20 Pithy Ian Nairn Quotes About Modern London Buildings

20 Pithy Ian Nairn Quotes About Modern London Buildings
Lots of modernist looking boxes in a concert hall - only a few of them with people inside
"An extraordinary building" said Nairn of the Royal Festival Hall. Image: Andrew Gray

Architectural critic Ian Nairn was never one to mince his words: when he loved a building you knew about it, when he hated one, you feared for the architect's wellbeing.

A new edition of Nairn's 1964 book Modern Buildings in London — introduced by Travis Elborough — is a great excuse to bathe in the acerbic wit of one of London's great writers... and to see if we still agree with his sentiment 60 years on. Hold on to your hats, as we dig out some of our favourite quotes.

Bucklersbury House, City of London

It has no virtues and no vices: it is the null point of architecture, the base line for the judgments in the rest of the book. [It is also now long-demolished]

Various buildings, east of St Paul's

If by whim or temperament you want to find somewhere to say: 'Oh dear, the English!' then this is it. Every change has been rung on timidity, compromise and incompetence.

A big concrete bunker type thing covered in ivy
Nairn has some kind words to say about Admiralty Citadel. Image: Londonist

Newbury Park Underground station

An extraordinary bit of bravura from an architect who designs in every style; an old-style romantic in an age which wants its romanticism rough and rude, if at all.

Admiralty Citadel, The Mall

At first it seems a preposterous intrusion, even in summer when it is covered with creeper. Then, gradually, it becomes a glorious and very English folly, in a century which has far too little architectural sense of humour — something as incongruously appropriate as the Observatory at Greenwich. [We recently wrote an ode to this ungainly imposter]

A modernist building with lots of windows, and an eagle perched on top
The old United States Embassy in Grosvenor Square didn't exactly get a glowing write-up. Image: U.S. Embassy London

United States Embassy, Grosvenor Square

One of the biggest disappointments in London. [It's no longer the US Embassy of course — that's now in Nine Elms, and if our sources are correct, Donald Trump LOVES it...]

Royal Festival Hall, South Bank

An extraordinary building. It nonplussed everyone when it was built, and after fifteen years public feeling still seems to be just as equivocal and disturbed... In a hundred years' time, after a concert, people will still leave out of key with its cerebral relentlessness.

People along the embankment in the foreground, with Waterloo Bridge in focus in the background
Waterloo has unsurpassable 'bridgeness' apparently. That's a word, right? Image: frank carman

Various buildings, Blackheath Park

If Eric Lyons is the modern Nash, then this is his Regent's Park.

Waterloo Bridge

After twenty years, this is still the best modern bridge in Britain. The only sad thing is that it replaced a masterpiece by Sir John Rennie; one arch of this is embedded in the abutment at the Waterloo end. And in its bridgeness it must outdo even Rennie.

Black and white image of a penguin in a very modernist looking penguin enclosure
Does this penguin look solemn to you? Guess they kinda do, actually. Image: gillfoto

Alton West Estate, Roehampton

A funny marriage between extreme talent and arrogance, so that it has good individual things but doesn't grow into a marvellous place.

Penguin Pool, Regent's Park Zoo

...meanwhile the penguins walk solemnly up and down their interlocking concrete spirals, a parody of every committee which ever decided about 'amenity' or 'the people' or 'urban pattern'. [There haven't been penguins here since 2004, but it's still seen as a classic piece of modernism]

A pinkish elephant with a castle on its back, in front of a 1960s tower block
Elephant and Castle in its 1960s phase (now all demolished, though the pink elephant has been saved). Image: Londonist

Elephant and Castle, Rebuilding

The Elephant is chaotic at the moment and will be for years. [You said it, Ian]

15-19 Aubrey Walk, Kensington

This is, quite simply, a three-storey Regency terrace. Not a copy or a pastiche, but the real thing, designed by somebody who is living a century and a half out of phase.

A concrete flyover, from below
As good as the best Victorian designs, reckoned Nairn. Image: Chris Guy

The Hoop, Notting Hill Gate

This is the best modern pub interior in London. [This is now a Le Pain Quotidien]

Hammersmith Flyover

The only engineering work in London with the grandeur and assurance of the best Victorian designs.

Stockwell bus garage circa 1954
Stand aside, Festival Hall - here is the noblest modern building in London. Photograph by John Somers © TfL

Empress State Building

A joke title for a joke of a building.

Stockwell Bus Garage

Probably the noblest modern building in London. [Couldn't agree more]

A somewhat unremarkable looking brutalist-ish building
Eros House: Up there with all the best Elizabethan architecture, and this one ain't up for debate... Image: stevecadman

Eros House, Catford

This really is a building which says something in the town, with the same kind of panache as an Elizabethan house.

Arnos Grove Underground station

One of the classic Underground stations, as fresh as ever after thirty years, and much better than Holden’s own more elaborate later buildings. [Make that after 90 years]

The front of Uxbridge station. Black columns hold up an ornate roof with wheels carved in stone
Sometimes Nairn got it wrong (in fact the whole Uxbridge extract goes on to wax lyrical about the interior). Image: Londonist

London Airport (now Heathrow)

Very, very British. A tragi-comedy of muddle and architecture running at too low a voltage.

Uxbridge Underground station

The outside is a flashy piece of symmetry that just about ruins the centre of Uxbridge... [Don't be silly, Ian]

Modern Buildings in London by Ian Nairn with introduction by Travis Elborough, published by Notting Hill Editions.

Last Updated 12 September 2023

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