MIDDLE ENGLAND: IN THE TRACKS OF IAN NAIRN

Middle England is an ongoing personal project retracing the journey made by celebrated architectural critic Ian Nairn for his infamous 'Outrage' issue of the Architectural Review in 1955.

MIDDLE ENGLAND: IN THE TRACKS OF IAN NAIRN

View towards Southampton Central Station from Marlands Shopping Centre car park

Middle England is an ongoing personal project retracing the journey made by celebrated architectural critic Ian Nairn for his infamous 'Outrage' issue of the Architectural Review which he produced in 1955. As an architecture/interiors photographer and writer, I have long been fascinated with Nairn's work and this project is also an opportunity to explore my long-held fascination with English suburban and urban development. Outrage, with its angry but brilliantly witty text, striking typography and entrancing illustrations by Gordon Cullen, is regarded as his masterpiece and one of the pinnacles of architectural publishing.

Roundabout at Northwich, Cheshire

Outrage propelled Nairn to stardom as an architectural writer. He had been a contributer to the AR for several years, and was given the opportunity to edit an entire issue on the subject of British townscape. At the heart of the magazine was a 'Route Book' detailing a car journey up the centre of England, from Southampton to Carlisle (and slightly beyond to Gretna). He meticulously documented the trip with his own photos as well as words. Now, 60 years later, I have been retracing journey, in order to produce a series of images looking at the state of the nation, while simultaneously testing some of Nairn's claims.

Hard landscaping at Newcastle-under-Lyme

These beliefs including a sense that England was being subsumed by suburban sprawl (which he named Subtopia: 'the annihilation of the site, the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern') and that the end of Southampton would in time resemble the beginning of Carlisle. Nairn's attention focused on individual aspects of townscape including clutter, street furniture, pylons, fencing, municipal flower beds, war memorials and army camps. 

Fomer Savoy Cinema, Newcastle-Under-Lyme

The focus of my images, meanwhile, is much broader. While they incorporate many of Nairn's items of concern, such as signs, suburban housing and advertising, these disparate elements form part of a greater whole, which in turn aims to address broader societal issues such as the decline of traditional industries, ongoing dependence on motor vehicles for personal mobility, the domination of shopping as a leisure activity, the massive growth in tourism, the explosion in telecommunications technologies, the north/south divide and the generally conservative nature of the English. 

As part of the trip, I also recorded the places where I stayed, deliberately choosing chain hotels as a way of communicating the global growth of brands with uniform offers. Travelling the route, my overwhelming observation is that Nairn would be turning in his grave at what has happened to development in England (he was an alcoholic and died aged only 53 in 1983). Fortuitously, his route passes through several places which resonate with contemporary culture, in particular Chipping Norton, the perceived home of a conservative network including Prime Minister David Cameron, as well as Wigan (famously used as the title of George Orwell's social/political polemic The Road to Wigan Pier). 

The Orwell Bar & Restaurant at Wigan Pier, Greater Manchester.

From a personal perspective, I was brought up on suburban estates on the edges of the Midland towns of Leamington Spa and Warwick (two stops on Nairn’s route) and was introduced at an early age to the utopian post-war redevelopments of Coventry and Birmingham as well as the historical fabric of Warwick, Stratford-upon-Avon and Kenilworth. I also studied for four years at University of Southampton at the start of Nairn’s journey, a place filled with bizarre architectural juxtapositions, weird planning choices and depressing commercial buildings.

Southampton Docks from Millbrook Station footbridge

The project is ongoing, to investigate stretches of the route in further detail during 2016. Latest images from the project can be viewed here.

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