There was an interesting documentary about Ian Nairn on BBC4 20 Feb 2014 The Man Who Fought the Planners closely followed by a related programme fronted by Jonathan Meades on brutalist architecture. In the sixties and seventies, Nairn fought against urban sprawl, brutalist architecture and the destruction of historic towns and areas. As a town planner myself I find the title a little distasteful as I spent much of my career trying to stop these things happening. You’ve got to have someone to blame, I suppose. Nairn also loved beer and pubs and died at the age of 53 from alcoholism. So he wasn’t all bad. If you google him you get lots of articles. The recent Guardian and Observer articles are the best.
Much of the destruction attacked by Nairn in the programme was carried out by highway engineers, not planners, in response to the increase in the numbers of cars on the roads. At the time, historic towns all over the country were under attack from road widening projects, proposals for car parks, etc, etc. Luckily, the tide turned and most of these areas under threat were given protection via conservation area designation.
In the early 1970s I was a graduate planner in my first job and I was given the task of defining boundaries for the first conservation areas in Stoke-on-Trent. One was Burslem Town Centre with its links to the novels of Arnold Bennett. Strolling around the place I met a girl from a cake shop on her lunch hour who asked me what I was doing. I wonder if my boss ever wondered why I was spending so much time there? To my shame I can’t even remember her name, but if you are out there please buy my book and leave a (positive) review on Amazon. Another conservation area was based on the main church of Stoke-on-Trent and a rather nice terrace of Georgian town houses. Unfortunately these were in the path of a project called the D Road. Though they did shore up the remains of the terrace. Later, when I was involved in the regeneration of Prescot Town Centre in Merseyside, the problem was blight caused by road proposals that never happened. The real problem wasn’t town planners but traffic engineers. But I would say that wouldn’t I?
What made Nairn so interesting was that he was such a troubled character. The tearful rant in the pulpit of the vandalised Bolton church on the programme was extraordinary. I don’t think you can blame the decline in religious belief and hence congregations on planners. Or maybe you can. The rant outside the condemned medieval building in Bradford was understandable but then if you were a councillor at the time with no money to restore historic buildings but facing a huge demand for housing what would you do? Most likely demolish the old building and put up lots of cheap houses and flats. I loved the bit on Newcastle. Now, I come from Middlesbrough where you are taught in the cradle to hate Geordies but I think central Newcastle by the river is a fantastic place and would urge anyone who hasn’t been there to visit, explore and have a couple of pints..(not too many of course).
And Nairn on Liverpool: ‘…if Liverpool can get into top gear again there is no limit to the city’s potential. The scale and resilience of the buildings and people is amazing – it is a world city, far more so than London and Manchester. It doesn’t feel like anywhere else in Lancashire: comparisons always end up overseas – Dublin, or Boston, or Hamburg.’ I have lived in Liverpool for many years now and I can remember when it was a disaster zone – the Albert Dock was derelict and due for demolition and many of its Georgian terraces were boarded up. Whilst I would quibble with some of the development decisions made – the brutalist multi-storey car parks, for instance – I can only praise the regeneration of the city centre since that time. It has its own sense of place in the – different – way that Newcastle has.
And so we come to Jonathan Meades and his BBC4 programme on brutalist architecture shown shortly after the Nairn programme. It’s not often that you watch a TV programme and you disagree with virtually everything that is said but this was it. He reminded me of those climate change deniers who argue that we can engineer our way out of disaster. Basically he was saying that brutalist architecture is a good thing because it shocks and takes risks. That demolishing all those post war tower blocks was a bad thing to do. The trouble is that every housing project he showed was awful, a perfect back-drop for a scene from Orwell’s ‘1984’. There is a place for well-designed modernist architecture that takes risks but in my view it is for major public buildings, but not at the local level and not for housing. Most people would prefer to live in the garden cities and suburbs which early town planners championed – though many modern privately built estates in which the developers say that they are following such values are too twee by half. But the words ‘human scale’, ‘good manners’, ‘natural materials’, ‘living in harmony and in touch with nature’ were never used in the programme. The word ‘sustainability’ was, but as a kind of swear-word used to jeer at hippies and tree-huggers. Unless it was all just a wind up….
The most telling image in the Meades programme was of the bunker on Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. Interesting, powerful, thought-provoking. But also anti-human, machine-like, anti-natural. And there was Preston Bus Station. I worked in Preston for a while and while I’ll accept that the bus station is interesting when seen from a distance, when you actually go inside the place it gives you a sense of unease. Remember when Ann Widdecombe said of Michael Howard that ‘there is something of the night about him’? Well there is ‘something of the tomb’ about brutalist architecture. Now tombs can be awe-inspiring places but if you actually wanted to live in one, or worse, make people live in one, then you would be a candidate for serious psychiatric help.