Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.
His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. In this series I revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, to see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.
I have to admit that I resent Bromley. As a Penge historian, I resent the fact that Penge, which for hundreds of years was a detached hamlet of Battersea, tied to the Surrey river-side, is now annexed to a London borough which half-believes it ought to be in Kent. And as a Penge resident and Labour Party member, I resent living in a borough dominated by a particularly obnoxious sub-species of Tory.
But – somewhat to his own surprise – Ian Nairn liked Bromley when he visited in the 1960s. Or rather, he liked the High Street. In his view, Bromley High Street (unlike many others) had not been swamped by post-war modernisation, but nor had it set itself in aspic. Instead it had achieved its own unique “appealing suburban fussiness … the cheerful disorder of a village shop blown up to serve a population of 70,000“.
He saw the local architecture, both good and bad, conspiring to serve this fussy purpose. Thus the inter-war half-timbered block in the Market Square was (and still is) truly ghastly:
“ … blubbery … really horrible … not fun in any sense … “ according to Nairn. And yet he also saw it as somehow fitting “because it bumbles along … and makes every corner into a fidget”. And Bromley’s few fragments of architectural modernism were equally apt: Dunn’s shop (1956), because it was “full of funny corners”; and Harrison & Gibson’s (1960) because it was simultaneously “flashy and sensitive”. As it happens, both were furniture stores, of which more later.
The only problem was that, in the 1960s, the High Street was still part of the A21 from London to Hastings, with heavy traffic rattling its shop-windows. Nairn nervously anticipated an intervention by “road-wideners”, putting the fidgety yet precious local suburban ecology at risk.
In the end it was the by-pass builders, and not the road-wideners, who won the argument: for more than 30 years now ‘Kentish Way’ has carried the A21 around and away from the old town centre, and the High Street is thoroughly pedestrianised. Where lorries once thundered, pop-up stalls now sell fresh fish and nick-nacks.
In fact, if Nairn’s suburban cheerfulness still survives, it is probably due to this pedestrianisation. On a sunny day the High Street is bustling, not just with shoppers but also with older ladies and gents taking the air and enjoying the proximity, and sometimes the company, of others. Hence my encounter with the lady in the mobility scooter. Always a sucker for a bit of Victorian patterned brick, I had stopped to take a picture of a gable peeping above a modern shop front,
and was immediately accosted. “That was the old library, you know!” the lady announced. And she proceeded to tell me what it looked like, and where the steps were, and how often she used to visit in her youth. “I haven’t thought about the old library for years. I had forgotten it until I saw you taking a picture”. I was as delighted to become acquainted with the ghost of a library as she was to renew her acquaintance with her memories, and we parted on friendly terms.
Back to those modernist furniture shops. They’re both still standing, but no longer sell furniture. What once was Dunn’s now houses Argos, Lakeland, Wallis and Starbucks at street level, with offices above.
And what once was Harrison & Gibson’s is now TK Maxx.
To my eye, the Dunn’s building looks tired. And the Harrison & Gibson’s building looks drab. Whatever allure they held in the ‘60s has been dissipated by time and make-overs.
And yet they had their moment, Dunn’s in particular. This was an old family concern, dating back to the eighteenth century. From the 1930s it was run by Geoffrey Dunn, a committed modernist, who focused the furniture part of the business on modern design. By the 1950s the shop was selling to customers throughout the UK, and in 1965 it attracted national attention when it launched its own version of a modernist icon, the Isokon Long Chair, created in the 1930s by Bauhaus designer Marcel Breuer.
Ian Nairn’s visit in the mid-60s therefore happily coincided with Bromley’s very own modernist moment, a moment defined not by its architecture but by its furniture. And I have to admit that now that I know this, now that I know that Bromley was once nationally celebrated as a centre of modern design, I feel a certain grudging affection for the place – obnoxious Tories notwithstanding.