SIXTY years ago a young man who could be described as the Bob Dylan of architecture popped onto the black and white TV screens in our homes to warn of the perils of what planners were about to do to Britain. They were we were told in cahoots with local authorities and unscrupulous developers and about to scam the country by building poor quality social housing on an industrial scale.
Ian Nairn became known as the L’enfant terrible of architecture through his out and out disdain for what was happening to our villages, towns and cities in the name of development. Sixty years on one would think that we would have learned the lessons and heeded Nairn’s warnings. He coined the word ‘Subtopia’ to indicate drab suburbs that look identical through unimaginative town-planning.
He made waves and managed to force those in power to reconsider their brutalist approach to housing the working classes. One wonders what Nairn would make of a town like Llanelli if he were to take a walk around it today. He might marvel at the restoration of the beautiful Georgian Llanelly House. He might give a nod of approval for the restoration of the Town Hall and the numerous chapels, which are just barley avoiding the developer’s wrecking ball having stood since the 1600’s.
The tenements of Llanelli were flattened and replaced by three and four bedroomed brick built council houses complete with front and back gardens, a box hedge and inside toilet. Those estates still form the mass of social housing in and around Llanelli. Despite these pockets of beauty and community places it is difficult to walk through any town in Carmarthenshire without seeing the signs of subtopia.
Llanelli has its problems and it is in need of more social housing. The County Council have invested over £1m in buying up housing stock but that may not go very far. Llanelli has become a hotch potch of areas where sticking plasters have been temporarily placed on some of the sores but it is in need of open heart surgery. It needs a long hard look at a combination of measures, which the outspoken Ian Nairn was espousing much to no avail as developers forged through their plans by wining and dining people who had access to public contracts as well as councillors, offering them perks. Harold Wilson was moved to say at the time, “Britain is being held to ransom by a small but unscrupulous group of land speculators and profiteers who are lining their pockets tax free at the expense of local councils trying to rehouse overcrowded families. Surely we have seen the last of these days?
In a supplement called ‘Outrage’ Nairn documented a car Journey from Southampton to Carlisle by taking photos of what he saw along the way. His writings and photos were published followed by another supplement called ‘Counter-Attack (Against Subtopia). He encouraged people to wake up to their own responsibilities and do something about their own town and question their councillors. Housing, employment and leisure facilities are just a few of the contributory factors to a healthy society. The question is, do we have the planners, the architects and developers and the local authority representatives who would dare to suggest that we invest in preserving the old and beautiful and knock down the crass, the substandard, the ugly and the brutal?
Nairn believed that the planning and design of buildings shaped people’s lives. He wanted to see well laid out towns and he championed markets for their companionship and spontaneity. This visionary who shook the establishment saw architectural design of the pub as just as important as the design of the church. The key Nairn believed was that a place is valuable as a community not just something to look at. Perhaps his most ascorbic statement of the time was, ‘The outstanding and appalling fact about modern British architecture is that it is just not good enough.’
Today the town of Llanelli is struggling to survive and has lost much of the character, which made it unique. There is nothing linking the old and the new. They sit in opposite almost challenging each other as to who will survive. We know the answer to that and it is not unrealistic to expect that whole swathes of the old buildings in the town may disappear within this century unless architects, planners and the local authority call a halt to the subtopian onslaught.