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Reyner Banham (1922 -1988)

The gas-fitter’s son from Norwich with sartorial flair and a way with words was on a mission to reanimate what he saw as a somewhat freeze-dried architectural Modernism with the fabled white heat of technology

For web reyner portrait

For web reyner portrait

Source: Isabel Albertos

He was born in Norwich in 1922. His father was a gas fitter. Known as Peter to his friends, Reyner Banham’s first job was as an engineering apprentice at Bristol Aircraft during the Second World War, but he moved on to study at the Courtauld Institute of Art under Pevsner and Giedion. His early influences were US comics Laurel and Hardy along with science fiction, plus he enjoyed amateur dramatics. In a triumph of apparent causality – he admitted this himself in ‘The Atavism of the Short-Distance Mini Cyclist’ – he prioritised services over style (‘A Home Is Not a House’), focused on building performance (in the analytical The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment), and extended the notion of space/time to the age of consumerism (Design by Choice) while looking like an ordinary bloke from Norwich who enjoyed dressing up (we being unable to keep our eyes off the beard, sunglasses, costume jewellery, lapels, and so on).

‘Appreciating Banham these days, especially within the tightly policed halls of academia, would seem a bit of a guilty pleasure. He employed rather too much of the wagging finger for our sensibilities’

Along with other angry young men, he challenged the system as a driven, self-proclaimed scholarship boy, becoming literary editor of the AR by 1953 and having his own professorial UCL chair by 1966. His mission was to reanimate what he saw as a somewhat freeze-dried architectural Modernism via the fabled white heat of technology. This drive was both his strength and his weakness. Often we see passion, rarely do we see doubt and, occasionally, we glimpse truculence.

Mg 0185

Mg 0185

Auto-fetishisation in ‘Machine Aesthetic’, published in the AR April 1955

But Banham’s real talent was for words – spoken or written – because he wrote as he spoke. His incisive juxtapositions and verve first attracted a young Norman Foster in his second year at architectural school because this was lively and different. ‘The Lotus Flower and the Gilded Lily’ compared the Lotus Mark II with the Plymouth of 1957 via Bramante, Soane and Colin Chapman, camembert, Kraft cheese, Peter Pears and Elvis. Even if Roland Barthes was still rather better at exposing contemporary mythologies with lyrical precision, this demonstrated Banham as a virtuoso when handling so-called boys’ stuff.

His tonic to the spirit of the Modern Movement (by then under threat from the formal analytical capacities of Colin Rowe) was first delivered in Theory and Design in the First Machine Age written from the perspective of an emerging, fast-changing, gratification driven ‘second machine age’. Banham had substantiated himself by gatecrashing the Independent Group, adopting what Hal Foster calls their ‘hyphenated lingo’ and ‘pinboard aesthetic’. He became a popular comrade because he had a job and, therefore, the money to purchase work. He was also happy to mix it, confessing at the beginning of Age of the Masters, ‘I had the good luck to meet nearly all of them’.

Putting those trad Moderns to bed (even in The New Brutalism, the classic he was, at first, reluctant to write), he was the first to see the Alton Estate as wanting when compared with Sunset Boulevard. Stroking ephemeral car brightwork and conducting academic discussions on sun loungers, he became Professor Snap, Crackle and POP. Banham was as close as England would get to a Marshall McLuhan or Ken Kesey.

December 1955 a

December 1955 a

Banham’s seminal analysis of ‘New Brutalism’ published in the AR in December 1955, read it here

Barbara Penner has pointed out that, beyond all the obvious boys with their toys, he penned a reasonable percentage of his 750 articles for New Society, a magazine largely dedicated to social work. Banham’s leftist stance presents the most obvious contradiction with his enthusiasms, but he was no Marxist.

In his opinion, the Twist ‘took’ because it was right for the people; he didn’t believe people were manipulated into doing it. Hence, Pop commercialism, as it hit our gut instincts, returned us to innocence. More sympathetically, who wouldn’t want to keep the working populace innocent of the more-idiotic, cloying, class-orientated demonstrations of privilege and entitlement that had remained as evident in the British forces during the Second World War as it ever had been.

Riba38487

Riba38487

Source: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections

Banham on his trusty Moulton nipping around London in the 1960s, an image that launched a thousand hipsters

Writing on ‘straight’ architecture, he tended to the earnest, even prosaic; great on the Engineering Building at Leicester University and CLASP (Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme) schools, but generally chummy and knowing. On history, his preferred tactic was to seek out and extemporise on the importance of something largely ignored (early on, Sant’Elia and Mendelsohn; later, American grain silos and factories), exploiting the relative clumsiness of the canon within the mess of history for his own ends.

He played both sides, at once the careful academic and the feisty commentator, declaring his popular criticism was done ‘for the money’ while considering moreconservative writing ‘bromide’, yet providing both. Whatever, the student body clamoured for any knowing dissection of crisps and surfboards because that’s what they (and he) enjoyed. Reading ‘Pub-Shape and Landlubber Fashion’ (1968) on the subject of London’s fashionable steak houses today, you get the feeling not only of gleeful heresy but that he tossed it off with great pleasure in a single afternoon. All this encouraged Pevsner to complain that he ‘wrote too well’.

Untitled 2

Untitled 2

(Clockwise from top left) Cover of Theory and Design in the First Machine Age; Hockney’s A Bigger Splash as the embodiment of West Coast hedonism on the cover of Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, 1971; Megastructure, 1981, was framed as a response to the emerging issues of rising population and urban densification; cover of New Society, a now long lapsed journal of cultural comment and social inquiry, which Banham found a receptive outlet for his ideas and provocations

But this distinctive, breathless style – no doubt more often than not ‘on the money’ back then – looks a good deal more quixotic now. A whole generation might have become hip urban spacemen (or rural electric nomads) in their metaphorical pads and bubbles, but the extent to which this could literally happen was down to a rather dogmatic application of a rule Le Corbusier had attempted to transgress in the 1920s – that our machines could never reach a state of perfection. Therefore, for Banham, the most-important architectural consideration would become – of all things – change. In this, he was rather one-directional. Raphael Samuel recognised a contrasting ’60s empathy with things nostalgic for the previous century (think Sgt Pepper or Laura Ashley as Pre-Raphaelite), which at least accommodated shopping. Banham’s appreciation of Barbarella had us in fur-lined spaceships hardly accommodating of anything, let alone goods. Even when dissecting the themed pub (which appealed, like the Twist) there is the underlying tone of science fiction. Such vibes resulted in an affinity with Archigram. Banham and his wife Mary held weekly tea parties with Peter Cook, who lived opposite. Not so much in orbit as in the garden, they formed a typically English circle, a combination of progressive speculation and polite resistance.

Environment bubble magazine(highrez)

Environment bubble magazine(highrez)

Source: © 1965 François Dallegret

‘The Environment-Bubble’, one of the futuristic domestic speculations in ‘A Home Is Not a House’

At his most wildly optimistic, Banham’s abiding epistle remains ‘A Home Is Not a House’. This landmark text attempted to legitimise the notion of arcadian, freedom-loving ‘electric nomads’ with gizmos to hand, the world an oyster, with Banham repudiating the ‘enclosure business’ altogether at the Folkestone Rally of 1966. From the perspective of today, with the word ‘home’ almost meaningless within a sea of persuasion and fear, the idea that technology might provide such a thing autonomously appears ridiculous. As if to demonstrate, while Warren Chalk (the political conscience of Archigram) became its first casualty, Peter Cook blossomed within those very institutional power structures deemed obsolete. However, those who presently view space travel as moving from Columbus to the Mayflower era will see Banham’s ability to rotate historical analysis 180 degrees as apocr hal. Those of a less-optimistic frame of mind might scowl at the smiling faces of Elon Musk and Richard Branson. Even appreciating Banham’s enthusiasm for the original crash-test dummy might inspire far less cheer at our capacity for human mimicry today, given the secretive mining of our own metrics in our own exploitation.

Key works

The New Brutalism, 1955
Theory and Design in the
First Machine Age, 1960
The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, 1969
Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, 1971
Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, 1972
Age of the Masters, 1975
Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past, 1981
Scenes in America Deserta, 1982

Awards and honours

Sir Misha Black Medal, for distinguished services to design education, 1988

Quote

‘In a landscape where nothing officially exists, absolutely anything becomes thinkable, and may consequently happen’

Anything ‘eco’, militant feminism, the oil crisis of 1973 and Postmodernism (which Banham equated with the return of the Raj) had all dented Banham’s reputation by the ’70s. At a second rally, convened at the Architectural Association in 1977, a defensive (‘look buster!’) Banham (sporting Fidel Castro jacket and Superman T-shirt) retrospectively championed the creative verve of Britain in the ’50s and ’60s. The vultures were circling. Within a few years, the corollary of Herron’s Walking City would be a photograph of Banham cycling across the otherworldly Silurian Lake on his Bickerton bicyle and a collection titled Scenes in America Deserta. Freedom is a word about which to be very cautious, but with this book we get a sense of a Banham newly introspective and poetic, forgoing university appointments on a whim and stepping out of his rented V8 into the silence and colour of his own Spaceship Earth.

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9332231d4a121bdd17f75a8a97c84a06

Still from Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, a cinematic love letter to LA, 1972

The move to America had been paved by the writing of Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies and the creation of its more enduring (given YouTube) filmic twin, Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles. Banham had finally learned to drive to enable him to ‘learn from Los Angeles in the original’ and, here, the bucolic potential of ‘machines in the garden’ was perfectly represented, with Banham enjoying everything that dissolved or flew in the face of both conventional and (soon to be resurgent) urban thinking, pronouncing standing surfboards the new megaliths. It’s tempting to view this template as setting off light bulbs in the young minds of Louis Theroux, Jonathan Meades or even Jeremy Clarkson.

But appreciating Banham these days, especially within the tightly policed halls of academia, would seem a bit of a guilty pleasure. He employed rather too much of the wagging finger (‘mate’ is employed, as in ‘Look, mate’) for our sensibilities, plus, given our critical appetite for starch, his unselfconscious gusto shouts Mustang in the age of the Nissan Leaf.

Tsp reynerbanhamsilurianlake

Tsp reynerbanhamsilurianlake

Source: Tim Street-Porter

Crossing Silurian Dry Lake, near Death Valley in California, 1982

Touchingly, Banham wrote last of the rig that kept him alive in hospital (he died of cancer at age 66), but his unfinished later projects might have illuminated those paradoxes that dog the dominant theory. In particular, why did High-Tech architecture appear far more bespoke than mass produced? Banham was infuriated that the particular marque Le Corbusier used to juxtapose with the Parthenon in sway to the machine age was actually the hand-built Delage. However, if we consider the application of craft, the two might be comparable. Throw in a picture Lloyd’s of London and it’s the same again. Perhaps if Banham had passed (rather than failed) the examination at Bristol Aircraft, the fiction would not have prevailed.

So what does Banham leave us when it comes to theory and design in the third age? Perhaps the then sleepy Bartlett was on to something when it recognised he deserved his chair so early; there is hardly a dean of faculty today, a media corporation or company executive that hasn’t sold its soul for that headlong charge into a technological utopia. The system that spawned Banham’s enthusiasms has strengthened like a supernova but somehow there is little charm in it, and there is much sinister manipulation behind the scenes.

This piece is featured in the AR May 2019 issue on Periphery – click here to purchase your copy today