PRINT December 2001


Reyner Banham

IT REMAINS A REMARKABLE FACT that the academic history of modern architecture was launched by someone who obsessed about the tail fins on automobiles, the fur lining of Jane Fonda’s spacecraft in Barbarella, the paintwork on ice-cream vans, and the plastic knobs on transistor radios. After decades of self-congratulatory writing by an army of promoters about the supposedly functional mode of building, Peter Reyner Banham rode in on a fold-up bicycle to demystify modern architecture. It had apparently only pretended to be modern, frivolously flirting with the new technologies that should have revolutionized it to the core.

It is hard to think of a figure who did more to reshape the architectural discourse of the second half of the last century than Banham, the author of an astonishing array of seminal books and more than 750 articles, as well as a frequent contributor to television and radio programs. Yet it is only now that this first monograph on the pivotal figure appears and one of his most important books is reissued. Thirteen years after his death, it would seem that Banham’s legacy is finally ripe for discussion.

The delay in examining Banham’s contribution could reflect the prudent hesitation of a scholarly community that keeps its distance from the events it analyzes. Or it could be another example of the current fascination with the postwar period, a sign of passionate engagement rather than coo3S±tachment. But perhaps it is really just a symptom of the fact that the architectural world still doesn’t know how to handle its writers. While they are supposed to write about architects, they themselves are rarely written about until they are gone, even if it is easy to demonstrate that they actively shape both the intellectual and physical environment, often having as much effect as the people they write about. Shouldn’t the discourse monitor its writers as closely, as proudly, and as often, as its builders?

One of the things that made Banham unique from the beginning was that he refused the separation between writing and building. His earliest book, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960), was the first history of modern architecture to patiently analyze all the central theoretical texts of the period, not just for their polemical content, which is scrutinized line by line, but also for the way the texts operate within the discourse, their rhetorical techniques, images, typography, size, price, readership, influence, and so on. Banham was always sensitive to the key role of books and magazines in architecture. Already in 1954 he had organized a series of lectures at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London titled “Books and the Modern Movement,” and he went on to be a prolific reviewer, evaluating more than 180 volumes in his career. Banham read books as often as buildings, simultaneously taunting historians for their pathological oversights or confusion and testing architects’ designs against their writings. His work upset so many established discourse routines that it cannot be easily assessed, no matter how long the delay. Contemporary writers remain so indebted to him, largely unconsciously, that scholarly detachment is just a pretentious delusion. For a long time to come, analysis of Banham will be self-analysis. Which is to say, difficult.

Nigel Whiteley’s monograph Reyner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future rises to the challenge. It is an excellent response to the impossibility of at once introducing the reader to the main texts in Banham’s restless oeuvre and analyzing their interrelations. Out of the mass of writing, a coherent picture emerges, an intellectual portrait of the way in which Banham kept changing his mind yet preserved a basic trajectory of inquiry. Whiteley, a professor of art at Lancaster University, observes and respects the complications in Banham’s thought, lightly pointing out the weaknesses and contradictions while finding strength in the critic’s very capacity to change his attention and position. It is a refreshing narrative. One could certainly quibble about specific readings here and there, texts omitted that might be key, and so on, but a good monograph usually encourages the reader to rewrite it in some way. What counts is whether it creates an opening, a threshold to further exploration. Whiteley’s book does so by presenting a nonrestrictive overview, monitoring the twists and turns in the work of a relentless yet shifting character.

Anthony Vidler’s equally measured introduction to the new edition of Banham’s 1971 Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies positions the text in a nuanced reading. It shows how Banham developed a whole new form of writing to create an image of Los Angeles that would “destabilize the entire field of architectural history.” As always, Banham took pleasure in the irritation his argument would undoubtedly produce. Vidler argues that the book was intended as a disruptive manifesto, both in its praise of the city most cited as a model of the degeneration of urbanism, and in its use of a nonlinear montage of disconnected chapters, a form that echoes the structure of Los Angeles itself.

To Vidler’s persuasive interpretation, it could be added that the book is a self-portrait. It is as if the city, with its basic principle of movement and an endlessly fluid mix of high and low, acts as a kind of mirror for Banham, a reflection both of his latest desires and his oldest dreams. In a 1961 essay titled “Urbanism: USA,” he described Los Angeles as little more than a possible rival to San Francisco for the title of metropolis of the west, while defending the disrespected suburbs as the real American contribution to the global evolution of new forms of urban life. A decade later, Los Angeles had become a role model for him, but one that he would abandon in favor of the seductions of the American desert. The story of Banham’s career is a kind of romance novel, filled with successive affairs with the latest candidates for his perfect love object, an authentically modern (i.e., technological, efficient, expendable, participatory, nonelitist) architecture. But his flings, starting with the New Brutalist architects in the ’50s, never panned out, and he usually wrote a book documenting the rise and fall of his excitement. After each book, each let down, the critic moved on––heading westward through the decades, from London to Los Angeles. He even got as far as a book on Japanese architecture before coming full circle in his last volume, A Concrete Atlantis (1986), to analyze the Buffalo, New York, grain silos that so inspired the European avant-garde of the ’20s.

In the end, Banham’s writing was always about himself, or a certain image of himself. Not only did he typically describe his personal encounters with a given topic and what it meant for him to be writing about it, but he appeared in the illustrations: the writer as object rather than witness. What other historian has made his point by appearing naked inside the architecture he was analyzing, as when he was collaged into François Dallegret’s drawing of a plastic bubble house for a 1965 issue of Art in America, or illustrated an essay, on “Soft Hardware,” with a close-up of his tangled beard printed full page on translucent paper? Banham, like all the architects he wrote about, constructed himself as a figure. There was never any illusion of detachment. On the contrary. He presented himself as a passionate writer embedded in the issues he describes, an activist scholar.

If writers are indeed designers, Banham was a total designer. No subject was off-limits. The real force of his writing comes from his capacity to slide back and forth between high art and popular culture, architecture and engineering, aesthetic issues and technical concerns, scholarship and journalism. In addition to founding the academic historiography of modern architecture, he launched the architectural equivalent of Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism. Books and buildings, films and appliances are analyzed precisely yet humorously. The writing consistently has a confident light touch, whether it concerns Julien Gaudet’s turn-of-the-century lectures at the École des Beaux-Arts or the shape of the latest electric razor. Pop references are inserted into the academic work and scholarly details are tossed into the journalism. This slippage between high and low is partly biographical since Banham came from a working-class background and served as an apprentice engineer in an aircraft factory during the war before going to the all-too-elitist Courtauld Institute in London. But this position was also carefully constructed during the years of discussions within the so-called Independent Group, which invented the very category of “Pop” in the early ’50s (Banham’s voice remained particularly indebted to the arguments of IG colleagues Lawrence Alloway, John McHale, and Richard Hamilton). Of all that Banham would go on to do, little was not prefigured in those early debates about the revolutionary impact of the postwar cocktail of consumer culture, mass communication technologies, miniaturization, synthetic materials, and electronics. Despite all his shifts in focus and emphasis, a singular lifelong mission was established and then doggedly pursued.

Yet the extraordinary capacity to slide fluidly back and forth between traditional categories, viewing angles, and subjects makes Banham a quintessentially mobile figure. In photographs, he is often on the move. Not by chance would the 1964 image of the writer navigating London on his fold-up bicycle get restaged almost twenty years later in the Mojave for the cover of his 1982 book Scenes in America Deserta. After all, his first love was the motion-fetishizing Futurists. There is even a feeling of speed in his writing. The reader gets swept up in a sense of momentum, driven toward a seemingly inevitable conclusion. It is astonishing to see Banham’s original manuscripts in the archives. Very little is changed from the first drafts. Ideas seem to have flowed quickly. And yet it is also remarkable to see how many sites he visited and people he corresponded with researching the books. Patient labor behind the scenes enables a certain speed and a supreme confidence in the writing. Banham was the enemy of any form of pretension, but he was equally averse to the expression of doubt. This gave his seemingly friendly writing a hard, moving edge. There are almost always victims: authors, styles, buildings, technologies, and slogans that don’t measure up to some standard or other. The momentum and violence of Banham’s leading edge never eased until it was suddenly gone.

It is a great pity that we no longer see Banham riding by, but each of his speedy texts can now be revisited, read more slowly. Many more studies of his work, and that of all our other key writers in architecture, will need to be done if architectural discourse wants to understand itself. To do so would simply be to follow the articulate cyclist’s lead, yet again.

Mark Wigley is a Columbia University-based architectural theorist. He organized, with Philip Johnson, the landmark 1988 exhibition “Deconstructivist Architecture” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.