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November 06, 2004


Francis Morrone writes:

Dear Blowhards,

I run hot and cold (well, mostly cold) on Susan Sontag. For hifalutin highbrow know-it-all richly allusive essay-writing I'll take Guy Davenport or Hugh Kenner most any day. But I do admire Sontag's essay "Against Interpretation," which appeared back in the sixties in Evergreen Review (remember that?). In this essay, she champions

criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art. This seems even harder to do than formal analysis. Some of Manny Farber's film criticism, Dorothy Van Ghent's essay "The Dickens World: A View from Todgers'," Randall Jarrell's essay on Walt Whitman are among the rare examples of what I mean. These are essays which reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it.

Hear, hear! I love Manny Farber; I adore Randall Jarrell. I like to think I've learned more from Jarrell than from any other writer. If that's so far unevident in my several hundred pieces of published writing, put it down to the fact that Jarrell was a genius and I am--as Johnny Damon likes to say of himself--an idiot.

In architecture, there is one critic who could have been on Sontag's list. That's Ian Nairn.

Not too many Americans of today know the name. Nairn died in 1983, at the tender age of 53. He was British. His writings appeared in Architectural Review and--what made him briefly famous--in the Daily Telegraph, the Observer, and the Sunday Times, for each of which in turn he served as architecture critic.

Like many of the best commentators on architecture and urbanism, he had no formal background in the subject. He was trained neither as an architect nor as an architectural historian. Rather, like our man Nikos Salingaros, he was a mathematician. He also flew airplanes, both for the R.A.F. and for fun. The bio on one of his books says "By temperament he is much happier among working journalists than professional men, and lists flying and pubs--the only kind of building he would like to design--among his hobbies."

I did not hear of Nairn until a year after he died. It was 1984, and my wife and I were in London. We stayed in the home of friends--he an architect, she a bookseller--who handed us a copy of a 1966 guidebook called Nairn's London. I began to read; rapture ensued. And London came to life.

Nairn was a Modernist. So don't think I fell in love with him because he echoed my own sometimes fogeyish views. I have never cared for critics whom I agree with. No, it was Nairn's way of going at things--the way, as Sontag might have put it, he could "reveal the sensuous surface" of things.

Nairn's London is a quirky guidebook to London buildings. It is utterly useless for getting around the city. It contains no maps, but rather keys its entries to the A to Z--which makes for some cumbersome touring. (The best practical and comprehensive guide to London buildings is Jones and Woodward's Guide to the Architecture of London, which Sir John Summerson described as "Not so much a book as a device for the instant delivery of information about every building in London worth the turn of a head." Others may find the London volumes in Pevsner's Buildings of England useful. Apropos of that, Ian Nairn wrote the Surrey and the Sussex volumes in Pevsner's series--and their difference in tone from Pevsner's own volumes is almost comical. I might also point out that Nairn's wife, Judy, is a distinguished architectural historian who also worked on the Pevsner series.)

With Nairn's London you know right from the dedication page that you're in for a ride: "To John Nash, who provided so much of the material." (Elsewhere Nairn says: "If there is a generalized sense of the capital--bright lights, red buses, swirling traffic--it is almost entirely due to the genius of Nash....he was every inch a cockney: tolerant, shrewd, cheerfully vulgar and with a remarkable eye for quick profit.") Or the preface: "In spite of everything, London contains many more and more varied masterpieces than Rome or Paris, just as the National Gallery can produce more and more varied excitements than the Louvre or the Vatican galleries. Nothing will ever quite fit to the accepted waves of Continental influence; and the true Londoner will never quite fit in any pattern at all, even an English one." (It may be arguable whether the "true Londoner" as recognized in 1966 even exists in 2004.)

This also from the preface:

Everything in the book is accessible. Locked churches are out unless the keys are freely given. The vicar's wife of one Middlesex church (not in the guide) refused to let me in even after I had explained my harmless purpose. "The plausible ones are always the worst," she said. This kind of experience is subhuman, and I have no wish to subject readers to it.

Mark 1984 as the year in which "subhuman" became my own favorite term of opprobrium.

The preface concludes:

I just don't believe in the difference between high- and lowbrow, 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 recognize 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.

In his introduction Nairn laments London's loss of character. (It's funny about such lamentations that one might use precisely the same words in 2004 as were used forty years ago.) But he concludes:

My forecast may be too pessimistic: I hope so. I have lived in London for ten years and perhaps I am punch-drunk from pompous phrases in the City and neighing banalities in Chelsea. Certainly, one evening in a good cockney pub and the whole preposterous bunch of unspeakables floats off down the Thames to the Northern Outfall Sewer. But what London desperately needs is a new Nash, a person with stature enough to see the city as a whole and humanity enough to see that it cannot possibly rediscover itself through grand gestures and centralization, but only through a multiplication of idiosyncratic and wildly different characters. Long live the thousand villages; long live the tolerant cockney spirit that allows them to coexist. London burnt in 1940 for the sake of tolerance, and the price was well worth it.

Or as the jacket copy (which had to have been written by Nairn) says: "To like Hawksmoor and be indifferent to Butterfield, to enjoy the East End and dislike Weybridge, to appreciate only the monumental, or the pretty, or the grimy--all these are impairments, amputations of London's amazing variety."

Well, you can see I have a problem here. I want to quote the whole book. I won't. Buy it and go to London. In 1988, Peter Gasson provided a wonderful service. He arranged for Penguin to reissue Nairn's London, with his unobtrusive footnotes informing us of the changes that had taken place since the original 1966 publication of the book. Alas, as many changes have taken place since 1988 as between 1966 and 1988. Yet a new edition of the book has come out. But it's a disappointment. It jettisons Gasson's helpful notes, substituting an introduction by Roger Ebert--yes, that Roger Ebert, who turns out to be a Nairn fan. (Ebert, by the way, wrote a not-at-all-bad book called The Perfect London Walk.)

Before Jane Jacobs, before James Howard Kunstler, before David Sucher, there was Ian Nairn. Much of what's best in his writings is his sensitivity to streets, to ensembles, to juxtapositions, to places--the whole panoply of what we call urbanism. And Nairn is, more than any architecture critic I've ever read, attuned to and ready to describe how places affect all the five senses. I noted above that he started out in the fifties at Architectural Review. The urbanism buffs out there will get right away what that means. For Nairn was thick in the townscape movement. That's the bit that really prefigures Jacobs/Kunstler/Sucher. The central figure in townscape was Gordon Cullen, who was Nairn's friend. Nairn himself wrote several books espousing the townscape agenda. (Architectural Review, according to one historian, coined the term "townscape" in 1949.) These books grew out of Nairn's AR articles, and bore such titles as the Kunstlerian Outrage (1955), Counter Attack (1957), and Your England Revisited (1964). (Nairn's writings truly help to define that English period "between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP.") In 1965, Random House published Nairn's The American Landscape. When he was 29, he received a Rockefeller Foundation grant that enabled him to make a 10,000-mile journey through the U.S. He was enchanted by the Texas Panhandle, and thought Dallas was a wonderful city. Wayne Andrews, in his review of Nairn's book in the New York Times (3/7/1965), noted that he knew no New Yorker who had actually been to Tyrone, New Mexico. "We sniff today," Andrews said, "at the name of Bertram Goodhue." (What an amazing thing to read in 2004, when many people, including I, have unbounded admiration for Goodhue.) Nairn's appreciation of that mining town may have helped the Goodhue revival. (Goodhue laid out the town.) While there is much that Nairn has in common with Jane Jacobs (whose Death and Life came out in 1961), I am amused by their conflicting responses to Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square. When Jacobs looked around from within the square, she noted the impressive variety of uses to which the surrounding buildings had been put. There were clubs, galleries, old houses and new apartments, office buildings, shops, a church, a public library, a restaurant, and so on. The buildings varied tremendously in height, age, and style. She noticed that many people used the square, for a wide variety of purposes, including sitting and talking, sitting and reading, dog walking, sunning themselves, meeting people, playing with children, and so on. This spot, she felt, was everything a city should be. It was popular, diverse, interesting, handsome, and safe. It had both openness and density. It was exactly the sort of place that, ca. 1960, planners found chaotic. To Jacobs, "Rittenhouse Square is busy fairly continuously for the same basic reasons that a lively sidewalk is used continuously: because of functional physical diversity among adjacent uses, and hence diversity among adjacent uses, and hence diversity among users and their schedules." (When some years ago I wrote a book on Philadelphia, I wished to quote that sentence plus the sentence that follows it in Death and Life; by eliminating one sentence, I saved the $250 Random House wanted me to pay them for the privilege of quoting one of their books. I am all for strict copyright, but sheeesh.) Nairn saw it differently: "Rittenhouse Square...for all its leafiness, has so much pointless and formless variety to the buildings around it (from four to forty stories) that it ceases to read as a square at all. It has become a pedestrian traffic circle: you can never feel happy in it."

For once, Nairn was dead wrong: I feel happy every time I am in Rittenhouse Square.

They clashed again over Philadelphia's Washington Square. Now a high-rent area, in the early sixties it was pretty seedy. An insufficient diversity of uses, said Jacobs, had turned Washington Square into "Philadelphia's pervert park." For Nairn, it was better than Rittenhouse Square: "the buildings are about the same height, the enclosure is preserved, the square remains a square. There may be less light and fewer trees, but it remains more of an oasis."

Vive la différence.

Nairn's Paris (1968) is also a lovely book. Let me quote just one thing. This is Nairn on one of my favorite things in the world, the oft-derided Pont Alexandre III:

Unflawed delight from end to end. It was built at the time of the Grand and Petit Palais; a single openwork iron arch, engineering of the utmost elegance. And then it was ornamented with the prettiest and most pert detail in the whole of Paris: momentous swags along the front of the arch, circumstantial sprays of lamps above, columns at either end, green nymphs flourishing a cartouche in the centre. The whole thing is carried to the limit of mock pomposity, like Offenbach satirizing a romantic situation yet at the same time providing a beautifully tender melody for the lovers. It is one of the world's truly civilized structures: sophisticated, self-mocking, humorous, yet never for a moment abandoning true feeling.

If that doesn't make you want to rush out and buy a ticket for Paris, nothing will. There is a handful of great architecture critics--Gavin Stamp, Lewis Mumford, Nikos Salingaros--who can take a building apart in emotional terms and tell us how it works. But I know of no other writer on architecture who could have written that Offenbach sentence.

Nairn's Paris, alas, is out of print.

In their book Collage City, which critiques a variety of urbanistic theories, Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter lamented that townscape degenerated into "an undue preoccupation with beer and yachting." I'm hard-pressed to see how such preoccupations could ever be undue. That said, I don't know what Nairn died from, though I've heard insinuations that it may have been related undue preoccupation with beer. I hope not. For among other things, his commentary on beer, always contained within his architectural commentary, was an influence on the Campaign for Real Ale, which saved British beer and provided a model for the microbrew and craft-brew revolution in America. For my part, I see beer and buildings as inseparable preoccupations. But that's another posting.

Not much about Nairn on the Web. It's the damned frustrating thing about the Web that writers who just predated the technology can be pretty much lost. Here's one thing. Other than that, you're stuck with the pay-through-the-nose ProQuest or the archives of the British papers. The books do pop up, though. Check the usual, ABE, Bibliofind, etc.

Nairn was part of a British tradition of empirical, tolerant, non-argumentative, keenly-alert-to-life's-small-pleasures thought that is exemplified by--indeed defined by--the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, about whom you can read here.



posted by Francis at November 6, 2004


I have to admit that I'd never heard of Nairn, but he sounds like just the sort of thing I'd like to read.

The comparison to Randall Jarrell is enough to make me want to track him down. Jarrell's piece on Frost is to me a sort of Platonic ideal of literary criticism; anything that approaches it is worth my time.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on November 6, 2004 09:25 PM

Lovely, many thanks. I confess that I'm completely unfamiliar with Nairn's writing. You've got me looking superforward to catching up with him. I thought I was doing pretty well, for an amateur anyway, by finding and enjoying John Betjeman and Sir John Summerson, but I've obviously got a lot yet to learn. Lovely evocations of city pleasures too, from both you and your quotees. Beer and cities ... That great Jane Jacobs passage about Rittenhouse Square ... What it's all about, eh?

Hey, there's a terrific exhibit of Manny Farber's paintings out at PS1 in Queens. Here's the webpage about the show. I love his paintings as much as I love his movie criticism, and this show has some work I wasn't familiar with. A treat, and at PS1 until mid-January.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 7, 2004 12:35 AM

Based on this wonderful post Mr. Nairn seems like a very worthwhile individual indeed. But I really must take exception to the quote about there being no difference between high and low. It's just not so. A well made sculptural object or a well written/sung song or a well built building, if it is low (a primitive African mask, Hound Dog, a warehouse) is not equal to a Michelangelo a Schubert a cathedral. High takes us high. Low has other contributions to make but it can't take us high -- that's why it's low; no matter what our demented age says!

Posted by: ricpic on November 8, 2004 04:17 PM

Ricpic, I agree with you. But I think the salient distinction in the high-low debate is not between one kind of art and another, but between Michelangelo and not-Michelangelo, if you know what I mean. And Nairn would agree. Manny Farber made the wonderful distinction between "White Elephant Art" and "Termite Art." A work does not attain quality because it positions itself within a certain genre. It attains quality by...attaining quality. Thus, there are movies that proclaim themselves "high art." And some of those movies are, in fact, great art (e.g. "Children of Paradise"). But some of them are not as good as, say, the films of Edgar G. Ulmer.

Put another way, good "low art" is better than bad "high art." But good "high art" is better than good "low art."

Would you disagree with that?

Posted by: Francis Morrone on November 8, 2004 04:31 PM

"But good "high art" is better than good "low art.""

Just butting in for a sec. And wondering, hmmm. Do you think so? I guess my feeling tends to be that too many variables come into play to be too awfully definite about such things. An example: Is "Ulysses" greater than one of Westlake's "Parker" novels? Well, maybe. But then Westlake probably wrote 30 novels in the time it took Joyce to write one. So maybe the fairer comparison would really be between "Ulysses" and 30 Westlake novels. Plus, well, most days I for one would simply rather read a Westlake than look at "Ulysses" again. Does Westlake get credit or demerits in this comparison for making something (many things, really) that's appealing and companionable? How heavily do we rate "appealing" and "companionable" on the scale of things? Does "Ulysses" get demerits or props (I think that's the term kids use) for being difficult? How about deep? And to what extent does it depend on your mood, or my mood? Too much high-cult can put me in a powerful mood for some low-cult, and vice-versa.

I dunno, it seems to me that a lot of cross-category ranking-comparisons are awfully hard to make, except when the facts are really, really clear: forgettable pop tune vs. accepted symphonic masterwork, for instance. In between, so many other elements come into play ... But then I'm not much for ranking anyway.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 8, 2004 06:33 PM

Mr. Morrone,

Sorry for this late reply. Away for two days.

"...good 'low art' is better than bad 'high art.' But good 'high art' is better than good 'low art.' "

Yes, I agree. That's it in a nutshell.

Posted by: ricpic on November 10, 2004 10:07 PM

I imagine his books will be out of print by now. They are, however, available in the Guildhall public library, which is in the Guildhall, near the Barbican. Obviously the first place to look for any out-of-print book about London.

For a really comprehensive guide to London architecture you need to look at the magisterial series of guides by Pevsner, but Nairn is good because he's idiosyncratic and with a good turn of phrase (unlike that one).

By the way, talking of guidebooks - it was the German writer Baedekker who persuaded the authorities to stick numbers on bus routes back in the 1890s - they didn't have them before them. Only you, me and Michael Caine know that.

Posted by: Glyn on November 19, 2004 02:17 PM

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