Anti-Ugly Action


On Architecture

Chelsea Barracks, by Tripe & Wakeham, 1960–62. “An outstanding exposition of the fact that very big buildings can keep their scale without becoming inhuman.” All photographs by Ian Nairn.

It seems no less than highly appropriate that when Ian Nairn’s Modern Buildings in London first appeared in 1964 it was purchasable from one of a hundred automatic book-vending machines that had been installed in a selection of inner-London train stations just two years earlier. Sadly, these machines, operated by the British Automatic Company, were short-lived. Persistent vandalism and theft saw them axed during the so-called Summer of Love, by which time, and perhaps thanks to Doctor Who’s then-recent battles with mechanoid Cybermen, the shine had rather come off the idea of unfettered technological progress. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its malevolent supercomputer HAL 9000, after all, lay only a few months away. And so too, did the partial collapse of the Ronan Point high-rise (a space-age monolith of sorts) in Canning Town, East London—an event widely credited with helping to turn the general public against modernist architecture.

State House, Holburn, by Trehearne and Norman, Preston & Partners, 1956–60. “State House is a brave failure.”

As it was, Nairn’s book was published in the middle of a general election campaign that saw the Labour Party’s Harold Wilson become prime minister on the promise of building “a new Britain” forged in the “white heat” of a “scientific revolution.” And Modern Buildings in London is, for the most part, optimistic, or least vaguely hopeful, about what the future might bring—or definitely far more so than much of Nairn’s subsequent output. This is an observation rather than a criticism. In many respects, his growing disillusionment with the quality of new buildings in Britain was not unjustified. Modern Buildings in London finds Nairn at the peak of his powers; it is a book studded with as many pithy observations and startling thoughts as cloves in a ham. Not unlike D. H. Lawrence in his essays and travel books, Nairn’s sentences appear almost to jump-start, as if landing halfway through, punchy opinions falling instantly in quick-fire lines shorn of any unnecessary preamble or padding. Like in Lawrence, there is rage here, much of it directed toward the London County Council and their municipal architects and planners. Of the LCC’s handiwork in the Clive Street neighborhood of Stepney, he bluntly states: “I am too angry to write much about it,” before going on to argue that the old streets by comparison had “ten times more understanding of how people live and behave.”

Flats, St. James’s Place, by Denys Lasdun, 1960. “A masterpiece, and it could so easily have been a disaster.”

While Nairn is certainly unstinting in his admiration for Stockwell Bus Garage (“probably the noblest modern building in London”), in today’s age of corporate branding and slick advertorial content masquerading as journalism, that such a singular and original book was commissioned by no less a public body than London Transport seems almost a miracle. It joined a series of mostly decent if usually more plodding guides that the authority published in this era. Priced at five shillings a go, the list ranged from The Architecture of Christopher Wren in and near London to Visitor’s London to Sportsmans London. There was even a move into fiction when it branched out with a Famous Five–style children’s adventure novel, The Tyrant King by Aylmer Hall, which was later turned into a TV series by Thames Television starring Murray Melvin and soundtracked with songs by Pink Floyd and the Nice. All these titles, though, fit within the decidedly Reithian tradition at London Transport to educate and inform its passengers, a tradition that had been established in the twenties and thirties by its thoughtful chief executive Frank Pick, under whose watch posters by Man Ray and Harry Beck’s diagrammatical tube map were authorized.

Bousfield Primary School, Old Brompton Road and The Boltons, by Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, 1955. “One of the most imaginative new buildings in London, full of ideas and full of humanity too.”

These pocket guidebooks were expressly produced with a view to encourage off-peak leisure activity on its services, at a point when London Transport’s bread-and-butter revenues were under threat from rising private-car ownership and the slum clearance dispersal of the capital’s population to the suburbs and new towns. The latter, until their outer London Green Line bus service network was hived off in 1970, still fell within the company’s vast catchment area, which at that time, as Nairn notes, spread from “Bishop’s Stortford in one direction [to] Guildford in the other.” Nairn’s “in London” purlieu therefore takes in rather further-flung sights: from the bypasses at Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire (“an outstanding example of how to fit a modern road into mature English landscape”) to Gordon Secondary School in Gravesend, Kent (“Worth a visit, especially if you are familiar (or bored) with glass-wall buildings …”).

St. Paul’s, Bow Common, Burdett Road and St. Paul’s Way, Stepney, by Robert Maguire, 1958–60. “The only modern building in the London Transport area to reflect any real credit on the Church of England.”

Nairn had no architectural training, having studied mathematics at the University of Birmingham before joining the RAF as a pilot. It was as an aviator that he was tickled by the “concrete aeroplane … frankly done for fun” on the top of Great Arthur House in the Golden Lane Estate by Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, and by the new terminal at Gatwick Airport by Yorke Rosenberg Mardall (a “Swiss watch of a building”). Nairn began contributing pieces on architecture to the Eastern Daily News while stationed in Norfolk. He eventually inveigled his way onto the staff of The Architectural Review after a concerted letter-writing campaign, and achieved almost instant notoriety at the age of twenty-four by authoring its special “Outrage” issue of June 1955. Billed by Nairn in the introduction as “a prophecy of doom,” the issue was a polemic against waves of recent development that, he argued, if left unchecked, would result in a Britain of “isolated oases of preserved monuments in a desert of wire, concrete roads, cosy plots and bungalows” with “no real distinction between town and country.” He dubbed this phenomenon “subtopia” and foretold that it would not be long before “the end of Southampton” looked like “the beginning of Carlisle” and “the parts in between” like “the end of Carlisle or the beginning of Southampton.”

Eastbourne Terrace, Paddington. C. H. Elsom and Partners 1958–60. “Proud and humble at the same time: this is what happens when you have a really difficult problem and look it straight in the eye.”

The idea of subtopia ignited debate about Britain’s built environment. In the popular press of the day, Nairn was anointed as architecture’s answer to the Angry Young Men (though “Outrage” preceded John Osborne’s genre-spawning play, Look Back In Anger, by well over a year). As a figure venting dissent to an emerging generation frustrated by the pace of change, Nairn would go on to inspire a fully-fledged protest group. After giving an incendiary lecture at the Royal College of Art in 1958, a band of students, among them the pop art painter Pauline Boty, were roused to found Anti-Ugly Action. Its members took to the streets to express their disgust with buildings they considered reactionary or offensive, in flamboyant fashion. They marched, for instance, on the new Kensington Public Library, a neo-Georgian effort by E. Vincent Harris, in period costume, accompanied by a Dixieland jazz band. They also carried a cardboard coffin emblazoned with a banner bearing the legend RIP HERE LEYTH BRITISH ARCHITECTURE to Barclays Bank’s new headquarters on the corner of Lombard and Gracechurch Streets, a portland stone–clad classical edifice by A. T. Scott and Vernon Helbing. Their impact was significant enough that both Nairn and the Anti-Uglies were cited favorably in the Labour Party’s (admittedly unsuccessful) 1959 election manifesto. (What Nairn himself made of this, as rather more of a Tory anarchist with a distinctly antiegghead and individualistic streak who claimed to be too unsophisticated to live in a Span house and distrusted Le Corbusier for his perceived contempt for ordinary people, I am not sure.)

Boundary Road Housing: Waltham House (flats) 1954 and Dale House (maisonettes), by Armstrong & MacManus, 1956. “Simple and very good—the simplicity of refinement of purpose, not poverty of invention.”

Sixty years have elapsed since Nairn wrote Modern Buildings in London. In many places, the city has changed beyond recognition, for good and ill. London was, in many respects, a far more parochial place back then. Nairn is ashamed on the capital’s behalf that “the only building in the book by a foreign architect of international reputation” is Eero Saarinen’s “pompous and tragic” United States Embassy in Grosvenor Square, a place largely remembered now as the setting of protests against the Vietnam War. Zidpark, Bowater House, and the LCC’s Clive Street blocks have all gone. Last orders have long since been called on the modernist interiors of the Hoop pub in Notting Hill Gate by Robert Radford, which Nairn maintained were “as elegantly planned as a suite of Adam rooms.” At the time of writing, 55 Gracechurch Street, the one-time home to the English, Scottish and Australian Bank, stands on the brink of its second complete rebuild since Nairn’s day. The first occurred in the nineties, when British postwar modernist architecture was at something of a critical low ebb. During that period, two more of Nairn’s favorites, Denys Lasdun’s Peter Robinson department store on the Strand (“a classic street front. You can pass it and always be refreshed”) and the Daily Mirror Building in Holborn (“one of the happiest modern townscape effects in London”) were destroyed, also.

Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, by H. T. Cadbury-Brown, 1961–62, and Sir Hugh Casson. “As responsible architecturally as Imperial College is irresponsible, with a personality as strong as the Albert Hall, next door, yet without self-advertisement.”

The original cover for Modern Buildings in London, designed by Peter Robinson, depicted a crane with a London Transport roundel hanging from a hook. The image is curiously reminiscent of a gibbet. Nairn would come to grow increasingly anxious about what he saw as the high-handed remodeling of the capital and of Britain at large. In February 1966, he used his platform at the Observer to issue a 6,600-word screed titled “Stop the Architects Now” in which he castigated speculators, compliant political officials, and architects for their collusion in the demolition of decent older buildings and for banishing pedestrians to dank, subterranean concrete lairs. Nairns London, published later that year, came with a rejoinder urging its readers to seek out some of its entries before they fell to the wrecking ball. That ball, ironically, ultimately fell harder on the modern buildings he’d championed than on the Georgian and Victorian edifices he considered most at risk. To read Modern Buildings in London today is an act of time travel; the book is a ghost gazetteer whose coordinates map out a London that is lost, regardless of how many of the buildings Nairn describes are still standing. But it is no more outdated than, say, the Beatles’s “Love Me Do.” Nairn’s voice comes across loud and clear: insistent, urgent, and obdurate, and, on occasions, just plain wrong. What he has to say about the interaction between people and places is, today, as relevant as ever.

5 Cannon Lane, Hampstead, by Alexander Gibson, 1955. “Small, simple and beautifully detailed, in a labyrinthine part of Hampstead which has otherwise stayed firmly in the 1880s.”


From the introduction to Ian Nairn’s Modern Buildings in London, out in a reissue from Notting Hill Editions next month.

Travis Elborough is the author of many books, including Wish You Were Here: England on Sea, The Long-Player Goodbye, Through the Looking Glasses: The Spectacular Life of Spectacles, and Atlas of Vanishing Places, winner of Edward Stanford Travel Book Award in 2020.