More Chronicles of Nairn-ier: Outrage! and Counterattack

A Manifesto for Good Planning in Nairn’s Outrage!, 1955 (Architectural Review)

The aim of the last entry was to introduce Ian Nairn and his ideas, although it went down a rabbit hole of comparing two influential post-war urban theorists, ethnographers and flaneurs – almost centrist-Situtationist psychogeographers of the rising Anglo-American middle class on either side of the Atlantic. The two did have certain traits in common and a similar place in the societies to which they belong either side of the Atlantic. Indeed, they were mutually aware of each other and they did meet in New York in the 1960s where they collaborated briefly following Nairn receiving a grant by the Rockefeller Foundation.  Nairn’s work clearly influenced Jacobs and his Outrage! is referenced in “Death and Life” and subsequent essays.

So, now let’s talk about Outrage! and the follow-up, Counterattack. In 1955, Ian Nairn issued the Architectural Review with his critique of the concept he termed as coined Subtopia, or the slow tentacles of suburbia spilling over increasingly into the British countryside. In effect, it is a call to arms to increase urban densification and protect the countryside from a process of urban sprawl. Written in 1955, it is eerily prescient and the dawn of mass ownership of private car certainly accelerated this process in the following decade. As the distances that people could easily travel increased, so did the reach of towns into lower density settlements into the countryside as city dwellers increasingly sought larger homes with bigger gardens and more space without having to compromise city living and access to work.

In essence, Outrage! calls for better town planning strategy in the Dutch style of densely packed cities with clearly demarcated green belt countryside between each. There’s a lot to say for this, and I certainly see huge merit in compact, walkable (or cyclable) cities, particularly from the point of view of minimising carbon footprints and promoting urban cohesion. However, this requires careful land planning strategies and coordination at a national level, which is certainly lacking in the UK with successive governments pushing for more and more planning deregulation. It also requires a significant degree of social cohesion, which is extremely weak in the UK, partially due to a deeply engrained national obsession with individualism and privacy. However this has been significantly exacerbated by past brutal 12 years of Thatcherite razing state institutions to the ground so that the state barely exists anymore, turbo-charging the dismantling of public services and privatisation of any notion of collective space. With that comes extremely weak social ties, and a zombie UK state left completely hollow and in a fragile and weak condition with spiralling levels of inequality and deep-rooted structural problems in economy and society that I cannot see improving in the foreseeable.

Ian Nairn would no doubt be horrified at the condition of Britain today, and in many ways Outrage! was eerily prophetic without ever expressing any political dimension. In fact his politics seem somewhat unclear, much less so than that of Jacobs. He never really articulated the reasons for the march of Subtopia, and Outrage! seems largely an exercise in nostalgia for an golden era where the private car didn’t exist and the countryside consisted of idyllic villages and the rural peasant life.

Outrage! and the follow-up Counterattack! are beautifully illustrated by one of the lead Townscape theorists Gordon Cullen. While Nairn didn’t seem to present any immediate solutions to the rapid, messy and short-term thinking behind the sprawling out of post-war Britain’s urban, the beauty of his two polemics lie in his engaging narration style, and a running commentary of the concerns and fears of those living through the social democratic, state-led reconstruction of a Britain ravaged by the war. In particular, his manifesto at the back of Counterrattack! on what not to do when planning cities, and his case-book of bad practice and examples of ugly bits of town planning in a route he took from Southampton all the way up to the Scottish Highlands.

The short book rich in illustration and photographs offers a window into a time when Britain was re-moulding itself following the bloody first half of the twentieth century. Looking at it from the perspective of someone who has grown up largely under a period where the state has been weakened and diminished into something unrecognisable from the state-led development from 1945 onwards, it’s easy to forget that this was a huge period of significant social change which no doubt led to a degree of upheaval for those living through that time.

The most striking thing about Outrage! and Counterattack is their lightness on theory and political context. They barely make mention of the strong municipal-led politics and social democratic policies of the decades following the end of the two world wars that forged modern Britain and lifted many out of poverty and gave them free access to high-quality healthcare, subsidised and good quality housing, education, and the building up of a strong welfare state that ensured everyone had a decent start and end to life, supported by a consensus that this is what a modern state should look like between both Labour and Tories. This has been brutally dismantled since the 2008 crisis and erased from the collective imagination, to the point where Labour’s manifesto for the 2019 election was deemed as dangerous and insane by the political elite , when it reality what it wanted to do was re-imagine the welfare state of the 1950s and 1960s but updated to suit the needs of the 21st century. Clearly, the post-war cross-party consensus of caring for every individual from cradle to grave has retreated, and instead replaced with a Labour-Tory consensus of a return to a Victorian age where life was nasty, brutish and short for most, whose sole purpose of existence was to exploit just so that small hoard of landowners and business owners could live in ostentatiousness and eye-watering luxury. We, the left, lost that debate it seems and now we can do little but sit back and watch the horrors unfold.

Anyway: in the absence of social critique rooted in political context, Nairn’s main contribution was his stimulating additions to the debate on the quality and nature of town planning and its aesthetic considerations. He brought to the fore the Townscape theory, which Cullen was an advocate as well as Kevin Lynch, author of “The Image of the City” and wider questions around urban design which perhaps had been lacking in the town planning discipline until that point. His contributions as an outsider to the discipline (certainly he ruffled the feathers of technical experts in the profession such as architects and town planners), and his assertion that the character of place cannot be created in a top-down, technocratic manner but by large teams, including sociologists, cultural theorists, commentators and especially, regular citizens.

The Townscape theorists were concerned with how aesthetics and conservation of rural character of British countryside villages could be combined with the social democratic modernisation of post-war Britain. Nairn railed against “clutter” or man-made necessities of urban living – roundabouts, signage, fences, electricity pylons, lampposts taking over the British landscape, and wanted to see it carefully planned and managed so it could be harmonised with the rural landscape.

In Counterattack! Nairn maps out varying archetypes of lampposts and rates them in terms of their ugliness and lack of harmony with their settings. He also critiques local council’s attempts to manage public spaces, with the characteristic flower beds and hanging baskets that filled high streets and town centres, which I recognise from my upbringing in the suburb of a deindustrialising northern town in the 1980s and 1990s. I wonder today, how Nairn would take the average British northern town battered by over a decade of austerity. Gone are the hanging baskets, much of the lampposts and street lighting, and many councils have even removed trees in a bid to save money, which is a neat illustration of the sheer madness of such deep cuts to public spending as we face increasing challenges due to climate change. Trees are a great way to keep dense urban areas cool in the increasingly warm summers, as well as great for natural drainage as our climate gets wetter and floodrisk becomes a near constant threat each year. Our town centres now are sad places: colourless, joyless, soulless with barely any landscaping left, blighted by boarded-up shops and empty properties as high streets decline at a fairly shocking pace.

The starkest difference now from even 10 years ago and certainly in Nairn’s time is the sharp increase in homelessness as more and more people are forced into poverty by the cruel regime forced upon us since 2010. In any given British city, and increasingly also suburbs and smaller town centres, high street doorways are used to shelter an unforgivingly high homeless population. This is a crisis that shows no sign of abating and the noises made by the latest prime minister indicate that he has no intention of providing any structural solutions. In a country as rich as the UK, this is nothing short of a crime of the government’s making.

Planning departments now have been stripped bare, the only planners left in local authorities are mostly left to handle the consequences of an ineffective and inadequate community consultation process and managing the needs of private developers. The planning system has been deregulated and the idea of a cohesive, European-style state-led overarching planning strategy has been sacrificed to profit gains for private developers leading to fragmentation and competition for profit rather than collaboration over shared social goals. Long gone are the days where the municipal planning teams would count sociologists in their ranks. Nairn would be horrified that the densification and townscape debate have both been well and truly lost. The expanded suburbs, Barrattification, are now are seen as a sanctuary for the middle classes, shielding them in new-build estates with private gardens and a lives moulded around privacy and car use, from the horrors of the social and physical dereliction of provincial inner cities and towns that have been systematically hollowed out and left to rot.

Ian Nairn and Subtopia

After my four-part entry on Jane Jacobs and her magnum opus Death and Life of Great American Cities, it follows that Ian Nairn more than deserves at least an entry or two.

Like Jacobs, Ian Nairn’s writing on architecture and planning emerged from his role as a journalist. Where Jacobs wrote for the American magazine Architectural Forum, Nairn was British-born and based and wrote for the Architectural Review. Unlike Architectural Forum, which ceased publication in 1974, Architectural Review is still alive and well, and continued to be held in high esteem in the industry.

While they both had journalistic backgrounds and were very skilled at storytelling and weaving a compelling narrative, I would say the similarities end there. Nairn, unlike Jacobs, had a technical background. He was the son of a draughtsman for a the R101 airship (zeppelin), a government-backed project to expand civil airships capable of long-distance journeys between London and key routes within the British Empire. While Nairn was not a trained architect, he was a qualified pilot who did extended national service in the RAF and graduated in Mathematics from Birmingham University. Nairn was raised in Surrey, which even by the 1930s was already essentially a wealthy suburban belt of London, and it was here he cultivated his deep-seated hatred of the suburbs. The exploration of his aversion to the suburbs led to his Outrage! project where he coined the term Subtopia.

Nairn’s views of the suburbs, therefore, were inverted to those of Jacobs. While Jacobs seemed to have a positive predisposition towards the suburbs, never really articulating it but implying in her “eyes on the street” concept of neighbourhood surveillance that the one thing cities are lacking is a suburban mindset, and that the conditions that allow big cities to afford the right to anonymity of their inhabitants should be eradicated to as great an extent as possible.

Nairn, on the other hand, sees the suburbs as a scourge. In his view, they spread mediocrity and prevent creative and intelligent thinking, numbing all the senses by their blandness and striving to make life as free as possible of the discomfort and friction city life requires its inhabitants to navigate on a daily basis. One wonders, whether the British sense of apathy and quite frankly, levels of acceptance of abuses inflicted on the ruling class to ordinary citizens that would simply not be tolerated elsewhere, is a cultural trait or one that has been exacerbated by the post-war drive to bland, conflict-averse society organised in neat little suburbs characterised by individual family homes, small private gardens and reliance on private transport.

While they had different attitudes towards the suburbs,  it is fair to say that Nairn and Jacobs had in different ways both had strong views on increasing the density of cities and aiming for as high a density as possible. For Nairn, this was largely to protect the integrity of the countryside, keeping it as wild and free from manmade interference as possible. Jacobs, on the other hand, didn’t make much of a mention of the interaction between city and countryside, instead aiming for a walkable city composed of lots of different neighbourhoods, or mini cities within a bigger city, in which people would live, work, and play without ever needing to venture out into the greater metropolis to which they belong.

In recent years, Jacobs’ concepts has become extremely popular in Europe as a response to climate change and the move to decarbonisation through people-centric urban and residential planning. The walkable city, or 20-minute or 15-minute city, is gaining popularity as a strategy to try to phase out car traffic from city centres and reduce congestion. For example, the Scottish Government has embedded the 20-minute city in its national planning framework, Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo is backing a 15-minute city model, and other cities are following suit, including Barcelona. The Catalonian capital has long been a pioneer and perfect case study in urban planning and testing new human-centric concepts from Cerdà’s superblock plans and design for Eixample in overcrowded 19th century Barcelona still constricted by medieval city walls to the more recent port area redevelopment. From Jacobs’ point of view, her focus on increasing density as a way to make cities “smaller” and more liveable and manageable rather than Nairn’s wish to increase density of cities to protect and conserve the integrity of the countryside was perhaps largely because the US is a vast, expansive territory and land is not exactly in short supply. Britain, on the other hand, as Nairn never fails to remind us, is a small, overcrowded, and at the time of Outrage! still a highly industrial country. Towns, therefore, had a propensity to spill over into the country, even in the remotest rural corners such as the Highlands of Scotland which even in 1955 were still pock-marked with man-made activity. Jacobs realised early the damage planners could make by building cities around the needs of the motorcar (let’s not forget her rise to fame was connected with her role and subsequent arrest in mobilising Manhattanites against the Robert Moses plan to build a highway cutting through dense city areas), Nairn’s view was complementary to this in his early realisation of the extent to which the rise of car ownership could damage the countryside by extending the reach and the spread of the city. In Outrage! he notes that

“Spread is dependent no longer on population increase but on the services a power-equipped society can think up for itself. With radio and supersonic speeds you get the capacity for infinite spread, the limiting factors of time and place having ceased to operate. The city is to-day not so much a growing as a spreading thing, fanning out over the land surface in the shape of suburban sprawl.

However, something even more sinister is at work: applied science is rendering meaningless the old distinction between urban and rural life; the village is becoming as much a commuter as the citizen; the old centres of gravity have been deprived of their pull at both ends and in the middle; no longer geographically tied, the industries which once muscled in on the urban set-up are getting out of the mess they did so much to make, and making a new mess outside.”

In time, both have proven to be correct, and we live in a world where the life of the average city dweller has been so ravaged by the use of the private car that it’s not even questioned anymore but taken as a usual and normal part of living in a city. Whether that’s excess deaths from air pollution, contribution to a changed climate, to appalling city planning, streets crowded with cars (both moving and parked) so all other street users are pushed aside and forced to make themselves as invisible as possible and take up as little space as they can. All of this is barely questioned by urban planners, especially in countries such as UK and the US where the fossil fuel industry have a chokehold over governments and the organisation of daily life. Speed, efficiency, and private consumption are also at the core of our global economy, and the private car is certainly seen as integral to this, especially in Europe where governments will not invest in mass-scale state of the art public transit systems and high speed trains as a great scale.

The UK is currently going through some extreme ideology manifesting in the disintegration of rail infrastructure because of a stubborn refusal to dip into shareholder profits to give it the upgrade it so badly needs. The country’s economic system is currently in what can really only be described as meltdown and this is just one symptom. In the US, it’s criminal that such a large, expansive country has such diabolic rail coverage and no high speed connection to speak of.