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Troubles in Theory III: the dreat divide – technology vs tradition

The great divide: technology vs tradition

The second article of this series examined the way in which post-war theory, as advanced in The Architectural Review, anticipated, if not generated, many of the themes that emerged in Postmodernism in the mid-1970s. The third part traces the divisions that emerged in theory in the 1960s − technologists, system theorists, formalists, historicists − and looks at Reyner Banham’s attempt at a solution somewhere between tradition and technology

‘Throughout the present century architects have made fetishes of technological and scientific concepts out of context and have been disappointed by them when they developed according to the processes of technical development, not according to the hopes of architects. A generation ago, it was “The Machine” that let architects down − tomorrow or the day after it will be “The Computer”, or Cybernetics or Topology.’
Reyner Banham, The Architectural Review, March 1960

‘Banham’s important book Theory and Design in the First Machine Age […] is a wonderful and perverse book. I can’t follow his parti pris: “What distinguishes modern architecture is surely a new sense of space and the machine aesthetic”. As one minor architect (maybe not even “modern”) I have no sense of space nor am I encumbered with a machine aesthetic.’
Philip Johnson, The Architectural Review, September 1960

‘The architect who proposes to run with technology knows that he will be in fast company,’ observed Reyner Banham in the conclusion to his groundbreaking history of Theory and Design in the First Machine Age. The historian who five years earlier had called for an ‘autre’ architecture in the name of the New Brutalism, now advised the architect to ‘discard his whole cultural load, including the professional garments by which he is recognized as an architect’. ‘It may be’, he hazarded, ‘that what we have hitherto understood as architecture, and what we are beginning to understand of technology are incompatible disciplines.’1 The last images in the book, as if mimicking Le Corbusier’s technique of ‘before’ and ‘after’ images, displayed on one page Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, and on the facing page, Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House project of the same years, ‘a radical technological criticism of the International Style as mechanically inadequate’.2


Pages from Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine. In a nod towards Le Corbusier’s technique of ‘before’ and ‘after’ images, Banham juxtaposed Corb’s Villa Savoye at Poissy with Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House

Fresh from completing his first book, having been appointed as Assistant Executive Editor at the AR, and with his polemical opposition to the Italian Neo-Liberty style as ‘infantile regression’3 in full swing, Banham launched a series of banner articles under the heading of ‘Stocktaking 1960’ between January and June 1960.4 Printed on bright yellow paper to contrast with the brown (history) and blue (criticism) of previous AR layouts, and with red stars accentuating dates and numbers, these articles summarised what for Banham represented the conditions for architectural theory and design in the next machine age.

‘1960’ in architecture, Banham claimed, marked a ‘great divide’; following the expressionism of Ronchamp (which James Stirling had already characterised as the fundamental challenge to rationalism in the AR in 1956) and John Summerson’s dismissal of ‘New Brutalism’ in favour of the ‘programme’ a year later, a fundamental change in architectural taste seemed to have occurred. ‘Somewhere along the line,’ Banham concluded, ‘the Modern Movement’s private mythology of Form and Function has come apart.’ Torn between ‘tradition’ and ‘technology’, or as he phrased it, ‘science’ and ‘history’, the profession needed to re-define its limits in the midst of ‘these competing bids for intellectual domination’.

By ‘tradition’ Banham meant the stock of general ‘professional knowledge’; by ‘technology’, its opposite − the exploration of ‘potential’ through science. In a dramatic parallel presentation − tradition on the left column, technology on the right − Banham told two intersecting but ultimately separate stories. ‘Architecture’ defined in terms of its professional history versus ‘Architecture’ as ‘the provision of fit environments for human activities’. Banham was concerned at the reaction of the first against the second − the sense that sociology and technology had over-determined architectural form, and the ensuing move ‘back’ to architecture, led by the followers of Rudolf Wittkower’s analysis of Renaissance proportions, his student Colin Rowe’s investigation of ‘The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa’, and the flowering of history teaching by Rowe, Scully and Zevi that in turn had led to a wave of geometrically inspired designs. Added to this a new ‘stream of latent historicism’ had emerged with Neo-Liberty in Italy, Neo-Classicism in the US and Neo-Historicism of the Modern Movement in Britain too, all characterised with Neo-Palladianism as ‘Formalist’. Even Banham’s earlier espousal of New Brutalism came in for criticism here, although the Smithsons’ Hunstanton School and Stirling and Gowan’s Ham Common Flats were slightly redeemed by their honest use of materials.

On the side of technology, Banham had called for a complete revision of commonplace notions, such as ‘house’, and placed Buckminster Fuller at the head of those who had conducted ‘fundamental research into the shelter-needs of mankind’. Konrad Wachsmann comes in a close second as a ‘fanatical watchmaker’ of the joint. Not without an implicit debt to Le Corbusier, Banham revives the car as a standard of comparison for architecture, not only as object of technological sophistication, and as puncturing the myth of a single ‘non-style’ style, but as irritant that demands re-definition of the urban environment. Here the Smithsons’ House of the Future, Monsanto House and Ionel Schein’s plastic dwelling units seem to open the way to large-unit prefabrication. He concluded by contrasting Charles Eames’ conviction in ‘a real continuity in the architectural tradition’, with the lack of ‘caution’ or ‘finesse’ exhibited by scientists towards such tradition, and warning that ‘at any unpredictable moment the unorganized hordes of uncoordinated specialists could flood into the architects’ preserves and, ignorant of the lore of the operation, create an Other Architecture by chance, as it were, out of apparent intelligence and the task of creating fit environments for human activities.’5 There were, Banham admitted, certain ‘intellectual freebooters of the border-land between tradition and technology’ − he cited John Johansen’s Airform house as a radical departure from the prevailing Neo-Palladianism − but he was, as his pessimistic summing-up of the Modern Movement revealed, deeply convinced that, for architects, tradition would win out in the end.


From a series of banner articles by Reyner Banham
launched in AR February 1960 with ‘Stocktaking’. Other articles in the series included ‘The Science Side’ (AR March 1960), ‘The Future of Universal Man’ (AR April 1960), ‘History under Revision’ (AR May 1960) and ‘Propositions’ (AR June 1960). Yellow paper and red stars gave the pages visual impact

Here though, Banham was and would always remain ambiguously ‘in-between’, as it were inhabiting the margin separating the two columns. His reception of two of the three contributors to the next article − ‘The Science Side’ − was less than enthusiastic. AC Brothers from English Electric wrote of weapon system design with respect to the RAF guided missile the Lightning interceptor, that was designed holistically in tandem with its fighter aircraft and radar. ME Drummond of IBM (England) wrote of computers as used in operations research, systems simulation, linear programming and queueing theory. Drummond himself warned: that as computers ‘deal in cold, hard facts, they have no aesthetic sense and no imagination’. Banham’s only response to the papers was to observe that even psychology could be assigned a numerical value, as could aesthetics. Indeed the psycho-physiological relationship between man and environment was susceptible to mathematicisation. Banham was more favourable to the third paper of ‘The Science Side’. Richard Llewelyn-Davies, then at the Nuffield Foundation, but soon to become head of the Bartlett School of Architecture, and Banham’s Professor, was concerned to introduce the social and the biological as opposed to the physical and the technological into the architectural equation, from the science of visual perception to group dynamics. He provided a bibliography that for Banham represented the cutting edge of those facts about the environment that would if used wisely produce another architecture: ‘it seems to be no longer a question of whether architects should try and master this mass of information or not but how much longer they can put it off’.

The next article, reporting a discussion between Anthony Cox (Architects’ Co-Partnership), Gordon Graham (Architects’ Design Group, Nottingham), John Page (Building Science, Liverpool University) and Lawrence Alloway (Programme Director ICA) and chaired by Banham over a chicken lunch and wine, clearly demonstrated what Banham knew beforehand, the ‘confrontation between architecture and a technological society’. As Banham reported, the discussion was ‘sombre, nervous, and occasionally barbed’ as it debated the precarious position of the architect in technological society − especially so as ‘his’ position as ‘universal man’ was being challenged on all sides − potentially a ‘battered relic’, or at most a ‘qualified technician’. But, of course, Banham was not an architect but a critic and historian, and Pevsner’s recently graduated PhD student, so he was bound to introduce history in the fourth article − ‘History Under Revision’ was the title, and his book precisely revising the history of the Modern Movement (and not incidentally challenging Pevsner’s own Gropius-centred history) was about to appear. In the spirit of overcoming the father, Banham’s contribution to the history section was entitled ‘History and Psychiatry’, although there was little psychiatry in the text. Rather it was his justification for Theories and History as a sequel to Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement of 1936. Banham’s thesis was that Pevsner had completed his history with the formation of the Deutscher Werkbund in 1914 which had created a ‘zone of silence’, while the successive ‘histories’ of Giedion had in their partisanship (Space, Time and Architecture hardly mentioned Mies van der Rohe) repressed a number of architects and had suppressed (psychiatry?) many modern architects worth reconsidering.

In AR April 1959 Banham voiced polemical opposition to the Italian Neoliberty movement, a quasi historicist style that turned its back on Modernism

In AR April 1959 Banham voiced polemical opposition to the Italian Neoliberty movement, a quasi historicist style that turned its back on Modernism

Banham’s purpose − ironic in retrospect given Manfredo Tafuri’s attack on him − was that the only position for a true historian to have was outside architecture. Regarded as a specialist, almost as a consultant, ‘a curer of souls’ (psychoanalyst?) at the moment of the ultimate detachment of architecture from its own tradition, and with the objective responsibility for ensuring that the architect does not fall into eclecticism and Modern Movement revivalism, Banham was well aware of the dangers: ‘his diagnosis must be as nearly infallible as is humanely possible, and to achieve this he must be as nearly objective as humanely possible, and as reliably skilled in interpretation as is humanely possible. The responsibility that awaits him is not a light one’. Architecture, no longer able to ‘retain its Vitruvian innocence’ relies on the historian to plot its future course. The results of this analysis, as we know, were not what Banham anticipated. The technical side continued to be supported by the AR which had published John McHale’s essay on Fuller in 1955. But the AR, still dominated by Hubert de Cronin Hastings and Gordon Cullen’s Townscape ideology, seemed to back off the technological side very quickly.

Thus it was not the AR, but Architectural Design under the editorship of Monica Pidgeon with successive technical editors Theo Crosby, Kenneth Frampton, Robin Middleton and Peter Murray, that took up the cudgels for Banham’s technological question. In 1965 Banham himself reviewed the projects of Archigram with reference to the influence of mass-production on architecture in ‘A Clip-On Architecture’,6 while John McHale edited a special issue of AD in February 1967, ‘2000+’, introduced by Buckminster Fuller’s ‘The Year 2000’, and largely written by McHale himself under the title later given to his book, The Future of the Future. As he wrote presciently, given the next 40 years: ‘Some of the mandatory requirements of the eco-system are already clear. We need to recycle our minerals and metals; increasingly to employ our “income” energies of solar, wind, water and nuclear power, rather than the hazardous, and depletive, “capital” fuels; to draw upon microbiology and its related fields to refashion our food cycle; to reorganize our chaotic industrial undertakings in new symbiotic forms so that the wastes of one may become the raw materials of the other; to redesign our urban and other “life-style” metabolisms so that they function more easefully.’7

Examples of what Banham described as ‘the Italian retreat from modern architecture’, AR April 1959. Ernesto Rogers subsequently retaliated by calling Banham an ‘advocate of refrigerators’ in Casabella Continuità, June 1959

Examples of what Banham described as ‘the Italian retreat from modern architecture’, AR April 1959. Ernesto Rogers subsequently retaliated by calling Banham an ‘advocate of refrigerators’ in Casabella Continuità, June 1959

In McHale’s two seminal works The Future of the Future and The Ecological Context, Banham’s aspirations for global scientific knowledge were realised. What was not realised, however, was the union of tradition and technology that he thought would emerge from increasing scientific knowledge. Only a year later, and perhaps in revenge for the ‘Stocktaking’ series, Nikolaus Pevsner delivered his 1961 RIBA lecture, under the title ‘Modern Architecture and the Historian, or The Return of Historicism’, with both Banham and Summerson in attendance; this seemed, even at the time, to effect a closure to the technological revolution, in its apparent antipathy to stylistic eclecticism but nostalgia for Modernism, and with its introduction of the term ‘post Modern architecture’ for the first time.8

Only six years later, the return to history was confirmed in Christian Norberg-Schulz’s ‘response’ to Banham, in his enthusiastic review of Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, a book that he saw was against the prevailing tendency for architects’ publications to be dominated by ‘studies on topics taken from sociology and psychology, economy and ecology, mathematics and communication theory’. He concluded: ‘The only subject which, paradoxically, is missing, is architecture,’ defining architecture as ‘the concrete means an architect uses to solve the tasks he is facing, that is: architectural forms.’ He concluded, as Banham had feared, ‘we need more architecture, not less’.9 Postmodernism, as Jencks was to coin it in 1965, had arrived.

Troubles in Theory Series

This article is the third in a series of articles by Dean of the Cooper Union and Architectural Writer, Anothy Vidler. The other articles in this series are available to read online free for all registered users of The Architectural Review website.


1. Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, Architectural Press (London), 1960, pp329-30.
2. Ibid, pp302-03.
3. Reyner Banham, ‘Neoliberty. The Italian Retreat from Modern Architecture’, AR April 1959, pp232-5. Banham’s article gave rise
to an equally fierce rebuttal from Ernesto Rogers, who called Banham an ‘advocate of refrigerators’, and a wide-ranging
response from architects and critics that was summarised in AR December 1959, pp341-4.
4. Banham, ‘Architecture after 1960’, AR January 1960; ‘Stocktaking’, AR February 1960; ‘The Science Side’, AR March 1960; ‘The Future
of Universal Man’, AR April 1960; ‘History Under Revision’, AR May 1960; ‘Propositions’, AR June 1960.
5. Reyner Banham, ‘1960: Stocktaking’, AR February 1960, p100.
6. Banham, ‘A Clip-On Architecture’, Architectural Design, November 1965, pp534-5.
7. John McHale, ‘The Future of the Future’, Architectural Design, February 1967, p66. This issue was followed by another, edited by one of Fuller’s students, Michael Ben-Eli, who edited a ‘Buckminster Fuller Retrospective’ in AD December 1972. Fuller had bemused his English audience from the start. Hugh Casson was perplexed as to how to introduce his 1958 RIBA lecture, settling on ‘so outstanding and remarkable a phenomenon’, while all Ove Arup could say in his vote of thanks was that although ‘there were many things which he [had] not understood’, he was nevertheless, a ‘most interesting personality’. Fuller had obviously overrun his time. R Buckminster Fuller, ‘The R.I.B.A. Discourse, 1958: Experimental Probing of Architectural Initiative’, RIBA Journal, October 1958, pp415-24.
8. Nikolaus Pevsner, ‘Modern Architecture and the Historian, or the Return of Historicism’, RIBA Journal, April 1961, pp230-60.
9. Christian Norberg-Schulz, ‘Less is More’, AR April 1968, pp257-8.

Picture credits

RIBA Library Books & Periodicals Collection
The Architectural Review

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