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

The demise of the North, and the sprawl of London

Ed. This piece was first published at on 21 October 2014.

I’ve been meaning to write about Gillian Darley and David McKie’s book about Ian Nairn for ages now. Entitled Ian Nairn: Words in Place, it’s a wonderful read about one of the most important characters in post-war British architecture and planning, albeit a character on the edge in more ways than one. (See an earlier post on ‘Nairn’s London.) But I’ll wait a bit longer for that. You should pick up a copy for yourself.

However, I just watched a 2014 BBC4 documentary about Nairn, The Man Who Fought the Planners: The Story of Ian Nairn. It was on YouTube for a while, but has since disappeared. Do see if you can track it down. In the meantime, here’s a trailer:

Nairn’s story is both inspiring and sad, in almost equal measure, Ultimately the former wins out, where Nairn himself lost. The documentary does a good job of telling his unique story, and the wider story of the wanton destruction of post-war Britain—particularly in the North—that drove him to despair. It’s shocking to see the degradation of our cities mirrored in Nairn’s own personal demise.

Despite being originally a Southerner, Nairn genuinely loved the North, to the extent that, as Gillian Darley later pointed out, his death certificate erroneously listed his birthplace as ‘Newcastle-upon Tyne’. She said it revealed how Nairn had become a “Newcastle man by desire, if not reality.”

The film also notes the increasing influence Nairn’s work has had over time, and the continued relevance of his powerful critique today. And on that note, I thought I’d mention another old film I just chanced across, on a similar theme: Reyner Banham’s A City Crowned with Green (BBC, 1964), which focuses on London, its character and development.

It’s a lovely old film, and chock-full of insights, most of which still resonate today. It’s also fascinating to hear Banham take apart Frank Pick, a person usually referred to with reverence in design circles for his work on the London Underground. Banham instead sees Pick enabling a particular kind of sprawl, the Underground dissolving the the city’s distinctive qualities. Again, these are issues we’re still unpicking today, as a recent statement by the London Society about the UK’s ‘green belt’ makes clear (see also an excellent article by Rowan Moore.)

Depending on where you live, you may be able to watch the Banham film via this link: A City Crowned with Green, by Reyner Banham. Else, do your best to track it down. It’s currently at YouTube, but won’t be forever.

Ed. This piece was first published at on 21 October 2014. See also ‘Nairn’s London, by Ian Nairn (1966)’

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