City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

‘Nairn’s London’, by Ian Nairn (1966)

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The best guide book to London is not really a guide book to London. In fact, Ian Nairn’s “personal list of the best things in London” may also be the best book on the city ever written.

(Ed. This piece was originally published at on 7 October 2010. A half-written entry on Ian Nairn’s book ‘Nairn’s London’ had been lying dormant for almost a year at that point. But a conversation on Twitter between me, Kieran Long (of the Evening Standard), Justin McGuirk (of The Guardian), Charles Holland (of FAT), and Owen Hatherley (of Owen Hatherley and more besides) prompted me to finish the sentences and hit ‘publish’. At the time, a copy of ‘Nairn’s London’ was relatively hard to find – now you should be able to find the reissue.)

The Economist’s Christmas special (2009) had an fascinating article about being an outsider, an emigrant, a foreigner, and the role and practice of writing in terms of understanding the nature of a place. The article described the effect on perception that ‘being a foreigner’ may have:

“Foreignness is intrinsically stimulating. Like a good game of bridge, the condition of being foreign engages the mind constantly without ever tiring it. John Lechte, an Australian professor of social theory, characterises foreignness as “an escape from the boredom and banality of the everyday”. The mundane becomes “super-real”, and experienced “with an intensity evocative of the events of a true biography”.” [‘The Others’, The Economist, December 17th 2009]

Unrelated to this, Owen Hatherley and I had a very brief email correspondence a while ago about whether one could capture the essence of a city — or perhaps an essence of the city — in a brief visit, as with his research-fuelled excursions for Building Design (which are turning into a kind of retrofitted Pevsner for the 21stC) or my own scribbles garnered from a mere 24 hours in Geneva or Seoul, or 48 hours in Seattle or Turin or Milan, or a few days in Boston/Cambridge, or several intermittent weekends in Barcelona, and so on.

Can you detect and describe an essence of place from a brief visit? I’ll leave it to you to decide, though I think that—with practice, and research—you can indeed quickly conjure an essence of a city, which may even be a decent facsimile of how many people perceive the place.

Ian Nairn’s book Nairn’s London is quite the opposite. It is a rich book derived from a life spent amidst the city, a city which he clearly worshipped even as it was changing around him. It’s the ultimate inside job. And although written from the point-of-view of the insider, I’d argue it manages to transform the “banality of the everyday” into a “super-real, evocative, true biography” of a city, too.

It’s also a great blueprint of exactly the kind of architecture and urbanism writing we need more of.

He was not an architect—which is key I think—but understood architecture deeply, it seems to me (though I’m also not an architect). The depth and breadth of his research is clear, and if worn on the sleeve, it’s artfully done. He is able to write about both medieval London and modernism with fairness, elan, insight, and a wicked sense of humour. He teases the reader—particularly the relatively closeted reader of 1966, when this book was first published—with saucy metaphors delivered at the altar. He is even-handed in his demolition of poor work in all styles. It’s accessible without ever being lightweight. He writes about urban spaces as well as buildings, about infrastructure and urban strategy, about the city as seen from flowing traffic as well from within a moment of repose standing alone in a quiet, misty, South London common.

One of the more progressive aspects is his indifference to boundaries, disciplines and objectivity. From his preface:

“This guide is simply my personal list of the best things in London … What I am after is character, or personality, or essence … (T)he book has no barriers. I just don’t believe in the difference between high- and low-brow, between aristocracy and working class, between fine art and fine engineering. All are tilting-horses erected by paper men because they can’t or daren’t recognise the golden thread of true quality. This book is a record of what has moved me, between Uxbridge and Dagenham. My hope is that it moves you, too.”

As an ex-Londoner living in Sydney in 2009, invariably reading it from the back of a light rail tram cutting through a carefully-landscaped harbourside ‘idyll’ punctuated with overweight joggers and gargantuan fig trees laden with screeching cockatoos, it’s an extraordinary experience to be transported back 10000 miles and 40-odd years. Back to a heady brew of smoky chimneys leaving a layer of grime on heavy brick and Portland stone, noisy saloon bars with lairy blokes eyeing birds of a different kind, picking out deals on unreliable mot-ahs in the Evenin Stannad classifieds, and the white-heated whirl of New Town-building and L.C.C.-led flat building (with Archigram lurking within the belly of that L.C.C. architect’s department), all just before the likes of Rogers, Foster, Lasdun, Alsop, Arup, Macormac et al emerge in the wake of Stirling, Cedric and the Smithsons.

But Nairn’s London is also at its best when unearthing and describing earlier stripes of London’s deep strata. I’d never particularly engaged with the medieval layer of London in terms of its buildings; only its form, enjoying the winding corridors of what’s left of London’s various barri gotic (Spitalfields, Smithfield, Clerkenwell, Leadenhall), and some of its more obvious psychogeographic channels. Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor resonated powerfully, as I’d lived next to several of his works for years. But all those other churches? What a pain in the apse. I’d largely dodged Pevsner too, although I know it would be good for me, a bit like a better understanding of Greek or Latin history would be.

Yet Nairn covers exactly the same terrain, and the power of his writing is a breath of fresh air. Or rather, the warmish, stale yet largely convivial air of the London pub, where he was apparently to be frequently located. In fact, a good 10% of Nairn’s London is pubs. The other 90% might be 20% churches, 20% twentieth century public and commercial buildings, 20% public space, 10% infrastructure and 20% inspired verbiage on the things in-between.

The format is short entries on all these things, referenced in terms of the mid-1960s London A-Z. He permits himself a little sketch at the bottom of page 118, and there are some fine, contrast-heavy ‘plates’ in the middle, but apart from that it’s a fairly basic format. (Incidentally, some of our conversation last night concerned an idea I’d had for a long time — copying the book out, entry by entry plotted onto a web-based map format, perhaps collaboratively produced as per the map of modern architecture in Australia.)

Nairn is often drawn towards the classical, partly indicating its weight in the landscape of his London perhaps, but with a keen eye for the modern too. He picks out many of my favourite modern buildings: The Smithsons’ Economist building, the Daily Express building to some degree, Denys Lasdun’s Royal College of Surgeons, and so on. His disdain for the University of London for wrecking Bloomsbury isn’t something I’d agree with necessarily, given my well-documented relationship with Senate House, but then I never knew Bloomsbury without it, and he did.

It’s all interesting, even if you disagree with it, because it’s a book of opinions. And not worthless opinions. Not those of the typical contemporary columnist, say, who generates opinions because they have to, but the opinions of someone who made them for his own reasons, at his own pace, and compiled over many, many years. Informed, passionate opinions, and beautifully articulated.

Strategically, if you like, his views on London are still apposite too, perhaps more so almost 50 years later. He was reporting on a London that was beginning to change rapidly, as the handbrake of post-war austerity was beginning to be relaxed. There was no doubt an element of nostalgia in his writing which has developed an acidic aftertaste, the passing of time revealing he was right about many of the emerging patterns of activity.

Yet you essentially leave the book with a much-reinforced love of London, despite all its foibles, darkness, and rampant lust for capital driving its constant, churning transformation. It helps that the acidity is leavened by his chalky humour. He’s often very funny.

I could rhapsodise about his writing forever, but essentially you have to read it. My 1967 edition Penguin copy is so dog-eared as to render the book structurally unsound. It would therefore be pointless to provide excerpts, as I’d be effectively copying the entire book out onto the internet. There are chapters relating to favourite places where virtually every page is dog-eared, and the dog-ears point vaguely at not one but several passages on the page.

However, by way of example, here are just a few excepts from the entry on Bankside, an area for which I share Nairn’s enthusiasm. I’ll leave it to you – those of you that know the place – to wonder whether he’d have the same enthusiasm about the Bankside of today.

“The longest and most exciting connected walk in London. Apart from a first flying visit it can do more to interpret the city than anything else, a real skeleton key. London is bent around the Thames; however much the north bank might wish to forget it, the south holds the centre of gravity. The shortest way way from Pimlico to the City is via Southwark, not Charing Cross. London’s signature is a moving and dramatic dissonance, exactly like those odd geometrical figures that have their centroid outside their circumference. North = outsider’s London, south = cockney London. But also, north-east = City = business outsider; north-west = Westminster = international outsider; north central = Oxford Street and theatreland = provincial English outsider.”

“Back to the riverside, and after a few yards the river itself. Here, there is no need for any guide. Look on to the dirty water slapping around the bows of the 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. This is the guts of the thing — and part of the guts is the sliced-bread wrapping floating on the Thames, and the weird counterpoint of dockhand versus the too-sophisticated visitor. You, yourself, are no longer just a guide-user, but part of the equation.”

(On a sudden framed view of St Paul’s west tower) “An accident, but the kind of accident that fate tends to bestow if you design well in the first place.” (Ed. On these well-designed accidents, see also my speculation about Aalto’s Finlandia Hall, Helsinki.)

(On Shad Thames to Bermondsey Wall) “This is one of the great places of London, and all that architects and planners have done-private, borough or L.C.C.-is to dump down old and new clichés irrespective of the site. The only exceptions are some of the warehouse buildings, and I guess that nobody bothered to employ an architect for them. But try and follow the golden thread, however thin, because it is the city’s real lifeline.”

(On Rotherhithe) “Long may it remain truly boaty and unsophisticated, not one more place for the unspeakable to come and see how the other half lives.”

The “unsophisticated” nature of that old place is just about hanging in there as a concept, as all around it is losing theirs. You can see that Nairn’s writing is not necessarily romantic. I suppose it is possible to romanticise “sliced-bread wrapping floating on the Thames” of course, but again, that is a nostalgia produced by the distance of 40-odd years. Perhaps that’s unavoidable, but it’s also worth reflecting on the repressed anger underpinning much of the book, and how powerful that may have been at the time, if ultimately ineffectual in the presence of far more powerful forces.

But reading it now, the writing is still powerful. And crucially, the nostalgia was not conservative, necessarily, as his love of good modernism made clear. Better still, wandering around London with Nairn’s London in your head, superimposed over the contemporary, is richer and more thought-provoking than any augmented reality application will ever be. And it can still inform contemporary urbanism, to the extent I was able to use a passage to sum up the Sentient City exhibition last year.

It’s also worth stating again: it’s often extremely funny.

Again regarding Bankside, he wrote, “London used to be full of such contrasts; now they have to be picked out in books like this.”

But there are no other books like this. I started this with a question as to the possibility of quickly capturing a place, and obviously, to think that one could do that in a 48-hour visit is hubris at the very least. (Ed. Although I would later read Geoff Dyer relating that DH Lawrence would start writing definitive thoughts about a new place as he was pulling in on the train.)

But Nairn wrote about London as well as anyone ever has, and it was based on lived experience, deep observation, and an open-minded yet opinionated, progressive and multi-perspectival stance that enabled him to conjure, in his own words, the “character, or personality, or essence.”

Compare to contemporary scribes on London such as Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair and in fact there is little comparison to be had. It’s become possible to second-guess where those two go, much as I often like their work.

Yet whilst it’s difficult to imagine what Nairn’s writing would be like had he lived longer, there is so much character and originality in books such as Nairn’s London that I don’t think we’d have been able to second-guess him. His writing seemed as variable, far-reaching, unpredictable and vital as London itself.

Ed. This piece was originally published at on 7 October 2010. See also ‘A film about Ian Nairn, and film by Reyner Banham’

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