New edition of Nairn takes us on a journey back in time

JOHN GRIDROD reviews a favourite old book, reborn

Time travel: old book, lovely new edition

Fancy a spot of mid-century time travel?

Well, take a trip back to London in the early 1960s, and go exploring with Ian Nairn, in his recently reissued 1964 guidebook to modern buildings in the city (and beyond): Modern Buildings in London.

I love the emotionally charged writing of Ian Nairn. The great critic and architectural commentator of the British post-war world used journalism, books and TV to attempt to celebrate the good and correct the bad, at a moment when the dreams of progress were becoming concrete reality. Commissioned by London Transport, Modern Buildings in London was a gazetteer of new-ish architecture. He covered 260 buildings across the capital, the idea being it would encourage people to explore the city by bus and Tube.

My original copy I found in a second-hand shop many years ago, a dear little paperback with pages brown-edged with age and the cheapness of the production. What appealed was the purity of it, Nairn the contrarian commissioned to be at his most positive, writing at the moment before the modernist project went off the rails.

Grumpy: architecture journalist and author Ian Nairn

And so there’s less of the famous grumpiness of his campaigning journalism, most famously exhibited in his 1955 article Outrage, which tackled the effect that a mess of poor signage, advertising, street furniture and roads was having on the beauty and coherence of our towns.

There is none of the heavy despair that a sighing Nairn famously displays in his TV shows, walking round half-demolished Mancunian streets, say, or the boarded up Industrial Revolution heritage of Northampton. Which is not to say the book is some bland, glowingly positive Instagram-style content. Nairn is funny, original and provocative, his personality and writing style sharp and romantic by turns, making this book a continuing delight.

The rebuilding of Croydon’s central area gets its own section. Nairn’s remarkably positive about it, approving that the new towers going up are helping to give the centre a more distinctive feel, even if most of the new buildings themselves are unremarkable.

His favourite of the new builds was Suffolk House, which still stands by the roundabout on George Street beside Croydon College, its mustard panels faded, the windows and paintwork stained and dulled, endless threats to demolish it come and gone in the intervening years.

The thing he bemoans, as he did in Outrage, is the lack of a plan to connect anything up on the ground, with all the buildings so famously removed from each other, as they still are after all these years.

This new edition of the book has an excellent introduction by Travis Elborough that helps place this curious book in context – both of the climate in which it was written, and in Nairn’s life. Elborough points out a few of the buildings that have already been demolished, and also that when the book was first published there was a series of vending machines placed around the Underground network where you could buy it, with this guide seen as an impulse buy for the curious tourist or explorer.

It can still be used as a fantastic guide to London and beyond. And beyond it goes, including new towns such as Harlow and Stevenage, as well as buildings as far out as Kent, Buckinghamshire and – particularly dating it – Middlesex (and, tellingly, London Airport before it was renamed Heathrow).

He singles out a lot of Tube and bus station designs, a great trick to help the traveller feel catered for, and the book is full of curiosities, not just the big schemes like the Barbican or Peter Jones, but also Catford County School (“one of the most exciting buildings the LCC has produced” – demolished in 2007) and Foxborough Gardens in Brockley (“there are two taller six-storey blocks of flats, purple brick and beautifully detailed”). Nairn estimated that about one-fifth of the buildings in the book he had just stumbled across on walks and drives, making it a much more eclectic read than your usual guidebook.

Guided tour: John Grindrod is exploring Croydon’s architecture on Sep 17. Details below…

Nairn was a gifted amateur, and his books were written for the general reader, so it’s lovely to see his “guide for the perplexed” at the back of the book remains, explaining jargon words such as mullions and articulation.

Notting Hill Editions produce beautifully made, small-format hardbacks with handsome cloth covers, and this makes a lovely addition to their output, and a deluxe version of what had been published as a lightweight disposable item back in the day.

It’s a great way to see the capital afresh, a time capsule of optimism from one of the great observers of the city, and it’s lovely to see it reborn in 2023.

Read more: Serious concern raised over brutal end to town centre artwork

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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2 Responses to New edition of Nairn takes us on a journey back in time

  1. Jean M Gooding says:

    I have been trying to book for the tour by John Grindrod but I am finding it impossible to use the website…….Please help

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