I was introduced to Ian Nairn by my father, who was a great admirer, owned a copy of Nairn’s London and got me watching the mini-series of his programmes repeated in 1990 with introductions by a very fresh-faced Jonathan Meades. Over the years, my attitude towards him has changed from initial incomprehension in my teens (Nairn’s London is difficult to understand without a good prior knowledge of at least some of the buildings and places discussed) to hero-worship in my 20s and 30s, to carefully conditioned admiration now. He can write wonderfully, with huge feeling, and was enormously erudite – and by no means just about architecture. But there are problems. He cannot look at anything from the dispassionate point of view of an historian, always instead speaking ex cathedra, handing down categorial judgements as the omniscient arbiter of taste and architectural quality. In the large sections of the old Pevsners to Surrey and Sussex that he wrote, he ties himself up in terrible knots trying to square his position as a card-carrying modernist with historicism that he wants to admire but feels he shouldn’t.
All the same, were it not for Nairn – or, more precisely, Notting Hill Editions who republished Nairn’s Towns in 2013 and Owen Hatherley, who wrote a foreword and post-postscripts to each entry – I would not have discovered Llanidloes. On the basis of Nairn’s description of the place, I spent two nights there last month and did not regret it. It is an exceptionally attractive, interesting and rewarding town. It is not just individual buildings that make it worth a special visit (although they do), but whole streetscapes, the absence of any major unsympathetic 20th century interventions and a setting in stunning countryside. A place hitherto of no great import, it received a market charter in 1280 and, simultaneously, a regular street plan and earthwork defences. By the late 18th century, it had become a major centre of flannel production, but this was superseded – by the establishment of an iron foundry in 1851 and then lead mining from 1865.
Two in particular stand out. The first is Trinity United Reformed and Presbyterian Chapel on Short Bridge Street, formerly Zion Congregational. It was designed by John Humphrey of Mynyddbach (1819-1888), architect of Tabernacl in Morriston outside Swansea, built in 1872 and dubbed ‘The Cathedral of Welsh Nonconformity’. That is a building (which I know only from photographs) that seems to me to have traded far too much on having a great deal of money spent on it – £18,000, an astronomical sum at that date. But its fame spread and that gave rise to subsequent commissions from the same architect – Tabernacl at Llanelli of 1873, Zoar in Swansea of 1878 (demolished) and Zion in Llanidloes, also built in 1878. At all three, Humphrey tries out variations on the tripartite design of Morriston with giant order columns and a huge pediment, and all three are better than the prototype with its gauche unequal openings and gangly columns.
Nairn’s appreciative take on Zion Congregational was that ‘however improbable it may seem in time and date, it is a piece of truly Roman architecture, a Congregational chapel as Hawksmoor might have designed it, each part of the classical vocabulary a quintessence. Three great arches support a pediment and frame the entrance doors, and the effect is a bright-eyed triumph’. He hits the nail on the head with his description of chapels of the period as representing an ‘uninhibited shaking-up of classical forms which can only be classed Welsh Baroque’, then undermines himself by dismissing all of them in Llanidloes but Zion with a sweeping value judgement: ‘too conventional, the style has gone lifeless and become fancy dress in the usual 19th century way’.
What on earth is that supposed to mean? Though there is a certain generic quality to the street fronts of a lot of Welsh Nonconformist chapels – not only those of Llanidloes – for sheer splendour and swagger it would be hard to beat the Calvinistic Methodist Chapel on China Street, only a stone’s throw away. Built in 1873, it cost the substantial sum of £4,000 (by contrast, Zion was a snip at £1,550) and was the work of Richard Owens of Liverpool (1831-1891), a native of Pwllheli who moved to Liverpool in his 20s, had his own practice by the age of 30 and designed certainly around 200 and perhaps as many as 300 Nonconformist chapels – and that quite apart from his work on secular commissions and town planning. What really sticks in the memory here is the splendid loggia with its vivid rustication and lush foliate capitals, which have nothing to do with the ostensibly classical language in evidence here, but contribute very successfully to the play of light and shadow. Giulio Romano would have been proud of that.
Owens designed no fewer than three more chapels in Llanidloes. The street front of the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel on Longbridge Street of 1874 is rather brittle, stage-set architecture. But the Bethel Calvinistic Chapel on Bethel Street of 1872 is more satisfying thanks to its asymmetrical massing and pleasing, if typical features of the period, such as the alternating bands of rectilinear and fish-scale tiles (adorning what must be a stair tower giving access to the gallery) and spiky decorative ironwork. At any rate, all three buildings demonstrate the fertile imagination of an architect in the curious position of having to compete against himself.
Viewing these buildings one way, ostentation gets the upper hand over correctness – and certainly there are frequent grammatical slips and sometimes outright solecisms if they are judged against the canons of strict classicism. Viewing them another, they represent a wholly different tradition that cannot be fairly judged on those criteria. The architects, who generally were in the master-builder tradition rather than being tutored by established practitioners, had an imperative to make them look as different as possible to the products of the Anglican church. They arrest, challenge received expectations, sometimes delight, sometimes baffle, but rarely fail to repay attention and embody a character that is a fundamental determinant of a uniquely Welsh sense of place.