- 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.
This imperative led Banham to his first polemic against Pevsner et al’s rationalist reading of Modernist architecture, which was doxa by the time Theory and Design in the First Machine Age appeared. According to Banham, the architects elevated to master-status by these historians had failed to formulate the First Machine Age adequately, to express its ‘profound reorientation towards a changed world’ fully. Gropius and company had imitated only the superficial image of the machine, not its mechanistic principles: they mistook the simple forms and smooth surfaces of the machine for the dynamic operation of technology. This vision was not only too ‘selective’; it was too orderly – a ‘classical’ aesthetic dressed up in the new guise of the machine. A prime instance of this classicism-through-the-machine occurred when Le Corbusier juxtaposed photographs of the Parthenon and a Delage sports car in his 1923 Vers une Architecture (the Delage was not even mass-produced). For Banham this was absurd: cars were Futurist ‘vehicles of desire’, not Platonic object-types, and the very notion of a timeless aesthetic of technology was almost lunatic.
The mistake of historians like Pevsner was to confirm this classical version of Modernist architecture as the real (or entire) thing. For Banham Modernism was not only rationalist (as in form follows technique) and functionalist (as in form follows function); it was necessarily expressive and futuristic. Pevsner’s omission of both Expressionists and Futurists in his Pioneers of the Modern Movement was a grave mistake, but for Banham it was a great opportunity, allowing him to argue that only those architects possessed the ‘mechanical sensibility’ true to the First Machine Age. Weren’t the ‘obsolescence and transience’ which his favourite, the Futurist Antonio Sant’Elia, declared to be ‘the fundamental characteristics’ of the new architecture, far more in keeping with the ceaseless transformations of technological modernity than the nobility and monumentality espoused by Gropius and Corb? Banham was also taken by the Marinetti trope of ‘the man multiplied by the motor’ (a vision of technology as a prosthetic extension of the human sensorium that foreshadows McLuhan); only those who thrilled to the machine as ‘a source of personal fulfilment and gratification’ could embody its spirit. Theory and Design ends with an ultimatum almost worthy of ‘Architecture or Revolution’, which concludes Vers une architecture: the architect ‘may have to emulate the Futurists’ or ‘technological culture’ may ‘go on without him’.
As Whiteley argues, this revision of modern architecture was not only academic: to study Futurist history was also a way for Banham to think through contemporary Pop; to extend the ‘aesthetic of expendability’ proposed for the First Machine Age to the culture of obsolescence of the Second, where ‘standards hitched to permanency’ no longer had much relevance. Here his initial laboratory was the Independent Group – its discussions about science and technology, mechanical reproduction and communication media, and its exhibitions of heteroclite images and displays where these discussions were put to work, such as Parallel of Life and Art (1953), Man, Machine and Motion (1955) and This is Tomorrow (1956). The IG is now renowned for its then-radical view of culture as a horizontal continuum, not a hierarchical pyramid, a view that anticipates some versions of cultural studies today. Although Banham revised this principle slightly – he thought in terms of ‘a plurality of hierarchies’, a revision that safeguarded judgment – he endorsed its egalitarianism fully. This IG position defied not only the lofty civilisation tended by Kenneth Clark, but also the high Modernism advanced by Herbert Read at the ICA; it also rejected the sentimental view of (British) folk culture in opposition to (American) popular culture held by such critics as Richard Hoggart. ‘American films and magazines were the only live culture we knew as kids,’ Banham once said of his generation at IG. ‘We returned to Pop in the early 1950s like Behans going to Dublin or Thomases to Llareggub, back to our native literature, our native arts.’ This comment captures the paradoxical formation of the group precisely: a return to American Pop as native culture – might this ‘nativity’ mark the definitive replacement of folk by Pop? For better or worse, the IG members were near enough to this American culture to know it well, but also far enough away to desire it still, with the result that they didn’t question it much. In some ways Banham was out in front here, directly facing the apparent contradiction of being both ‘American-leaning’ and ‘left-orientated’.
It was in the 1950s, in this IG context, that Banham began to apply to commercial products the iconographic methods for high art that he learned at the Courtauld, and in the 1960s he continued to develop his theory of popular design. According to Whiteley, his achievement was ‘to shift design thinking away from the Modernist model of abstraction with its “characteristic primary forms and colours”, and towards a Postmodernist one of product semantics with forms and images rich in meaning and association’. This shift followed the historical transfer in power from the industrial producer to the post-industrial consumer, and from the architect as arbiter of design to the stylist as ‘interpreter between the industry and the consumer’. ‘The foundation stone of the previous intellectual structure of Design Theory has crumbled,’ Banham wrote in 1961. ‘There is no longer universal acceptance of Architecture as the universal analogy of design.’ In this scheme of things the book didn’t kill architecture; the gizmo did. In the 1960s design energies were focused on gadgets and packaging, as today they are on webpages and marketing (I’d venture that’s what most graduates of architecture schools now ‘build’, at least in the US).
However, for Banham the passage from the First to the Second Machine Age was hardly a total break: ‘the cultural revolution that took place around 1912 has been superseded,’ he wrote in Theory and Design, ‘but it has not been reversed.’ What occurred was a dialectical transformation of technologies: from ‘the age of power from the mains and the reduction of machines to human scale’ (as in the move from the public train to the private automobile) to ‘the age of domestic electronics and synthetic chemistry’ (as in television and plastics), technologies became both more popular and more personal. ‘A housewife alone often disposes of more horsepower today than an industrial worker did at the beginning of the century,’ Banham also wrote in Theory and Design (with little sense that this might involve subjugation as much as control). If architecture was to remain relevant in a world in which the dreams of the austere 1950s had turned into the products of the consumerist 1960s, it had to ‘match the design of expendabilia in functional and aesthetic performance’ – it had to go Pop. For Banham, Archigram fitted the bill, and in 1963 this adventurous group (Peter Cook, Ron Herron et al) proclaimed ‘throwaway architecture’ as the future of design. Archigram took as its models ‘the capsule, the rocket, the bathyscope, the Zipark and the handy-pak’, and celebrated technology as a ‘visually wild rich mess of piping and wiring and struts and cat-walks’. Its projects might look functionalist – its Plug-in City of 1964 proposed a large, long-term framework with smaller, short-term ‘plug-in’ parts that could be changed according to need, desire or whim – but, finally, with its ‘rounded corners, hip, gay, synthetic colours and pop-culture props’, Archigram was ‘in the image business’. Like the Fun Palace project (1961-67) designed by Price for Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop, Plug-in City offered ‘an image-starved world a new vision of the city of the future, a city of components . . . plugged into networks and grids’.
Perhaps Banham looked to Brutalist architecture to give a needed edge to such Pop schemes. ‘Brutalism tries to face up to a mass production society,’ the Smithsons wrote in 1957, ‘and drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work’. Vanguard culture of the 1960s often swung between a fascination with ‘pop-culture props’ and a commitment to ‘rough poetry’ (think of Pop and Minimalist trajectories in art); Banham comprehended this spectrum in his simultaneous advocacy of Archigram and Brutalism. He saw three principles at work in Brutalist architecture: ‘1. formal legibility of plan; 2. clear exhibition of structure; and 3. valuation of materials for their inherent qualities “as found”’. The first two were Modernist standards, but the last quality – as manifest in the way the Smithsons left concrete raw and fixtures exposed – was distinctive, and notoriously so. On the one hand, the use of material ‘as found’ worked to mitigate the becoming-image of the world under Pop; on the other hand, this found-ness was a species of image-making too: architecture as a kind of readymade. For that matter the qualities of ‘formal legibility’ and ‘clear structure’ also served to imprint a design image, to stamp a mnemonic effect in architecture. Yet this sort of ‘imageability’ as ‘memorability’ in Brutalist architecture is different from the ‘imageability’ as ‘expendability’ at play in Pop design: in a sense the former is a complement to the latter, perhaps a corrective. Whiteley grasps this concern – ‘imageability is an underlying factor that links Banham’s championing of the New Brutalism, popular culture and the Futurists’ – but he conflates its different purposes.
At times the Brutalist approach to technology was not radical enough for Banham. He also thrilled to an embrace of technology beyond any pragmatic use or Pop image, and here he resurrected Bucky Fuller as the paradigmatic designer of the 20th century precisely because his technologies determined his projects. Corb may have talked about the house as a ‘machine for living in’, but Fuller practised it: whereas Corb still assigned functions to rooms in a traditional manner, Fuller hung his polygonal Dymaxion House (1927) around a columnar support of mechanical services in such a way that they took precedence. Banham sought a contemporary version of this design logic in which buildings might be redefined as ‘fit environments for human activities’. In The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (1969), which Whiteley calls his ‘most architecturally radical book’, he urged a conceptual shift from ‘built enclosure’ to ‘environmental management’, from ‘form and hardware to service and software’. This shift could be expressed polemically through such domestic experiments as his own Environment-Bubble (1965), a sort of space pod become Pop pad, but it also provided a means for Banham to think critically about actual urban structures. He studied Las Vegas as such a ‘controlled environment’ (a way of ‘learning from Las Vegas’ very different from the Postmodern reading presented by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour in 1972), and in a brilliant book in 1971, examined Los Angeles (which he regarded as a good approximation of the Futurist city) in terms of ‘geography, climate, economics, demographics, mechanics and culture’.
In time the notion of architecture as environmental management led Banham to advocate high-tech megastructures; that is, actual buildings, in part inspired by found structures like piers and oil rigs, made up of modular units that were often ‘clipped on’ or ‘plugged in’ – a kind of functional Lego gone gargantuan. The 1967 Expo in Montreal was the great demonstration of such designs, and the Centre Pompidou (1971-76) by Piano and Rogers, which Banham once called ‘the only public monument of international quality the 1970s have produced’, was its last hurrah. For, like the dinosaur, the megastructure was done in by a sudden change in climate. Banham intimates this catastrophe in the title of his Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past (1976), and elsewhere he describes it as ‘the collapse of confidence in large-scale design in the early 1970s; the revulsion against planning, the neurosis of “small is beautiful”, and the panics that followed the oil crisis of 1973-74’. This turn put Banham on the defensive, perhaps for the first time in his career: he was squeezed initially on the Left by an ecological movement that excoriated Pop expendability and high-tech hubris, and then on the Right by a Postmodern turn to historical pastiche. With his usual wit, Banham scorned the first as ‘neo-Luddite’, the second as ‘Ind-Imp-algia’ (a nostalgia for Raj and Empire), and both as anti-Modernist. That was the biggest crime, for he was still Modernist enough to value technological advance as such, and to favour the logical articulation of structure over the fanciful PoMo-ing of façade. He died fighting this fight.
How are we to place Banham critically? Though ‘Left-orientated’, he was hardly Marxist, and so was distant from such diverse critics of everyday culture as Raymond Williams and Roland Barthes. Banham once described his prose as ‘flip, throw-away, smarty-pants, look-at-me’, which might seem to ally it with the New Journalism of a Tom Wolfe. But Wolfe is a reactionary, and his nasty swipe at modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), must have sickened Banham (who wrote a positive review of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby in 1965). In the end his omnivorous style is in keeping with the ‘pinboard’ aesthetic of the IG, its rambunctious mix-and-match of images and ideas; and his hyphenated lingo is mimetic of a Pop world of brash conjunctions, of a consumerscape that is often clip-on and plug-in in appearance. This world is imageable in both senses mentioned above, at once expendable and memorable, and this double meaning is crucial to Banham: it is his updating of the Baudelairean dialectic of modern beauty – that it be ephemeral and eternal in equal parts. The expendable eats away at the memorable yet also calls out for it, and Banham sensed that a contemporary beauty might be wrested from this old dialectic. At the same time he sensed that the expendability of the Pop world was about to be compounded by an even more anti-mnemonic force – the unrepresentability of the electronic world. The ‘computerised city might look like anything or nothing’, Banham wrote. ‘Most of us want it to look like something, we don’t want form to follow function into oblivion.’ At least the Moderns had the iconic forms of the First Machine Age to build on, as it were, and Pop architects could still mime the plastic images of the Second Machine Age. But how to represent a world of global finance and Internet media where visuality shades into virtuality?
In Theory and Design Banham seized historical perspective: ‘We have already entered the Second Machine Age and can look back on the First as a period of the past.’ This perspective made his writing incisive, and it might be instructive again as we seem to undergo a further transformation into a ‘Third Machine Age’. However, for Whiteley this rush to periodise was also his Achilles’ heel; his commitment to Zeitgeist-think limited his thought even as it enabled it. It is likely that Banham absorbed the art-historical version of this idea – that each period or culture has a distinctive Kunstwollen or will-to-form – from his mentor Pevsner, who was trained in Germany when the discipline was much taken by such notions. In any case the expression of a ‘profound reorientation towards a changed world’ remained the prime criterion of design for Banham; the ‘historical justification’ of architecture rested on whether it could produce ‘symbolic forms’ in the ‘mood of the times’. This is another form of ‘imageability’; for him, perhaps the ultimate one.
For many cultural historians the vision of an orderly procession of Kunstwollens compensates for the reality of the atrocious mess that is history. But it is precisely here, before this mirage, that the historian is deflected from the transformations that are his or her concern. According to Whiteley, this professional dilemma took a particular form in Banham: much as he admired American design, he hated its economic system, and he ‘resolved’ this contradiction ‘by dislocating technology – and its spin-off, Pop – from the society that produced it’. Such notions as ‘machine ages’ screen as much as reveal the capitalist order that projects them, with the result that, like his IG associates, Banham was often euphemistic, indeed affirmative, about all kinds of technology, often trivial design and sometimes mystical categories like ‘communication’ and ‘media’. Today his confusion of consumer capitalism with democratic choice is a familiar problem (if more familiar from the Right than the Left), but we have to understand it in its context: a Britain bogged down in wartime austerity, then plunged into a Cold War where advance in kitchens seemed as important as in missiles, and finally thrust into a Pop rivalry with its obstreperous old colony. We must also understand his conflation in relation to a critical temperament that so delighted in technology as ‘a source of personal fulfilment and gratification’ that it was often blinded to the most problematic aspects of its futurist ambition. Banham fits his own image of the ‘historian of the immediate future’ perfectly, but by the same token he sometimes reads today like an apologist for the immediate past.