Building sights 1.

14th June 2016

Over the past week I have contributed in a small way to two events involving screenings of television documentaries about architecture. On Thursday I introduced at BFI Southbank two films written and presented by Kenneth Clark, Great Temples of the World: Chartres Cathedral (1965) and The Royal Palaces of Britain (1966). And on Saturday the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image presented Broadcasting the Arts: Architecture on TV, which included further screenings and a talk by me about Clark and architecture. The BFI Southbank event is part of an Architecture on TV season at the BFI, and both are contributions to the extensive and month-long London Festival of Architecture. There is plenty more to explore at BFI Southbank and across London (as below), but today and in a couple of other posts I mostly want to highlight how with online resources you can organise your own little architecture-on-television festival. Starting today with the films of Ian Nairn.

Among the treats coming up at BFI Southbank are ‘Perspectives on Pevsner’ (15 June), with three films introduced by Charles O’Brien and Simon Bradley, current editors of the Pevsner Architectural Guides, and a programme on 22 June introduced by the excellent producer/director Mike Dibb that includes his very fine Where We Live Now: The Country & The City, 1979, based on the writings of the great cultural critic Raymond Williams. The London Festival of Architecture has an incredibly rich and varied programme including a film screening on 23 June at Barbican of Flotel Europa,2015,  a Danish/Serbian co-production directed by Vladimir Tomic.

Both the BFI and the Birkbeck events were curated by my friends Kevin Flanagan and Matt Harle, and on Saturday Kevin spoke about the interest of archive documentaries about architecture – and about how little critical attention has so far been paid to them. Certainly in academia there is significantly more writing about films concerned with painting and sculpture, and when reviewers tackle films such as Jonathan Meades’ recent Ben Building: Mussolini, Monument and Modernism (on BBC iPlayer for another 17 days) they invariably discuss the peccadilloes of the presenter rather than the way in which the actual buildings are filmed and framed.

Introducing the Kenneth Clark films, and also a further selection of clips on Saturday including some from Civilisation (1969), I argued that between Chartres and Civilisation the production team of the latter pretty much invented how to film architecture effectively for television. And that the key film on which they did that was the little-seen Royal Palaces, which was a rare ITV-BBC co-production. It was filmed by A.A. ‘Tubby’ Englander, who also shot Civilisation, and exceptionally in those days it was made with 35mm colour film. So it still looks spectacular, and when you compare it with the grainy monochrome of Chartres, which was made on 16mm film, you can see immediately the advances that Englander and his colleagues achieved.

Kevin is immensely engaged by a critic of a rather different stripe, Ian Nairn (1930-83), who made a number of BBC television documentaries in the late 1960s and 1970s. A man of the people rather than, as was Clark, of the establishment, shabby and shambling, polemical and populist, Nairn was a brilliant but complex critic who has recently been the focus for a sustained reappraisal both on screen (in the 2014 BBC documentary The Man who Fought the Planners: The Story of Ian Nairn) and in print (see especially Ian Nairn: Words in Place, by Gillian Darley and David McKie). You can find a number of his rather wonderful films online, both legitimately and in the ‘grey’ world of Youtube (including that recent profile).

The three films of Nairn Across Britain, a 1972 series in which he makes three eccentric journeys through the land, are all available online from the BBC. Nairn’s earlier – and eccentric – The Pacemakers, made for the Central Office of Information and concerned with two Pimlico estates, can be watched for free courtesy of BFI Player. Less legitimately, Nairn’s Journey: Football Towns Huddersfield and Halifax, 1975, can be found on Vimeo:

Nairn’s Journeys: Football Towns Huddersfield and Halifax from John Woods on Vimeo.

Ian Nairn’s Journeys: The Orient Express, 1971, is also available in three parts, together with an intro by Jonathan Meades, on Youtube:

For more on Nairn himself, see Jonathan Glancey for the Guardian, ‘Ian Nairn: voice of outrage’; ‘Ian Nairn: flight from subtopia’ by Matthew Engel for the Financial Times; and Gavin Stamp for the Telegraph, ‘Ian Nairn: poet of place, enemy of arrogance’. There is also a very good piece by Steve Parnell at Architectural Review‘Ian Nairn: pioneer of outrage’. Adam Scovell wrote an interesting and well-illustrated blog post, ‘Poetics of visual space in Ian Nairn’s Nairn Across Britain (1972)‘.

Image: screengrab from The Pacemakers: Basil Spence, a 1973 Central Office of Information film about the architect, screening at BFI Southbank on Sunday 26 June.


  1. How can one obtain Sir Kenneth Clark’s film “Great Temples of the World”? I’ve searched every film source known to me, but to no avail. Many thanks.

    • John Wyver says:

      I fear it’s impossible to find. The only one of the series that I know exists in the film on Chartres, and that can be viewed (for a fee) via the BFI Viewing Service at Stephen Street, but not in any other way that I know.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.