Nairn’s Towns

nairns towns

Nairn’s Towns is a collection of writing by Ian Nairn at his acerbic best. As one of the few critics of architecture to eschew purely aesthetic modes of analysis, Nairn instead focused on the character and feeling of buildings and towns. This proclivity for affect is reflected by his praise for structures as diverse as Everton Water Tower, Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, Sheffield’s Globe Works, Newcastle’s Victorian railway infrastructure, Charles Church in Plymouth and the entire Welsh town of Llanidloes.

Nairn’s original essays, written in the early 1960s, exude optimism about the future of planning and conservation but he is altogether more deflated when re-evaluating in his late-60s postscripts. The reissue by Notting Hill Editions includes insightful post-postscripts by Owen Hatherley, but the publisher has taken the dubious typographical decision of printing them entirely in italics, which, to be frank, is daft. Nevertheless, we must credit them for illuminating such an important work in the history of planning.

The BBC made a wonderful documentary telling Nairn’s story a few years ago called The Man who Fought the Planners which deserves an hour of your time if you’re interested in British planning history.

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Charles Church in Plymouth, the bombed out shell of which remains on an ostensibly inaccessible traffic island on the approach to a major retail development in the city. © Kevin Colyer, 2002.


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Gateshead’s Unbuilt Airport

It’s hard to imagine the North East’s international airport being anywhere other than Newcastle. It is, after all, the largest city in the region and has strong business, transport and financial links. But the location of the airport was not always a foregone conclusion.

As air travel increased in both viability and popularity throughout the 1920s, local authorities all over England were pondering whether they should build their own airports. Particular encouragement was given to the North region by the Air Ministry, who were adamant an international airport would contribute to their economic recovery in the aftermath of the General Strike of 1926 and a decline in core industries like coal and heavy manufacturing. Spirited by this, a Municipal Airport Special Committee was set up in 1927 to mull over the possibility of an international airport somewhere in the North East. It was a rainbow committee, with representatives from Newcastle, Northumberland, Durham, Gateshead and South Shields and some of the small councils trying to argue to the case for their own.

By 1929 a location had been agreed on by the councils of Felling, Washington, Boldon, Jarrow and South Shields, and despite trepidation from the bigger councils of Gateshead, Sunderland and Newcastle, Felling was settled on as the best location. The plans show that the airport would be built over a 200 acre area, centred at Whitemare Pool and engulfing large swathes of land on what is now the Leam Lane Estate, including two farms and Heworth Golf Course. The plans also outlined the infrastructure that would need to be built to service an international airport, including a new bridge across the River Tyne at Pelaw and a ‘super highway’ to cope with growing traffic demand.

airport 1910s

A map from 1910 showing the land which would have been cannibalised by the Gateshead Airport. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2016). All rights reserved.

If these plans ever materialised, there’s a good chance the Leam Lane Estate and possibly even parts of Wardley Estate would never have been built. This invites some interesting counterfactual speculation as to how Felling might have developed if the Gateshead Airport went ahead—where, for example, would the huge council estate have been built? It also begs the question as to what, if anything, would happen to the rest of Felling. Might Gateshead have been a bigger commercial rival to Newcastle than it is now? Perhaps it would have been called Newcastle Airport anyway, a bit like London Stansted, which is actually 40 miles from central London.

Even after Felling was announced, infighting dogged as some of the larger councils started jockeying for their own airfields to be converted into airports. By 1939 there was little progress and very little had actualised. One thing that had become certain by then was that Felling would not be the right place for an international airport.

Joan Hewitt gives some of the crucial reasons the plan eventually fell through:

  • Felling Urban District Council could scarcely afford the initial investment costs, never mind development and upkeep fees
  • All of the land allotted for the airport was prone to mining subsidence. This would later also pose a problem to the developers of council estates in the area
  • Headgear from the nearby Follingsby and Wardley collieries would pose a risk to low-flying aircraft
  • The bulk of the business community who would be making use of international flights already lived in Newcastle
  • Sunderland preferred to use Usworth Airfield in their own area. It had already been developed during the Great War and would pose less of a risk than a new development in Felling

The onslaught of the Second World War put an end to any hopes of a civilian airport, but following the end of the conflict the joint committee was resurrected and eventually agreed on Woolsington Aerodrome as the sensible candidate for development into an international airport.

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Woolsington Airfield, which would eventually become Newcastle International Airport. © Chris Morgan.

Hewitt points out that one remnant of the Felling airport dream does still remain though.

When Felling Council built Fisherwell Road in Pelaw, the road was made very wide, in case it should still be needed as the approach road to the Pelaw High Level Bridge.

If you find Fisherwell Road on a map, you can plot roughly the route the new ‘Pelaw High Level’ bridge would have taken across the River Tyne and through to Whitemere Pool.

North East Regional Airport Committee minutes, held in Tyne and Wear Archives (MD.NC/298).

Joan Hewitt, File on Felling (year unknown).


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Global Undergrounds: Exploring Cities Within

Global Undergrounds Exploring Cities Within

In his introduction to Global Undergrounds Geoff Manaugh tries to get to grips with the allure of subterranean spaces. He recognises that ‘the underground lends itself well to mythology’ and posits that even ‘if our cities didn’t have undergrounds, we would need to invent them’ in our popular imagination. Later in the volume, Stephen Graham is more cutting in his take on the cultural resonance of the underground:


As the surface environments of many cities become burnished with the identikit accoutrements of stage-managed spectacle, homogenised corporate consumption and gentrified stone-blasted ‘heritage’, urban tourists now flock in increasing numbers to ‘shadow architectures’ of bunkers, tunnels and subterranean spaces packaged as ‘authentic’ tourist sites, as part of the wider growth of so-called dark tourism.

The editors of Global Undergrounds have taken our fascination with the sub-surface world as their starting point for looking at 80 interesting places around the world. As the first academic survey of its kind, each entry is refracted through the lenses of social and cultural theory, with rich historical context provided by each individual contributor. Dobraszczyk, Galviz and Garrett eschew the traditional geographical ordering, opting instead to group the sites by categories like ‘memory’, ‘resistance’ and ‘edges’, elevating Global Undergrounds above the many passive compendia of subterranea that have sadly proliferated in the past couple of decades.


© Acmo, 2009.


Central to the book is the editors’ desire to push our understanding of these spaces beyond thinking of them as mere landscape quirks, highlighting the power struggles (economic, social, physical) that are represented by many of them. In this way Global Undergrounds is a reaction against the lazy listicle ‘top 10 nuclear bunker’-style lists that litter books and the web, making it a very timely intervention in a hugely undertheorised field of study.

The staggering diversity of the places in this book is represented by a cross-section of the best entries, which include the Pyongyang Metro system, Stockholm’s Atomic Bomb defences, the Brighton Sewers and the Brescia Underground. These are sewn among a tapestry of defunct civil deference infrastructure, lost rivers, cities below cities, caverns, caves, mines, doomsday vaults, utility tunnels, catacombs and abandoned underground stations.

Although there are a few noticeable dips in quality on occasion—to be expected of a volume with more than 25 contributors—for the most part the articles are engaging and fall in line with the editorial vision of recontextualising underground places as more than just curiosities for sanitised tourism or uncritical gawking.

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Newcastle’s Big Clean-up

One of Newcastle’s defining qualities is the unique townscape created by its Georgian and Neoclassical sandstone architecture. Geordies take great pride in this architectural heritage and it’s no surprise that Grey Street—one of the paragons of sandstone—was voted Britain’s ‘Best Street’ by the BBC a few years ago. But for decades there was a clash between this aspect of Newcastle city life and another of our defining characters—heavy industry.

A century of heavy industrial activity in and around the centre of Newcastle has no doubt had a significant impact on the local environment, and one of the most visible manifestations of this was that years of sooty deposits from the city’s many industrial chimneys had collected on the sandstone buildings.

By the 1950s this had become an issue for locals, leading the council to embark on a clean-up programme to restore the hundreds of city centre buildings affected back to their former majesty. A process of cleaning began and throughout the 1960s and 70s buildings all over the city—including Grey Street and Central Station—were thoroughly scrubbed down. Below, for example, you can see numbers 2-12 Grey Street prior to cleaning and after.

Unfortunately, the majority of the photographs from the days of sooty buildings were in black-and-white, making it difficult to appreciate the state some of them were in. To truly appreciate just how black Newcastle’s buildings were, your best bet is to look at one of three buildings which managed to escape the clean-up and is still standing covered in soot to this day—the Church of St Thomas the Martyr in Haymarket, Claremont Buildings on Newcastle University’s campus and Pape’s Building opposite Central Station.


Top left – Pape’s Building © Andrew Curtis, top right – Claremont Buildings © Stephen Richards, bottom – Church of St. Thomas the Martyr © Chemical Engineer.

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Planning for Destruction After the Death of Coal in County Durham

The English village brings to mind images of luscious rolling fields, beautiful stone built cottages with thatched roofs and winding country roads.  These are the places words like ‘genteel’, ‘quaint’ and ‘idyllic’ were made for. Travel companies lure weary city-dwellers into England’s villages with promises of tranquillity and unspoiled landscapes feeding into the popular imaginary of villages as somewhere altogether disconnected from the techo-industrial matrix imposed by urban life.

Villages in County Durham at the peak of the coal mining industry, however, were of an entirely different character.  With rows of cramped, poorly-constructed terraced housing and dirt roads, they represented what Mark Benney calls ‘an extraordinarily uniform picture of bleak ugliness to the stranger with standards set by South of England villages’. The villages were constructed out of necessity—as mining operations proliferated in 19th century County Durham, colliery-owners had to build accommodation for the previously-dispersed rural populations which gravitated towards the pits for work.

Between 1800 and the 1840s County Durham’s population swelled from 100,000 to 350,000. Increased population movements like this were typical of the century, with traditional agrarian workers enticed to the coalfields by promises of a better life. Most of these great swathes were locals from rural areas, but people from non-mining towns like Darlington and impoverished families from Scotland and Ireland also flooded in.

People seemed to be magnetically drawn to every new pit that was sunk. This steady supply of workers was good news for companies running the mines, but it forced them to grapple with a tough dilemma: how can we house the new employees and their families, and what is the cheapest possible way to do so? This resulted in what local authorities described as ‘long, straight terraces of mean industrial housing strung along highways or packed close together in grid-iron blocks, like patches of Manchester slum set down on open moors and hillside’.

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craghead 1938

Documentary photographs from the County Durham Mining Village of Craghead, taken by the BBC in 1938.

At its height County Durham covered 500 square miles and stretched from the banks of the River Tyne to the Tees and from the east coast across to what is now Cumbria. By the time the mining industry reached its zenith in 1913 there were over 350 settlements in the region. Many of them were hastily assembled and it was not unusual for people to report ad hoc villages appearing seemingly overnight. Others were old rural settlements expanded and adapted for their new residents.

Historical accounts—in their haste to chronologise and peruse grand narratives about the mining industry, often gloss over the fact that village residents were not just one-dimensional characters who had fallen into the back-breaking monotony of harsh and often dangerous manual labour, descending the shaft every day, toiling for a pittance and returning to their underwhelming dwelling to eat whatever their wife had prepared. Despite the relative squalor, the villages were not lifeless shanty-towns. Each community was uniquely vibrant, a place where people could lead active and fulfilling social, cultural and civic lives. They were places where children were raised and families were built. Residents decorated and made improvements to their own homes and established working mens clubs, welfare institutes and co-operative stores. This forged a shared sense of community and helped strengthen the common identity shared by the miners, their wives and families.

Structurally and even functionally, much of the housing had not been fit for purpose in the first place, but by the 1920s observers and campaigners were opining about the derelict state of some villages. The fortunes of the coalfield villages were inextricably intertwined with those of the coal industry, so when the market began to decline in the 1930s, many of them were pushed into further dereliction and poverty. The state of housing and infertile job market became a cause for concern to both the national and local government as capital and population began leaving the region. A national government study of poverty in the area concluded that new industries needed to be attracted to County Durham, with many new industrial parks opening in the region.

Despite attempts by the British Government to resuscitate the coal industry with nationalisation in 1947, by 1951 villages were haemorrhaging population and the problem had metastasised to most of the 350 mining communities in the County. High unemployment—owing to the decline of the coal industry and a raft colliery closures shortly after the war—forced entire communities to look elsewhere for work. Families began moving to centralised urban areas in proximity to new factories, warehouses and offices, leaving once-thriving villages ghost towns. The industrial geography of County Durham started to shift into new towns like Peterlee and Newton Aycliffe. Such towns had grown out of the New Towns Act of 1946. The Act allowed local authorities to masterplan organised towns from scratch, a process that was at odds with the hasty construction of extemporary settlements during periods of rapid industrialisation.

Following World War II the local government in County Durham was faced with the problem of supporting the 85,000 people who still lived in in the dying mining villages. In 1951 a County Development Plan was developed to address the perceived issues. The impetus for the plan had been the passage of the Town and County Planning Act of 1947, which centralised planning and put responsibility in the hands of local authorities. The new law vested considerable power in local councils and compelled each of the United Kingdom’s 147 planning authorities to create their own development plan.

The 1951 County Durham Development Plan was far-reaching and made full use of the authority’s new ability to exercise benevolent paternalism over its population. In the view of the plan’s architects, the villages had ‘outlived their usefulness’ and the solution was a ‘gradual regrouping of population’. This involved categorising all of the towns, villages and hamlets in County Durham according to their potential to continue existing productively. Category A settlements had increasing populations and were marked to receive significant investment for growth. At the bottom of the pile Category D villages—which covered most of the mining villages—would be either left to die or actively killed. A block was put on funding these settlements and the County would take every opportunity to acquire property, rehouse the residents and then destroy the villages completely. The masterplan identified 114 such areas.

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Map showing the location of Category D villages spread throughout County Durham. Scanned by Marsden Banner Group

The topdown scheme met with opposition at all levels, from residents to the hyper-local authorities responsible for administering sub-regions. Resistance to erasing the villages was effective and there was little progress throughout the 1950s. Although complete clearance had been avoided, the County had successfully followed through on the policy of not providing investment in the declining areas. By the early 1960s, support for the policy had waned amongst the officials charged with executing it. It came as a surprise, then, when the County stubbornly upheld the policy in the Revised Durham County Plan issued in 1964 and sought help from the national government to expedite the implementation. The new plan retired the Category D designation, replacing it with six new categories. Despite this bloated imbroglio there still remained categories devoted to condemning settlements to death by starving them of vital funding or clearing the property completely. In fact the number of such areas rose to 121—7 more than in the original 1951 categorisation.

As the County pressed on opposition became fiercer and more organised. Local council members representing endangered villages formed the County Redevelopment of Villages Action Committee (CROVAC) which lobbied politicians at all levels and held local meetings. One such meeting was attended by shadow government ministers who offered their support against what they saw as the ‘legal vandalism’ planners were committing. Throughout the 1960s, coverage in local and national press lifted public opinion to an all-time high, increasing the appeal of the campaign to the remaining official supporters who were beginning to have doubts about the destruction policy. Indeed many local councillors who had initially supported the clearances publically changed their minds.

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Survey given to residents of Witton Park, a Category D village. © R. Snowdon.

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Pamplet produced by Witton Park Defence Committee, protesting against forced rehousing. © R. Snowdon.

Progress for the County was glacial owing to the successful grassroots campaigns and changing ideas about how to deal with the emerging geographies of industry and poverty. In 1977 the policy was officially revoked, and County Durham pledged to support the former coalfield settlements. Despite the plan’s overwhelming failure, three of the 357 pit villages were demolished.

Marsden was one of them. Sitting on the cliffs between South Shields and Whitburn, it was completely demolished in the early 1960s displacing hundreds of residents. In many ways Marsden was typical of the Category D villages. It had entered a decline after the First World War–its school had closed in 1931 and the population gradually shifted to nearby collieries or industrial towns. Nevertheless, according to one source the supposed slum of Marsden ‘had a bowling green, tennis courts, football [and] cricket pitches and a pavilion’ while ‘many people grew their own food in allotments and fished in the sea’. Today members of the Marsden Banner Group are trying to claim back a part of their heritage which was abruptly destroyed. Members of the group help forge links between the displaced residents and write personal histories of the village, continuing the sense of place and identity of a place which no longer exists.

Although only three villages were completely destroyed, many were partially demolished. Witton Park village was archetypical of this. The narrators of a recent documentary about the settlement describe it as ‘a village of absences of houses, of streets and in people. Gaps exist giving it a disparate and sometimes forlorn feel’. People were re-located to the sprawling council estates nearby, essentially gutting the village. Walking through Witton Park today the sense of architectural pastiche is strong—one terraced row includes two system built early 20th century council houses shoved between a pair of 19th century stone buildings. The two newer houses are almost like a scar in the original street, which was cut open and gutted by the Category D designation.

Despite attempts to destroy the mining communities through destructive urban planning the sense of identity in all of the settlements—even those which have vanished—remains strong. Stephenson and Wray, in their study of former pit villages, found that ‘these communities appear to be regenerating themselves using the cultural capital accrued through tradition, and maintained by festival and exhibition’. This is certainly true in Marsden, where relatives of former residents have restored the pit’s banner over the past couple of years. The banner bears the rather fateful slogan ‘firm as a rock we stand’.

marsden village - lindsay street

marsden village - school children

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Images of Marsden Village which was demolished following its designation as Category D. Images all provided by the Marsden Banner Group and come from a variety of their sources.

In County Durham the interplay of a complex nexus of social, economic and political factors coalesced to leave large swathes of the population in poverty. Rapid industrialisation in the 18th century and the subsequent decline of the national coal industry left the County with hundreds of settlements which were not fit for purpose by the end of World War II. As deindustrialisation took hold County Durham’s planners made full use of their exhaustive new planning powers in the 1950s to plot a demographic shift out of villages and into new urban centres. Although it would be wrong to blame the County’s destructive response for the overall decline of the villages, their haste to relocate populations was unsympathetic and sought to erase the sense of community and identity that pit village residents felt.

This deliberately destructive planning serves as a cautionary tale. Although viewed as a mistake and anomaly by the planning community, it seems strikingly relevant given the recent downturn in the economy of Teeside, County Durham’s neighbour. For decades the region relied on its steel industry until their largest plant was closed in October 2015. It has left over 1,700 workers without a job in a region which was already struggling to find work for its unemployed. Hopefully planners will have the failure of County Durham in mind in their attempts to compensate for their newfound unemployment.

B. Caudwood, ‘Marsden Village’, Marsden Banner Group (

Carol Stephenson and David Wray, ‘Emotional regeneration through community action in post-industrial mining communities: The New Herrington Miners Banner Partnership’, Capital and Class 87 (2005): 175-199.

D. Senior, Growth Points for Durham, pamphlet for Durham County Council, undated.

Gary Pattison, ‘Planning for decline: the ‘D’-village policy of County Durham, UK’, Planning Perspectives 19 (July 2004): 311-332.

Mark Benney, ‘The Legacy of Mining’ in Mining and Social Change: Durham County in the Twentieth Century by Martin Bulmer (ed.) (Routledge: Oxon, 2015).

Ronald Snowdon, Condemned to Die: Housing Action and Social Justice South West Durham 1949-1979 (Unpublished masters thesis at the University of Durham, 1979).

Russell Davies, ‘Planning for Destruction’, broadcast on BBC Radio 4, May 20th 2008.

William A. Geenty, County Development Plan Written Analysis: Prepared for The County Council of Durham (1951).


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A Burglar’s Guide to the City

burglars guide to the city

In A Burglar’s Guide to the City Geoff Manaugh takes a look at architecture through the eyes of a burglar, positing that those looking to surreptitiously enter buildings see and make use of the built environment in a fundamentally different way to the rest of us. In exhaustively chronicling the ways various thieves—some successful, many not—have exploited and reimagined the architectural world around them, Manaugh traces the history of heists from Houdini to the Hole in the Ground Gang.

The book is quick off the mark to link architecture and burglary and sets the tone with the tale of George Leonidas Leslie, a 19th century architect who used his knowledge of buildings to break into them. From panic rooms and casino floors to freeways and tunnels, Manaugh goes on to bring every imaginable form of the built environment into his analysis. Overall A Burglar’s Guide to the City is a well-tempered mix of architectural theory and crime history with good dose of journalistic legwork.

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The Infrastructure Art of Renzo Picasso

Renzo Picasso (1880-1975) was an Italian architect, planner and artist whose work often concentrated on the utopian potential of vertical planning through skyscrapers—or cloudscratchers as he often referred to them. Although little known outside of Italy, Picasso spent time in dense metropoles like London, Philadelphia and New York City studying every aspect of urban life. This fascination led to a series of unique illustrations of city infrastructure, many seen from unique perspectives.

The Renzo Picasso archive has been lovingly restoring his drawings and producing high quality prints to finance the acquisition of more of his works. You can find more of his art and information about his life on their website.

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All © Renzo Picasso Archive.


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