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Nairn in flight

Justine Sambrook

How critic Ian Nairn found another angle

Ian Nairn (left), author of provocative yet insightful architectural writing, was probably the only critic to take to the skies in order to gain a better appreciation of his subject.

Nairn obtained a pilot’s licence in the RAF and flew a Percival Prentice plane hired from Surrey Flying Club. He was accompanied by intrepid Architectural Press photographer Bill Toomey who the writer praised for keeping 'the camera steady despite indifferent weather and the uneven flying of Ian Nairn'. Together they traversed the British Isles, studying the landscape and the so-called fifth elevation: the roof. The results were published in the Architects’ Journal in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Nairn wanted to demonstrate the ways in which aerial photography could be used to enhance understanding of buildings and townscapes in addition to the usual ground shots or descriptions. He wrote that air photography could be an enlightening experience for architects who ought already to know Britain well from the ground. Every journey, he said, was a series of exclamations of 'goodness, fancy this looking like that!'