A celebration of Ian Nairn with Travis Elborough
‘Without any doubt, London is one of the best cities in the world for modern architecture. But it is also one of the biggest cities in the world, and it does not make a display of its best things. A visitor looking for new buildings in the City and the West End might well be justified in turning away with a shudder. Yet delightful things may be waiting for him in Lewisham or St. Albans.’ Ian Nairn, from the ‘Foreword’ to Modern Buildings in London. As one of the few architectural critics to eschew purely aesthetic modes of analysis, Ian Nairn’s timeless books on modern urban cities have been hailed as some of the most significant writing about contemporary Britain, while also being praised as alternative ‘guidebooks’ for curious travellers. First published in 1964, Modern Buildings in London celebrates the character of buildings that were immediately recognisable as ‘modern’ in 1964, many of which were not the part of the well-known landscape of London but instead were gems that Nairn stumbled across. Written ‘by a layman for laymen’, Nairn’s take on modern design includes classic buildings such as the Barbican, the former BBC Television Centre and the Penguin Pool at Regent’s Park Zoo as well as schools, old timber yards, ambulance stations, car parks and even care homes.
Ian Nairn (1930-1983) was a British architectural critic and topographer who coined the term ‘subtopia’ for the areas around cities that had in his view been failed by urban planning, losing their individuality and spirit of place. In the 1960s he contributed to the volumes on Surrey and Sussex in Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England series and published a number of his own books, including Nairn’s Paris and Nairn’s Towns, both published by Notting Hill Editions.
Travis Elborough is a regular contributor to the Observer and the Guardian but has written for the Times, Sunday Times, New Statesman, the Oldie, TATE etc., BBC History magazine and Kinfolk among others and frequently appears on BBC Radio 4 and Five Live.
He has survived interviewing the former (and notoriously bibulous) Dr Who Tom Baker in a pub, lectured on ‘retro’ culture and appeared at various literary and music festivals, including Latitude and Green Man, and on a panel discussing Hedonism at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London with a burlesque dancer and the late artist dandy Sebastian Horsley.
Throughout August 2011, he was the guest historian on Russell Kane’s Whistle-Stop Tour, a six-part series for BBC Radio 2.
His essay on ‘Gonzo’ journalism graces the current British edition of Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He has contributed interviews with J.G. Ballard to the 2006 editions of ‘The Drowned World’, and ‘Empire of the Sun’. His liner notes can be found on the rear sleeve of 2012’s ‘Words and Music by Saint Etienne‘.
With Bob Stanley from Saint Etienne, he also co-wrote the script for How We Used to Live, a BFI archive film directed by Paul Kelly, and premiered at the 2013 London Film Festival.