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Well-deserved reprint for a model of its kind
on 14 April 2014
I was so excited to see that this book was in print again, particularly as the original, Britain's Changing Towns, is so rare and expensive. Ian Nairn visited a random selection of places and summarised his findings in a series of pithy essays for the Listener magazine in the early 1960s. These were then combined into a book with postscripts from revisits in 1967, followed in this new volume by updates by Owen Hatherley. Hatherley is the perfect choice, sharing Nairn's belief in the possibilities of better modern architecture and his exasperation at the poor quality of so much of what has been done in its name, with a firmer political outlook. His postscripts are first rate and not always in agreement with Nairn, who would not have expected them to be - as long as people had looked at the same places with the same open heart, he was happy to be contradicted.
Big cities dominate the sixteen essays, but not comprehensively - Bristol, Edinburgh, Nottingham and Leeds are notable omissions. Nairn included one small country town (Llanidloes); the county of Fife, where he largely stuck to the coast; and the city of Derry, already a beleaguered economic backwater before its outrageously gerrymandered politics began to provoke serious resistance. London is represented by one of its pre-1965, much smaller boroughs (Marylebone).
Nairn's particular focus was on the redevelopment sweeping through his subject towns at the time and the picture is mixed - he was most positive in Sheffield, Liverpool and Birmingham, most excoriating in Norwich, Plymouth and Glasgow. But he found space for a general overview of the significant earlier buildings too, and what shines through is his unique talent for summarising the spirit of a place as expressed in its buildings, with enthusiasm and sympathy. Like Nairn's London, each essay is a highly personal visitor's guide, so that like much of Nairn's work the book retains a force far greater than that of a series of prose snapshots in time.