Tag Archive | the industrial north

A lost gem (intelligent constructive criticism of Barnsley)

I’ve finally found out who the narrator of this lost gem was. Ian Douglas Nairn “a British architectural critic and topographer.” Although I come from an art, and ‘that bloke who walks everywhere [in the age of cars]” background, I find a lot similarities with this video and the documentation I’ve been doing of this area 45 years later. Many of the problems are the same, just with different buildings; the urge to tell the people of the town to “wake up”, and demand better is still a common urge. If at times it sounds harsh, it becomes clear it is constructive criticism from something he really wants these places to be more than they are. As for me, being from this area, and still living here, constructive criticism is all one can afford to do – simply slagging a place off does nobody any good.

Within this video, although he has doubts that the plan for the new concrete metropolitan complex (market place, car park) would be satisfactory in reality (and most would probably argue time has proven him right), there is still a evidently massive modernist impulse within his desire for better urban spaces, because he “likes the people [of Barnsley]”, and feels they deserve(d) better. He is a man who believes in progress for the benefit of all, a rare sentiment in our current times where many are fooled into believing archaic ideas would benefit us. Ironically, it seems likely that Nairn’s accounts may actually have influenced New Labour’s regeneration of UK towns/cities, which took modernist ideas on a surface-deep level, largely using them to redevelop cities for the wealthier citizens, to the exclusion of the rest, something Owen Hatherley referred to as ‘pseudo-modernism’ in his highly recommended book ‘A Guide To The New Ruins of Great Britain’. This is certainly evident in Nairn’s account of the then wasteland canal-sides in central Leeds on a documentary he made traveling by canal – as anyone who knows contemporary central Leeds will know, this area has been regenerated into a area of highly expensive city living (posh restaurants, luxury flats, and finance). Regarding Nairn’s account of Barnsley, you can almost see Will Alsop’s overly colourful Blair-years virtual-impressions of an ‘haloed’ Barnsley rising up from the wreckage that he stands amidst (although this isn’t really a criticism of Alsop himself, I do think some of Alsop’s ideas, if separated from the Blair year misuse of modernism/urban regeneration, had much promise).

Also, in the light of the confusion and discontent surrounding our relationship with the rest of Europe, being exploited by parties such as UKIP with worrying results, I find Nairn’s belief that we should look at (the then 1960’s) Europe for possible answers, very refreshing in deed. Nairn concludes by saying “I’m a European person, it’s all one to me”.