34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
46 years on, still a fresh perspective on London,
This review is from: Nairn's London (Paperback)
This book, above all others, taught me to see for myself. From the age of ten I devoured topography; first whatever I could find in my parents' house, then in libraries. 'Nairn's London', discovered in the landing bookcase at home in a Middlesex semi, was the first such work I truly connected with. Instead of worthy summaries of places, their historic monuments and connections, here was writing that concentrated on what they were like to be in, how the author responded to them.
Ian Nairn was a one-off, and his guide to London is too. All the big historic and cultural attractions (in 1966) are in its gazetteer of 450 individual entries, but there is no undue reverence for any of them. Many other subjects are absent from other guides - pubs, townscape sequences, juxtapositions and places. Nairn set out his stall in his preface - he selected on "character, or personality, or essence".
A strong modernist admiration for the urgent expression of function in structures runs through the book, but Nairn did not spare the mediocrity being heaped on London in the name of modernism. Pre-20th century architecture dominates the central London entries: John Nash is the principal hero, followed by Hawksmoor, then Wren. Another great theme is feeling, with some Victorian architects criticised as heartless - yet whilst Sir George Gilbert Scott is dismissed as a hack, Nairn's struggle with the oeuvre of George Edmund Street is genuinely moving.
The whole book is an exhilarating ride peppered with flashes of an astonishing artistic compass and wholeness of vision. As Nairn's preface frankly admits, if you want all the factual background you will need other books to fill you in; but there is no book about the built fabric of London with more heart.