My article in The Sunday Times.
To call Ian Nairn a great architectural writer is too restrictive; he was a great writer who happened to write about buildings and places. If your preconception of writing on architecture is one of fusty, jargonistic, dandruff-dull prose, then Nairn brushes off any shouldered burden that may concern a reader. With brisk pen and plenty of shoe leather, he does all the work. It’s a given now that any publication by Notting Hill Editions is pleasing to the eye (this one features a warm and affectionate introduction by Paris resident Andrew Hussey). What gives this title extra sheen is that it has been out of print since 1968, with originals fetching £50. Cities change, but the quality of Nairn’s writing will always hold. He will take you to unexpected places, make you look at the familiar anew, or at least poke you into thinking about them again (For example, Nairn describes the basilica of Sacré-Coeur as “a waste of talent”.) But as he says, “this book is not an invitation to argument but to discovery… go and decide for yourself”.
* Article first appeared in The Irish Times
There must be something to it surely: in the week when I had my essay on the inspirational, non-clubbable writer and broadcaster published in The Irish Times, I had a peruse of a second-hand bookshop only to find, side by side, original copies of Nairn’s London and Nairn’s Paris.
For the princely sum of £4 (in the inside cover of Paris is another marking for 20p).
I’ve added pictures below, comparing them with my facsimile of London, well thumbed as you can see and with some ale markings, and the new edition of Paris, published with typical elan by Notting Hill Editions. Just look at Nairn’s face on those covers – the child-like, goofy grin is nothing but endearing; he’s like a portly John Turturro.
I shall run Nairn’s BBC travelogues again this weekend (with some Guinness West Indies Porter, which I’m sure he would slap his lips in satisfaction with) as a small gesture to his ghost, if indeed he was tapping my shoulder to go into that bookshop. ‘Look here mate…’, I hear him saying.
The Nairn films are infinitely watchable in spite of their low-budget, dated (happily, in this instance), and cobbled together feel. He has a strange, melancholic relationship with the camera; I find him as compelling to watch on screen as, say, Richard Burton or Marlon Brando. At times I imagine he might start riffing towards a Shakespearean soliloquy as he shuffles around Halifax.
Anyway, I shall finish with this, because I have just uncapped another porter: despite his documented drift into darkness in his personal life and an unhealthy relationship with the booze, Nairn makes me laugh hard, and often, in his writing. (Whatever people think about him looking through a glass darkly, my instinct is that he lived his life the way he wanted to, and if that meant living until 53 or 83 years of age, I imagine Nairn would have thought, ‘well, so bloody what’.)
Here he is describing a pub, one of his true passions, The King’s Arms on the Fulham Road:
…once again I hear his ghost: ‘And nooooowwww look at it! It makes me burn!’
Fads will come and go.
Ian Nairn will remain. Raise a glass, chin chin.
Pomp and ceremony does little for me usually, but if I’m ever trudging through the Dublin streets on a crisp cold or ragged wet night then I always find warmth passing the Mansion House on Dawson Street which, until the Luas line developments, was always the prettiest street in the city.
Set back from the road, with two-storeys of seven bay windows, the elegant illuminated facade of the Mansion House has a curative quality to lift any cursing part of your soul, even as you walk into the teeth of a howling gale. It looks best at Christmas time, when snow is falling: its understated tree stood out front, while the shadows loll in the iridescence of the stemmed lanterns running along the lower face of the house, distinguished by its Georgian porch (by Simon Vierpyl) and Victorian wrought iron portico (by Daniel Freeman). The building takes on a magical quality in these moments: like some lustrous smile peering out at you from the depths of winter’s darkness. It always makes me think of the ghosts that may be fleeting ethereally through Dawson Street; past St Ann’s Church, built in 1719 , and the Mansion House, its older neighbour by nine years.
It’s a little more than 300 years since Mansion House came into the ownership of Dublin Corporation, having been purchased on 18 May 1715 from the property developer Joshua Dawson for the princely sum of £3,500 sterling, a yearly rent of forty shillings to Dawson, and the rather bizarre condition of a loaf of double-refined sugar weighing six pounds to be handed over each Christmas (unsurprisingly this was never paid, nor sought out).
Dawson was originally from Dawson’s Bridge, Co Derry but moved to Dublin to further his career, where he became a high-ranking civil servant based in Dublin Castle and MP for Wicklow borough (apparently while living in the city he kept his evenings full too by managing a network of spies working to undermine Catholic priests; well before they started doing it for themselves).
In Dublin Dawson built the Mansion House as his private residence in the Queen Anne style. It was quite an unusual move in a quintessentially Georgian city. But such was the Tory from Derry’s love for the ruling monarch he went ahead with a design type that artist Osbert Lancaster said ‘would be more rational and more just to call Wren… few monarchs have displayed less interest in architecture than that monarch’.
Dawson bought a tract of land to the east of St Stephen’s Green in 1705 and drained the marshy ground and laid out a straight road running parallel to Grafton Street, unabashedly naming it after himself; Duke Street and Anne Street soon followed as part of his urban plan. After the development flurry Dawson was called back to take over the family estate in his home county, and he promptly offered the house to Dublin City Assembly on the proviso he would build an extra room that could be used for civic receptions – the now famous Oak room. It’s fitting the man originally from the county of oaks would depart on such a note.
When the First Citizen of the city duly took residence in the house he was given an annuity of £500 sterling each year for entertainment purposes, along with 10,000 oysters from the civic oyster beds. It’s a pity the Mayor could not get hold of Thackeray in order to lubricate his quill with claret-soused kindness and salt his tongue with Dublin Bay’s finest. The great English writer was not impressed by the Mansion House when his eyes fell upon it. In his essay ‘A Summer Day in Dublin’ from ‘The Irish Sketch Book’ (published in1843) he noted:
“I had just passed his lordship’s mansion in Dawson Street, – a queer old dirty brick-house, with dumpy urns at each extremity, and looking as if a storey of it had been cut off – a rassée-house. Close at hand, and peering over a paling, is a statue of our blessed sovereign George II. How absurd these pompous images look, of defunct majesties, for whom no breathing soul cares a halfpenny!”
He certainly was right on the second point. From reading his travelogues, the ‘Vanity Fair’ scribbler could be dyspeptic at the best of times, and the Queen Anne style had fallen thumpingly out of fashion by that stage of the 19thcentury – Victorian buildings were vogue – and nothing fell harder from Thackery’s pen than that which was not in fashion.
Many original features of the Mansion House remain, the two main staircases for example; quite a feat for a house now in the foothills of its fourth century (it’s worth noting the city of London did not build a mansion house until thirty years after Dublin). Naturally there has been changes to the likes of the Supper Room, the Oak Room, the Lord Mayor’s Garden, and the surrounding area of the house. For indepth details of changes made (and the many mooted) throughout its history it is worth consulting the impressive ‘The Mansion House Dublin – 300 years of history and hospitality’ by Dublin City Council for a rich account and meticulous itinerary of this Dublin landmark. Some of the more significant additions or alterations to the house have played a part in Ireland’s storied past. The Round Room stands out for one. It was built beside the Mansion House, on part of the former bowling green, in just six weeks for the visit of King George VI in 1821 (the roof atop the Round Room was a temporary one, such was the builder’s haste; a permanent one was put in place three years later).
This same room would go on to hold the meeting of the first Dáil on 21 January 1919, which is so memorably captured in Tom Ryan’s painting which now hangs above the entrance to the Dáil chamber. What goes around comes around in the Round Room it seems, which John Croker Wilson described as: ‘the circular court of a Moorish palace open to the sky: the battlements were a gallery walled with ladies, music and a company of halberdiers in Spanish dresses of light blue silk, as a guard of honour to the king.’
The Round Room was also scene to many a Lord Mayor’s Ball down the years, and the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1861 had ‘The Irish Times’ praising the House Steward Mr McCleaverty whose arrangements were ‘so perfect that although there were over 100 persons present, no inconvenience resulted to the guests’. Things must have become somewhat boisterous however, and maybe even out of hand (although these details were sadly not reported) as the same newspaper carried a number of advertisements looking for valuable property lost at the ball. One offered a reward ‘if found by a poor person’. If such a poor beggar had chanced upon an expensive bracelet or a purse stuffed with coins, I can’t imagine they would have handed them in. Not for all the oysters in Dublin Bay.
This year sees the centenary of the death of Antonio Sant’Elia, who is considered one of the finest draftsmen in the history of architecture.
Yet few of his plans were ever built, which is quite an anomaly considering the influence and quality of the drawings made by the Italian. A similar comparison would be if the songs of George Gershwin or Cole Porter had never been performed; Sant’Elia’s sketchbook is like the Great American Songbook, unsung.
Born in Como and a builder by trade, Sant’Elia became an integral part of the Futurist movement in Italy.
Italian writer and poet Filippo Marinetti was the ideological founder of Futurism, publishing his manifesto for the movement in Paris newspaper Le Figaro in 1909: “For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards”. The artistic movement rejected traditional forms and embraced the revolutionary possibility that technology could bring to culture, cities, and modern living.
Marinetti’s words were bricks for a modernism that he wished others would build and the ideas quickly took hold in his homeland, with painters, sculptors, musicians and architects such as Mario Chiattone and Sant’ Elia soon adapting them into their work.
(Futurist ideas travelled as far as Russia, influencing Mayakovsky and Malevich, among others. But through time the movement lost all credibility when Marinetti began to couple Fascism with the movement. He became a vocal supporter of Mussolini, and continued to glorify the idea of war, releasing a collection of poems in 1915 called ‘War the Only Hygiene of the World’.)
Sant’Elia opened a design office with Chiattone in Milan in 1912, where he created his bold and vivid sketches that would have a profound influence on Modernism. In the heart of a bustling metropolis that was undergoing major industrial and population growth, Sant’Elia worked on his grand design for a futurist city, Citta Nuova (New City), made up of monolithic and monumental skyscrapers with bridges and walkways that cut across the sky. He wanted the modern city to be a living, functioning organism; built with dynamism, speed, straight lines, and with the man and machine at its heart. His urban vision was pure cinematic projection. Although people do not feature in his drawings to give a sense of scale or society (“Futurist architecture . . . is not an arid combination of practicality and utility, but remains art, that is, synthesis and expression”, he wrote), many of the designs give a feeling of activity and existence. We can imagine the commotion among the calm construction.
In fact when one looks closely at the drawings, they appear almost too beautiful, (itals) too perfect. And if they are too perfect for the eye to behold, then what do the designs mean to the engineer, who has to move the imagination of the page towards the reality of the physical rule? Nevertheless, the modern world has come close, or at least tried to, in replicating Sant’Elia’s ideas – see Helmut Jahn’s James R. Thompson Centre in Chicago and the Marriott Marquis hotel by John Portman (both built in the 1980s), for example.
In 1914 a manifesto titled Futurist Architecture was published and attributed to Sant’Elia – it detailed an architecture of fantastic possibilities. The short credo has its share of abstract, jargonistic writing, but for its time it was an important document outlining a new world of architecture, where the city is dynamic, modern and, consequently, huge. Streets and squares were to be done away with; our space was to be lifted skywards instead.
To get a flavour of its radicalism, it is worth quoting some of the declarations in full.
‘We must invent and rebuild our Futurist city like an immense and tumultuous shipyard, active, mobile, and everywhere dynamic, and the Futurist house like a gigantic machine.’
‘We feel that we are no longer the men of the cathedrals and ancient moot halls, but men of the Grand Hotels, railroad stations, giant roads, colossal harbors, covered markets, glittering arcades, reconstruction areas, and salutary slum clearances’.
In this context, it is easy to understand how Sant’Elia’s drawings, penned on small surfaces but with layers of detail, influenced the future cinematic worlds of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; both directors dreamed of future cities in the sky too.
Hundreds of Sant’Elia’s drawings survive and many can be viewed at Pinacoteca, Como’s art gallery. In historical terms, he was the legitimate father of Futurism, however he did not live long enough to see the movement become bastardised in its sordid relationship with Fascism. With a strong sense of patriotism (fighting for one’s coutry was still viewed with naive romanticism in Sant’Elia’s day), he joined the army as Italy entered the First World War in 1915, and was killed in battle in October the following year.
A hundred years on since his death, our buildings have yet to catch up with him.
An impressive lady, the Princess Louise. She discretely catches your eye as you pass on a relatively drab stretch of High Holborn, where you will find that her beauty lies within, rather than without.
The exterior is a paint-by-numbers pub, but inside is where all the magic and charm happens. Here we have the remnants of Victorian craftsmanship at its finest: beautifully cut and gilded mirrors (Richard Morris of Kennington); default atmosphere, whatever the time of day, from the gentle gloaming of tulip and snowdrop-shaped lights. Add in some tasteful abstract tile work, detailed and decorated borders, and the Princess Louise may as well whisper in your ear to stop a while.
The elongated, circular dark-oak bar cleverly runs the punters’ energy around both sides of the house, creating a smart circuit of comfort. As a result, the staff are like buses when you are looking for a refill – you always knows one should be along shortly.
The Princess Louise does another smart thing: it divides and conquers. The front and back of the pub are opened up, allowing for larger groups to gather and sup, while a series of snugs feature on both sides of the bar. One always feels connected to the place, wherever you may be sitting, yet the snugs allow enough detachment so that you will never blow a fuse when it gets very busy (which can always be the case at knocking-off time for nearby workers).
The great writer (and legendary imbiber) Ian Nairn said that any long bar implies serious drinking and the Princess Louise has lots of leg. But this is a sturdy, meaty leg, not some dainty Victorian ‘church-bell’ flashing glimpses of garter. This is a pub that pumps its legs all day, every day, and is always sensitive and alive to performance, which makes it most pleasing on the eye. My favourite feature is the tall clock-tower in the middle of the bar, where time literally stands still. Here, it is always noon. High noon in High Holborn, with high praise attached.
When the renowned architecture writer and broadcaster Ian Nairn visited Derry more than fifty years ago, the title of his essay was both concise and reflective of his ever-present pragmatism. ‘Proud Derry’ was the summation of his feature on the North’s second city, written in December 1961 for ‘The Listener’ magazine; a series then collected and updated several years later in a volume called ‘Britain’s Changing Towns’.
Much of Nairn’s work has long been out of print but thankfully this anthology is available again in a beautiful copy published by Notting Hill Editions. Something resembling a Nairn revival is afoot as well, with a book on the irrepressible writer recently released by Gillian Darley and David McKie (Words In Place), while BBC4 ran a programme on his life on 20 February.
Nairn’s ruminations on Derry are wonderful to read. He must have felt comfortable there: Nairn did not suffer fools and was always direct in his manner and writing. When he visited a place, he not only studied the bricks and mortar surrounding him, but he concerned himself with the heartbeat of somewhere too, visiting the local shops and pubs and getting to know local people. How else could he have come up with this nugget about an economically choked Derry, which nevertheless was continuing to breathe with some degree of dignity: ‘If there were only rags to wear (here), they would be worn with a swagger’.
Nairn wasn’t being blithely flippant in writing this. He understood the turbulent history and tough topography of Derry – a border location suffering from the effects of partition; a divided community; a port town hit hard by the shipyard closure in 1924; and a place long forgotten by London, despite its strong Plantation links and the original idea of Derry being a ‘little-London-in-Ulster’. In his essay, Nairn gives the powerbrokers an angry blast of his horn: ‘if the experts at the Treasury were forced to live in Derryfor six months to experience the exact result of their abstract fiddlings with the Bank Rate, it might be a very good thing’. A similar charge could easily be made today, as London-centric politicians and financial analysts trumpet a UK-wide recovery, which in reality seems to have stalled outside Watford.
Despite his acknowledgement of Derry’s many problems in 1961 – high unemployment, lack of investment, its remote location, and a frosty relationship with its privileged cousin Belfast (what has changed, you may ask?) – the place entersNairn’s imagination, describing it as ‘one of the most unexpected and paradoxical of our cities. For every hundred Englishmen who know York and Chester, how many know Derry?’
It is significant that Nairn places a pre-Troubles Derry firmly within the UK (our city) yet never reverts to the Anglicised title ofLondonderry. Instead, his recognition of Derry’s English character is more nuanced: he sees it in buildings such as St Columba’s Church, with its ‘cockney’ details which ‘hammers home the London connexion’. Other buildings and places he notes with appreciation include Bishop’s Gate (‘compact, tough design’), the ‘suavely done’ Walker’s Column (which was permanently damaged by an IRA bomb in 1972) and the residential St Columb’s Wells, marked out for how a city can work for people first and foremost; keeping social patterns intact, or as Nairn wanted, ‘the crazy human touch’.
Nairn coined the term ‘subtopia’ when he made his first splash in the 1950s with the ‘Architectural Review’ in a special issue titled ‘Outrage’, in which he railed against the ‘steamrolling of plane into one mediocre pattern’. Pugnacious from the outset, he started writing for the Observer, Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times, with his searing prose shaking the town-planning establishment with articles such as ‘Stop The Architects Now’. It is little wonder that he is not widely read by architects and that this book is his first to be in print since the 1980s. Along with his vivacious, and frequently funny writing, his outsider status is also probably the core of Nairn’s appeal: no architectural training, no public school, no Oxbridge. He looked at and recorded this art form (and profession) with new and uninhibited eyes. Nairn wanted preservation on the one hand yes, but engaging modern architecture too, while reputations meant little to him, as he travelled from place to place by train or in his tiny convertible Morris Minor.
Getting back to his essay on Derry, Great James Street also suitably impressed him, as did Clarendon Street (‘elegant and stately as anything in Dublin’) with their buildings decorated with distinctive doorcase and fanlight. However, he reserved his highest praise for Derry’s Court House, ‘Derry’s best Georgian building’, he writes, marking out the white sandstone brought locally from Dungiven to build it in 1817.
Nairn was an enthusiastic imbiber and, although the habit was eventually his undoing – he died of cirrhosis of the liver aged only 53 – he was a solid believer in the role the pub had to play in society; just as important to the local fabric as the corner shop, the local bank branch or the butchers. A pub is a place ‘to shake off loneliness without being in anyone’s company’ was his melancholically, typically poetic judgment. Sadly his thirst was not sated in Derry, with Nairn bemoaning the lack of pub decoration compared to Belfast (particular appreciation is given to the Crown Bar) and the problem is little rectified today, had he the opportunity to visit, with few pubs giving little sense of history. In fact, a few of them feel like they’ve been cobbled together over the course of a weekend. Another great void in the city is the long-departed Café Nobile on the Strand Road, a place that surprises Nairn with its ‘high-backed dark wooden benches and marble-topped tables’.
Nairn wrote about the lack of many new buildings to look at in Derry in 1961, however he does give reference to Altnagelvin Hospital (designed by Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall, creators of the original Gatwick Airport Terminal). He recommends that the building is best seen coming from Belfast, with his usual tuneful phrasing: ‘the eastern front, square-on in the morning sun fixes you with its complicated skip of balconies as a good jazz rhythm would…’
Summing up, Nairn captured the strong soul of Derry and how its practical problems forged much of what is likeable about the place: it is a town displaying something approaching good grace in the face of strong adversity. It’s worth quoting him in full here: ‘a less proud place would have had its spirit broken under its crippling topographical disadvantage. Derry needs help, and its pride is not the false variety that would scorn assistance.’
Nairn returned to Derry in 1967 to find that little had changed although he does refer to the developments in ‘Irishtown’ (the Bogside as its better known) and the large rebuilding operation, taking place at the time.
The final thought of his essay proved he was no great reader of the political wind blowing round the buildings he was weighing up: ‘the tension has lessened: the six and twenty-six counties may have begun a slow growing-together.’ Nairn seemed blissfully unaware how the system of gerrymandering was rotting the heart of the city at the time. In his defence, considering how quickly the Troubles erupted, he was not the only observer caught on the back foot and any foundations of fraternity Nairnhad in ‘67 would depressingly crumble over the coming years. But if he was alive and returned to Derry today, one would hope that he could see some of the invisible scaffolding helping the Maiden City get up off its knees, in order to stand tall once more.
You could say that god got his own back on me somewhat. The other day I had been travelling on a plane, train and auto-mobile journey, so for reading material I had finally gotten started on ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins. The book is well written and vividly engaging: it’s accessible and well-informed and it is also surprisingly funny for such an abstract subject.
The last laugh was not mine however.
On the last leg of the epic trip, the bus broke down due to an over-heating engine. We were in the middle of nowhere. It was wintry, desolate and pitch black outside. Inside the bus, there was no power and consequently no reading light. So I had to close my book and look at the stars.
And darkness was upon the face of the deep.
The moment made me think of Dostoyevsky’s line in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ too:
It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.
My Recent Articles
Enjoying mystery, crime and suspense in all media
Reading classics and hard books, and spouting rhubarb about them
Writer and multimedia journalist
Virtual meets real adventures in digital heritage, culture, community and place
An archaeologist finds herself writing fiction — what stories will she unearth?
A Historic England Blog
scríobh | eat | sleep
Maria Johnston, Poetry Critic
Exploring the world of heritage, art and culture
A blog on pub crawling, and beer generally, in London
Boxing News & Opinion
Images of People Photoblog
Musings from the North Country