Monday, July 20, 2009

Two Iains

Two people exercise a distant yet strong guiding hand on my thoughts and observations about the real subject of this blog: A sense of place.

Both are named Iain.

The first is dead. The articles written for the London Observer each Sunday by Iain Nairn (1930-83) were my introduction into architectural criticism. Nairn was a controversial figure and an outstanding influence. His best writing has lasted and he coined the term "Subtopia" for symptoms arising from post-war architecture and especially town planning, one which has stood the test of time. He made me aware of the dangers of the blandness of much post-war building and the desire to impose rather than to appreciate. Nairn demonstrated that there are tangible qualities associated with a 'place' which are significant and that these give meaning to our lives.

In the rush to re-build and sweep away something was lost and quite early on, Nairn put those losses into words, as explained here:

"In June 1955, the Architectural Review published a special issue, written by the brilliant architecture critic Ian Nairn, then just 25, which it titled Outrage. The issue documents the spread of what the AR calls Subtopia - a compound of suburb and utopia - across Britain. "Subtopia," Nairn writes, "is the annihilation of the difference by attempting to make one type of scenery standard for town, suburb, countryside and wild." The AR documents this with great thoroughness. Everything about the issue - the use of drawings and different coloured papers, the typography - glows with visual intelligence. Nairn shows scores of photographs of street lamps, arterial roads, overhead wires, street advertising and bungled attempts at "municipal rustic". He undertakes a 400-mile car journey from Southampton to Carlisle, producing a written commentary supported by pictures of everything he sees, then switches his attention to the Scottish Highlands, where he looks at housing, roads, tourism, hydro-electricity. The issue ends with a manifesto about what needs to be done aimed at the man in the street, which sets out some precepts ("The site's the thing, not a set of rules, and your eye's the thing, not the textbook") and offers a comprehensive list of malpractices to watch out for ("Has the town lost its centre to the car park? Or the open square to a wired-in public garden?").

What is remarkable about Outrage is its controlled anger and passion. The purpose of criticism here is to force open people's eyes, to change opinion and make a difference. The writer has a view of Subtopia grounded in a philosophical awareness of what it signifies for the person who lives inside it: "Insensible to the meaning of civilization on the one side and, on the other, ignorant of the well-spring of his own being, he is removing the sharp edge from his own life, exchanging individual feeling for mass experience in a voluntary enslavement far more restrictive and permanent than the feudal system." The issue became a book, and it's clear from the many reviews quoted on the cover that it received a level of attention in the papers that a design magazine initiative would never be granted today. "Sameness can become a most virulent form of ugliness," writes The Observer. "If we are not shocked into recognising it in time, we shall ourselves become subtopians, sub-humans, no longer individuals but for ever members of a herd."

To produce a scorching critique like this you need profound idealism and a shared sense of what matters, and we have lost this now. Much of what Nairn and the AR feared came to pass in spite of their protests. In their terms, the visual environment of Britain was carelessly ruined. Subtopia - sprawl, if you prefer - continues to throw a dull blanket of sameness over everything in its path. Design and its offshoot, branding, were instrumental in stamping this uniformity on to British high streets to a degree that Nairn, who died in 1983, can scarcely have imagined. Many people find it harder to feel such a keen sense of outrage today because they have ceased to believe that it's likely to have much effect. What counts is to find ways of accommodating things as they are and of making whatever practical interventions you can lever, though these aren't expected to bring about fundamental change. In architectural circles, the term "post-critical" has gained currency as a way of describing some younger architects' acceptance of the prevailing social, economic and cultural reality. In a recent issue of Harvard Design Magazine, Reinhold Martin notes that this form of architecture is committed to "an affect-driven, nonoppositional, nonresistant, nondissenting and therefore nonutopian form of architectural production"."

Rick Poynor writing in ICON magazine online March 2006

A short Wikipedia entry exists for Nairn. Unfortunately I cannot track down an image of him.

The second Iain is very much alive and is embroiled with his local Borough Council in London over his recently published book Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report. Mr Sinclair was not permitted to launch his work on premises owned by Hackney Council for reasons the Council makes unclear.

Sinclair is part a movement dubbed 'psychogeography'; this is a rich mixture of overlays which disciples gather up from strolling through the landscape of urban and suburban spaces, particularly London, but obviously might be applicable to many other cities. It is an appreciation of the signs of activity left to us by the passage of time, and more especially, people and events which are significantly present and blended together by the action of our own participation.

Sinclair is a poet foremost; Nairn was a sometimes rough pragmatist. Yet both are inspired by uncovering the origins of what we are tempted to believe is 'ordinary life' and show us in different, yet complementary ways, that we need to think about that phrase and its interpretations.

Iain Sinclair


Anonymous said...

Iain N was a genius, Iain S is not but he's getting there. Amos

Anton Deque said...

Thanks, Amos.