Architectural Criticism between Public Debate and Autonomous Discipline (6)

Mobilizing the Nation via Architectural Criticism : The Architectural Review “Outrage” and “Counterattack”
Erdem Erten
Associate Professor, Izmir Institute of Technology, Department of Architecture

In June 1955, The Architectural Review’s special issue entitled “Outrage” shot right into the heart of post-war public debate. Edited by Ian Nairn, then at the tender age of 25, Outrage summed up the periodical’s worries regarding post-war environmental blight in Britain.
By combining inflammatory and witty prose with dramatic imagery, a trademark of the periodical’s campaigning spirit, Nairn not only launched a successful career of architectural criticism but also created “a book with the power to open people’s eyes as never before.”
The success of Outrage would take Nairn to USA to collaborate with another strong polemicist, Jane Jacobs, by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation; inspire the foundation of the Civic Trust in Britain, and help establish Nairn’s career as one of BBC’s most sought after documentary producers and author of guidebooks.
The last five years saw Nairn becoming the focus of increasing media interest, by “Outrage Revisited” by Jonathan Glancey, the book by Gillian Darley and David Mackie titled “Ian Nairn: Words in Place,” (2013) and the BBC documentary titled “The Man who Fought the Planners: The Story of Ian Nairn” (2014). While this effort puts the spotlight mainly on Nairn as the man who singlehandedly created Outrage and emphasizes its catapulting impact on his career, Outrage should also be read as an important episode of architectural criticism coming from a brilliant angry young man of the post-war generation.
Outrage, later followed by Counterattack, was among several post-war campaigns of The Architectural Review where criticism took many forms. Some of these not even directly addressed environmental concerns, like Manplan, a dark and bold campaign that argued for radical reform in Britain. Uniting all these campaigns and making them more powerful in the eyes of the public was the call to the anonymous citizen for action. Employing a cadre of authors some of which had no professional architectural qualifications, like Nairn, John Betjeman and Peter Morton Shand before him, Hastings continued the English tradition of the amateur within an ever-specializing world of architecture and architectural journalism. Therefore, the Outrage and Counterattack campaigns deserve to be revisited for reflecting on how architectural criticism lost strength in mobilizing the public.
In its author’s words, Outrage was “a prophecy of doom” and more than a warning to the nation. Developing was an environmental mess that AR called “Subtopia: Making an ideal of Suburbia. Visually speaking, the universalization and idealization of our town fringes… (from suburb+utopia).” This word that Ian Nairn coined, continued the AR tradition of inventing memorable neologisms for its campaigns: sharawaggi, townscape, wirescape, floorscape, Outrage, Counter-Attack, Stop the Press etc. Nairn used a direct language of lament, arguing that Britain was on the path to destruction. Although the contents of Outrage might look tediously repetitious today, the strength of its message partially lay in this repetitive depiction of ubiquitous Subtopia. Nairn’s clever narrative that depicted himself as one among many victims turned into advocate, made Outrage even more effective, because the salvation of Britain meant the salvation of the British citizen; as the salvation of the environment meant the salvation of humanity:
What must we do to be saved? These pages offer a Manifesto and a call to action, a programme and a checklist of malpractices for which the opponents of Subtopia must be ever on the alert. … The action is needed now… from all of us. The defence [Sic] of the individuality of places is the defence [Sic] of the individuality of ourselves.
According to Gillian Darley Nairn was “an architectural critic with no architectural qualifications” and a “learned reader that became a writer.” Educated in mathematics, he had left his position as a Royal Air Force pilot for his love of architecture. His knowledge of British cities and countryside largely stemmed from his flights, which he continued after joining AR. Being an outsider allowed Nairn to be a fearless critic, but also made him persona non grata among architects and planners. This aversion nonetheless resulted in his appeal to the anonymous reader because he wrote Outrage as if he was talking to someone he met on the street. He argued that by making a “sufficient [number of] people sufficiently angry” Outrage could move citizens and local authorities to condemn “subtopia”:
Don’t be afraid that you will be just one individual registering dissent. It is your country that is being defaced; it belongs to you, and as an individual amongst fifty million individuals, not a ‘set of income groups’ or an electorate.
This patriotic call aimed to spur each Briton on to action, forgetting his/her class or status in society. It did not matter whether one owned the land or simply enjoyed it as a visitor. The responsibility fell on everyone’s shoulders as patriots. Britain belonged to everyone.
An early example of advocacy, which was to influence Jane Jacobs deeply, Outrage aimed to empower citizens for protest. According to Darley and McKie, the stir it created reached the House of Commons, inviting Nairn and Pevsner among others to the parliament. Outrage was given a slot in a prominent TV show and led to the production of six fifteen-minute programmes entitled Journey through Subtopia, broadcast in June 1956, hosted by another senior editor of AR, Hugh Casson. It became a continuing series within AR after the special issue.
Outrage did not only provoke and agitate, but it also prescribed. It included a “checklist of malpractices” to enable the average person to evaluate his surroundings. One year later, to meet the demand of the minister for Housing and Local Government for a more constructive companion volume, Nairn prepared “Counter-Attack.” Following Townscape pedagogy, Nairn collected precedents into a case-book “to arm the public against the wrong way and [provide] examples of the right way of doing things.” The issue opened with an illustration of Los Angeles, the polar opposite of the “good city.” Reflecting anti-American sentiment common in both the circles of the early New Left and the conservative thought of the 1950s, and targeting the rise of pop culture in Britain, the editors deemed LA the epitome of “planned” sprawl and the inevitable future of Britain if things went on as they were. In 1957, The Civic Trust was founded by Duncan Sandys to support local communities in their efforts for improving the environment. Disappointed in its setup and finding its orientation cosmetic, Nairn never joined.
Having received countless letters from the public, AR announced the opening of a “Counter-Attack Bureau” on the cover of its June 1957 issue. Intended to serve as “a watch and ward service for the good character of visual England,” the bureau would help the “victims of Outrage” by offering them consultation. The bureau, in fact, was the Architectural Review’s offices at 9-13 Queen Anne’s Gate, with Kenneth Browne and Ian Nairn on duty.
In a recent article written for AR, Michael Sorkin argues that “there is some utility in separating [criticism] from theory” and that he sees it as a “service profession” which must be “truly practical.” We live in a world that “a political criticism is urgently needed where the planet is going to hell in a handcart” and the “human intrusion on the planet needs to be curbed.” There arises great risk when the social content of architecture is displaced from criticism for other forms of appreciation. Hence, criticism is at its best when the critic defines his role as a propagandist, and an initiator of advocacy with a clear political position. Today as several theoretical positions compete to take control of the discipline, the critical language developed in Outrage might seem utterly naïve. However, the moment one starts debating who criticism’s audience is, and what kind of language it should use, one clearly understands its success.
AR remained a campaigning periodical until H de C Hastings retired. He witnessed the fall of the Empire and unprecedented global destruction, as he shaped AR according to his neo-romantic vision of Britain in reaction. Until the sixties AR subscribed to a paternal sense of responsibility heavily infused with class identity, the importance of which gradually diminished as the consumer society and popular culture took hold. This paternal sense of responsibility and the imperative to involve the public set the tone for many of the campaigns, including the kind of criticism developed with Outrage.
There are now several channels available for architectural criticism, in print and online, like internet portals, blogs, twitter or Facebook, and maybe that makes far too many channels for audiences. It has become equally difficult to construe a single “public,” when the “public” itself is fragmented into “audiences.” In “What is the future of the Architectural Review?” the editors now in charge demanded from readers to contribute in creating a vision and “help shape the future of AR.” Seeking pathways to involve the public by referring to the golden age of the periodical, they asked:

What might de Cronin Hastings, Reyner Banham or Ian Nairn do with this digital world? We think they would run towards it. And if they were creating the AR now, what might they dream of? Those hundreds of copies of the magazine, carefully put on library shelves and carefully stored in boxes in homes and schools – that immense archive of experience and critical thinking – might be opened up, re-evaluated, shared at the click of a button. That community – global, thoughtful, disparate, change-making – could be linked by vibrant, timely debate previous generations could only imagine.

It is my sincere hope that, that community exists.


Erdem Erten was trained as an architect at METU, Turkey and completed his PhD at the History Theory Criticism program at MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts. He teaches graduate and undergraduate classes in architectural design, and architectural history and theory as Associate Professor of the Department of Architecture at Izmir Institute of Technology, Turkey. His research interests include the theorization of culture and its impact on modern architecture in the post-war period, architectural journalism, the problem of the avant-garde in architecture, romanticism and neo-romanticism, postmodernism and architectural theory. He was a guest critic in several architectural schools around the world, and a jury member in architectural competitions and research committees. He co-edited of “Alternative Visions of Post-War Reconstruction: Creating the Modern Townscape” (Routledge, 2015) together with John Pendlebury and Peter Larkham, and authored several articles on architectural history on the period after World War II.

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