Wednesday, June 19, 2024

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What Would Nairn Have Thought


One of the great post-war writers on architecture and the built environment was Ian Nairn. He was passionate, idiosyncratic, and angry, especially about mediocre redevelopment and needless destruction. A lot of the time he was just angry but if that was all he was he would have been ultimately uninteresting. Instead he had a wide appreciations of many different styles of building and was not afraid to go over the top in his praise as well as being excoriating in his scorn. He cared deeply about buildings, was moved by them and was able to communicate this in a way that made other people want to go and see them. For him buildings were human spaces, a framework that affects the way we live our lives, that we  respond to in ways that go beyond the utilitarian.

If he had seen Ben Nevis distillery I am not sure what he would have thought. Probably he would have ignored it as uninteresting but if he had ventured an opinion it is impossible to say whether he would have dismissed it out of hand or celebrated its honesty. The fact that you couldn’t second guess him (and that he was also likely to contradict himself) was one of the things that kept his writing alive and challenging. Probably  he would have hated it as part of Fort William and Fort William is the sort of town he called  ‘subtopia’, which he defined as: “the annihilation of the site, the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern’ or ‘the legalization of the urge to dump on a national scale.’ In short, ‘its symptom will be … that the end of Southampton will look like the beginning of Carlisle; the parts in-between will look like the end of Carlisle or the beginning of Southampton.”¹

Why am I thinking about Ian Nairn, whilst writing about Ben Nevis? It is really stupid but when I made a comparison with the Isle of Wight I had a flashback to a place preserved in the 1950s – the natural home of Morris Minor drivers.  In his television programmes Ian Nairn drove Morris Minor.  But there is another link and this is more interesting. Nairn was concerned with what should be preserved from the past, what needed renewal and the quality of how this was done. It is an issue for whisky as well as any other part of the built environment and Ben Nevis is a good place to think of this. The other reason to remember Ian Nairn is one of his lessons of how you should look at a building: go round the back to where the frontage is replaced by brickwork. See what it is about as a whole. The back can often be far more honest and show more of the essence of the building than the facade.

Ben Nevis distillery does not have much of a facade. It is virtually the same all the way round but this picture shows its nature. It is a working building:  a factory.

¹ This comes from the June 1955 special edition of Architectural Review called ‘Outrage’, which made Ian Nairn’s name.

P.S. The BBC made an excellent documentary about Ian Nairn in 2014, which interestingly is not available on the iPlayer but can be found on YouTube 

P.P.S  Ian Nairn was a beer rather than a whisky drinker. He probably wasn’t very interested in where it alcohol made. The thing he loved was pubs.  His great guide to the buildings of London: ‘Nairn’s London’, lists no less than 27 pubs (and inspired the rather pleasant idea of an Ian Nairn pub walk ).

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