Hal Foster

  • Reyner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future by Nigel Whiteley
    MIT, 494 pp, £27.50, January 2002, ISBN 0 262 23216 2

Reyner Banham was as smart and sassy as any critic in the postwar period. What made him distinctive was his passion for the edgiest expressions of his technological age, not only in avant-garde architecture but in anything designed – Cadillacs and transistor radios, custom hot-rods and painted surfboards, gadgets and gizmos; all of which he discussed with great verve in 12 books and over 700 articles. Less of a media guru than Marshall McLuhan, he did possess some of McLuhan’s Futurist zeal and crossover appeal; not an inventor like Buckminster Fuller, he projected some of the technological know-how and visionary asperity of the older American. More Pop than either man, Banham became, like them, a celebrated outsider – a hit-man turned target.

Born in working-class Norwich in 1922, Banham trained to be an aeronautical engineer, but failed the examinations and ditched the profession during the war. After a few years as a local art critic, he left for London in 1949, soon to study architectural history under Nikolaus Pevsner at the Courtauld. In short order Banham became an assistant editor at Architectural Review and a charter member of the Independent Group, the extraordinary band of young artists, architects and critics (including Richard Hamilton, Peter and Alison Smithson, and Lawrence Alloway, among others) who developed, from within the Modernist Institute of Contemporary Art, a Pop sensibility of their own. His revised dissertation, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, made his scholarly reputation in 1960; thereafter Banham taught at the University of London until 1976, when he moved to Buffalo and then to Santa Cruz (he died, in 1988, before he could deliver his inaugural lecture at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York). This academic ascent never got in the way of his jazzy journalism, or vice versa: among other reviews, Banham wrote regularly for Architectural Review into the late 1950s, for the New Statesman through the mid-1960s, and for New Society until his death.

In his expert account Nigel Whiteley divides this career into three phases: the 1950s, when Banham was most revisionist about the architecture of a ‘First Machine Age’ governed by industrial principles; the University College years, when he was most polemical about Pop design in a ‘Second Machine Age’ driven by consumerist desire; and the US period, when he turned to American subjects in A Concrete Atlantis (1986), which concerns the workaday industrial structures that inspired the ‘machine aesthetic’ in the first place, and Scenes in America Deserta (1982), which sketches some of the wildest elaborations of this aesthetic in the near present. Along the way Whiteley tracks his advocacy of mostly British architecture, from the Brutalist buildings of the Smithsons and James Stirling, through the Pop designs of Archigram and Cedric Price, to the high-tech megastructures of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, so providing a critical genealogy for these postwar architects as well.

Despite his smooth narrative, Whiteley does not paper over the contradictions that made Banham such a volatile critic. First and foremost, he was committed to modern architecture, though not strictly to the rationalist canon of Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe laid down by first-generation historians such as Pevsner, Sigfried Giedion, and Henry-Russell Hitchcock (Pevsner published Pioneers of the Modern Movement in 1936; Giedion Space, Time and Architecture in 1941; and Hitchcock The International Style: Architecture since 1922, with Philip Johnson, in 1932). Banham was distant enough in time and in temperament to challenge this edited version of architectural Modernism, but he did so according to its own criterion of how best to express the First Machine Age, and not in the anti-Modernist terms of historical revivalism, which he scorned (as he did its later Postmodern version). At first glance his second claim to fame – his status, along with his Independent Group associates, as a father of Pop – seems at odds with this Modernist commitment. Raised on American comics and movies in the 1930s, Banham took popular culture seriously, and looked to its characteristic qualities (imagistic impact, speedy turnover and so on) for design criteria in the Second Machine Age – criteria that led him to celebrate the ‘plug-in’ architecture of Archigram and Price in the 1960s. Finally, his third passion, which both continued and contradicted his Modernist and Pop beliefs, was his search for an architecture autre – ‘other’ in the anti-classical, almost ‘raw’ sense of the art autre or art brut advocated by Jean Dubuffet and others in the 1950s. The Brutalism of the Smithsons and Stirling presented such an architecture for Banham, for it took both the Modernist ethic of exposed structure and the Pop embrace of new materials to a ‘bloody-minded’ extreme. Whatever the tensions, his Modernist, Pop and autre proclivities had one thing in common: the imperative that architecture and design not only express but engage contemporary technologies, however blunt or delirious the effects might be. As Whiteley points out, this was in line not only with the Swinging Sixties in London but also with the techie progressivism of the Labour Party under Harold Wilson.

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