Points of view

Is there a third way for criticism?

Pevsner and Betjeman, Banham and Nairn.  There was a time (and it is with us still) when public architecture critics could be divided by head and heart.  Those who deal in reason and function, and those who deal with emotion.  Thus Courtauld academic Pevsner is stereotyped as the dry cataloguer of buildings, the ‘Herr Professor Doktor’ as his emotional rival, Betjeman, described him. And, we are told in Gillian Darley and David McKie’s excellent biography of Ian Nairn, this author of the Architectural Review’s famous ‘Outrage’ issue of 1955, did not get on at all well with the technologically-­minded Peter Reyner Banham, his AR colleague and academic. Probably because there’s rarely room for more than one big-beast polemicist in the same room, doubtless because Banham looked optimistically forward while Nairn felt a permanent, melancholic sense of loss, certainly because their flights of fancy had entirely different trajectories, but also because of that age-old divide which cleaves British culture: the trained versus the untrained, the professional versus the amateur. The ordained, essentially, versus the laity.

There’s probably little more to say about Pevsner vs Betjeman, though I’m sure that won’t stop people saying it.  Nairn has had a thorough airing lately, due not only in the Darley/McKie book, but also because of a recent  BBC Four TV programme which, like the books, considered him warts and all and gave us generous clips of his 1970s films.

Objectivity was never Nairn’s strong point – but at least he would tell you, as Pevsner would not, whether a building was worth going to see

Nairn, famously, was a drunkard – killed by drink at 52 – and a loner. Not a joiner. Not one to stick to the script, and he appears seldom to have had a script anyway. He begged to be allowed to work with Pevsner on the Buildings of England and given their utterly different approaches, it’s amazing he lasted for about one and a half volumes before bailing out. Objectivity was never Nairn’s strong point – but at least, as Alec Clifton-Taylor observed, he would tell you, as Pevsner would not, whether a building was worth going to see. Yet for all his passion, he never saved a single endangered building in his lifetime.

Nairn had his little TV tics – the suit, the mackintosh, the convertible Morris Minor – but could never be defined as a manufactured personality. Nor could Banham, though he cultivated his visual appearance  assiduously – the rabbinical beard, the cowboy attire, the Moulton bicycle. Both men now seem very quaint to me. Nairn as the man who had a long emotional and physical breakdown on air, Banham (still the untouchable prophet for many) a trend-chaser, trying to sound hip, prone to grandiosely misguided predictions. Read him on airport terminals and chuckle. 

I speak as one of the laity, the untrained. But one thing struck me as odd, when I started out in this trade and both men were still alive: everyone in my business seemed to want to be either the next Nairn or the next Banham. Some still do. That speaks volumes for their achievement and influence; but I wondered then and still wonder now: is there no other option? No other available mindset?  


Ian Nairn: Words in Place by Gillian Darley and David McKie, published by Five Leaves Publications,  £10.99