then by the end of the century Great Britain will consist of isolated oases of preserved monuments in a desert of wire, concrete roads, cosy plots and bungalows’. ‘They would go on to describe this as a creeping mildew that already circumscribes all our towns. This death by slow decay we have called Subtopia, a compound word from suburb and utopia, i.e., making an ideal of suburbia.’

‘The symptoms of Subtopia will be that the end of Southampton will look like the beginning of Carlisle; the parts in between will look like the end of Carlisle or the beginning of Southampton’

‘An England reduced to universal Subtopia, a mean and middle state, neither town nor country, an even spread of abandoned aerodromes and fake rusticity, wire fences, traffic roundabouts, gratuitous notice-boards, car-parks and things in fields. It is a morbid condition, which spreads both ways from suburbia, out into the country, and back into the devitalized hearts of our towns.’

Map of Subtopian Development
Map of Subtopian Development

‘Subtopia is the world or universal low-density mess.’
Outrage (1955)

Considering this was written in 1955, before Thatcher’s government and the unions of the late 70s and 80s could work their magic on British industry. Nairn paints a very recognisable picture of modern Britain. The introduction, while full of rabble-rousing hyperbole, gets many of the features of our town and cities spot on. The world of Subtopia can be recognised as Marion Shoard’s idea of Edgelands.

The issue I have with the whole publication is Nairn’s black and white view on the situation. By looking at the world from a visual perspective it is easy to divide feature into good and bad, however life is never that simple. The idea that whole of Britain has become a homogenised mess is offensive. Nairn’s map of proposed Subtopian development (sprawl) covers huge geographic regions and suggests that Sheffield is identical to Leeds or Leicester. Yet if you were to suggest this to locals they would very likely laugh at you.

It is however unsurprising that Nairn chose to look at the issue from a regional or national level. As a pilot he would have been used to seeing the spread of our cities from a wider topographic viewpoint. When we look at the world from Google Earth’s perspective it is rendered as blocks of endless urban mess.

Subtopia on the March
Subtopia on the March

By looking at our cities from a local perspective I hope to show that Nairn’s perceived bleak view of the world is only partly true.

One of the things that will strike anyone reading outrage is how quaint and tame many of the images within the book are, considering it’s asking us to think about the world from a visual perspective. However the text remains the enduring image, and is has been unfairly adopted to push an anti development message.

Page from Outrage
Page from Outrage

I first came across Nairn’s work in Jonathon Glancey’s introduction to John Davies The British Landscape.
Recalling it from memory, the bit that stands out is the usual quotes about, mildew and slow decay. However with my copy open in front of me, the quote that now jumps out is, ‘Nairn was a fierce individualist, who tired himself out fighting low-grade change… The defence of the individuality of places, is the defence of the individuality of ourselves.’ Glancey sums up Davies work ‘ views of the British landscape are ultimately about one particular certainty… of a world, and of places we care for, subject to permanent change.’

Stockport Viaduct, Stockport 1986
Stockport Viaduct, Stockport 1986

‘Writers and journalists, including JG Ballard, Will Self, Jonathan Meades, Patrick Wright, Iain Sinclair, as well as a younger generation of commentators such as Owen Hatherley and the mysterious blogger, Ghost of Nairn, have all been influenced one way or another by Nairn, who so wanted everywhere to be different when everywhere was threatening to be the same.’
Ian Nairn’s voice of outrage, Jonathon Glancey (2010)

Ian Nairn died of Liver Cirrhosis aged 52, his last years spent in a ‘tide of Guinness’. He is buried in Hanwell Cemetery under the flight path of Heathrow and close to a Kwik-fit exhaust centre.

During the course of my research I expect to challenge some of Nairn’s ideas and confirm others. The important thing to me is defending the individuality of places.


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