A Critic Writes by Reyner Banham

Wouter Vanstiphout

Reyner Banham died on the job, admiring the intricate craftsmanship of the high-tech life-support system to which he was hooked up and writing (knowingly) his very last text, “A Black Box,” which explored what, if anything, positively distinguishes architecture from other modes of design and manufacture.

Reyner Banham’s distrust of architecture was legendary, as was his love for technology. But the image of the plugged-in, hippie engineer/historian has somehow blunted some of the potential effect of his writing. In an early essay, “The New Brutalism” of 1955, he described such an effect: “Introduce an observer into any field of forces, influences or communications and that field becomes distorted. It is common opinion that Das Kapital has played old harry with capitalism, so that Marxists can hardly recognize it when they see it, and the widespread diffusion of Freud’s ideas has wrought such havoc with clinical psychology that any intelligent patient can make a nervous wreck of his analyst. What has been the influence of contemporary architectural historians on the history of contemporary architecture?” (p. 7).

This was, of course, aimed at those historians—the Pevsners, Giedions, Richardses—whose views regarding the straight path—the teleology—of Modernism had produced a lame style that was then, in the mid-1950s, being challenged by the New Brutalists, who looked not to the history books but to everyday life. Now, what was Banham himself looking at, and what did his observations produce? Well, he focused on clever gadgets, on car design, and on highways; he made technology groovy; he supported and promoted Archigram and high-tech Brit-arch. In a way, then, the success of Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, and Renzo Piano, and the technodelica three-times-removed of some contemporary would-be avant-gardists, can be partly attributed to Banham, as can the ever-increasing quantity of books about Los Angeles sold in stores all over the world.

But this sense of his influence is misleading, really—you might say the landmine fizzled out. Banham might also have silenced the contemporary and future metaphysical warbling about architectural space, tectonics, human scale, representation, complexity, the public realm, undecidability, the interstitial, l’informe, etc. Just imagine if R.B. were still alive, talking about in-line skating, drum ’n bass music, and airport conurbations, with the ANYone Corporation just a grease-stain on P.E.’s glasses.

Why didn’t Banham succeed in really distorting the field in which he played? Because, in the reception of his work, the techno thing, the beard and minicycle thing, and the history thing were all separated from their grounding: a rich, excitable, and coherent view of an urbanizing society, a view that was beautifully constructed and that developed as a kind of basso continuo through four decades of writing. And it was not merely a view, but also a program to be fought for; this becomes clear from the astonishing collection of writings brought together recently under the title A Critic Writes. From the admiration for the car designers of Detroit, to the analysis of ice-cream-cart art, the evocation of power stations, the execration of the Getty Museum, the historiography of the motel, the archeology of the sheriff’s star, the anthropology of the bolo tie, the survey of Frank Lloyd Wright, all the way to the celebration of air shows, Banham’s critique of design was always founded in a strong commitment to the people who were using and adapting and living on the land.

Banham treats the technological gizmos and gadgets he loved to use and write about primarily as colonization devices: minicycles to colonize London, cars and caravans to colonize the landscape, air-conditioning machines to colonize the climate. The backdrop was always America. Thus he develops the theme of the Great Gizmo: “The quintessential gadgetry of the pioneering frontiersman had to be carried across trackless country, set down in a wild place, and left to transform that hostile environment without skilled attention. Its function was to bring instant order or human comfort into a situation which had previously been an undifferentiated mess” (110). The gizmo not only serves to colonize the wilderness but also to improve the nasty pre-industrial city: “North America’s cities of pre-industrial foundation—Montreal, Boston, New York, Philadelphia through to New Orleans—could be regarded as the archaeological remains of a culture that ought to have died when the gizmos came in. They represent the kind of enormously massive infrastructural deposits that are left behind by handicraft civilizations, for (in the absence of rapid communications and compact artificial power sources) the only way to get anything even half-way clever done was to pile men up in vast unhygienic heaps” (116-117). Being a historian and an observer, Banham presents his program of urban dispersion by gadgetry not as something new and original—as did his architectural avant garde contemporaries at Superstudio or Archigram—but as a valid historical tendency, as something real that has been going on for ages, that has a tradition, and that is happening at this moment somewhere near you. Banham shows that Frank Lloyd Wright saw it, too. “The distributive civilization of gizmo culture is here already…,” Banham wrote in “The Great Gizmo” of 1965, adding that that may not sound like “a very original observation thirty years after Frank Lloyd Wright’s injunction to “Watch the little gas station [‘it is the agent of decentralization’]… .” (117).

In its references to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, especially, Banham’s “distributive gizmo” can sound like some kind of anti-urban, techno-pastoralism. But I would argue that we must recognize it as urbanism, as the projection of new urban models that might look more like suburbia than urbia, but that are in fact, in their alignment with contemporary culture and everyday life, more urban than our contemporary cities. Nowadays, Banham seems to be saying, exurbia is more inclusive than urbia and therefore more urban. In “1960: Stocktaking,” published in The Architectural Review, he put it this way: “The idea of cities is an ineradicable part of the operational lore of civilization—a word which implies cities anyhow. The concepts we have of cities are as old as philosophy, and are so rooted in the language of cultured discourse that to say ‘Cities should be compact’ is to commit a tautology—we cannot conceive of a diffuse city, and have invented other words, such as conurbation, subtopia, to underline our inability to conceive it” (61). Helping us to conceive of a diffuse city is what Banham did, and he used all registers: the architectural-historical, the journalistic, the critical, the technical, the pedagogical, etc. Each of the pieces in this new anthology explores one aspect, one attribute, or one player in the contemporary, crystallizing urban globe. Pointing out how big things and little things are all connected was Banham’s specialty, and he focused not on space and form, as his Team X peers did, but on the technologies, economics, and aesthetics of the modern world. Thus “Paleface Trash,” the 1973 piece about the bolo tie, becomes not just a campy exercise but a fascinating discussion of how pseudo-folklore is distributed through the interconnected spaces of North American airline terminals as talismans against the white man’s burden of nonplace angst. And the 1977 essay “Grass Above, Glass Around,” an otherwise classic piece of architectural critique on Norman Foster’s Willis, Faber and Dumas headquarters in Ipswich, shows how the mutation of historical urban tissue by motorways and glass office boxes can provoke an entirely new set of townscape-like effects, such as “fitting in” by faceted reflection, weak-form footprints, and violent visual discontinuity.

Making modern urban life conceivable within and without the city was one of Banham’s main subjects; mostly he wrote about it, sometimes he proposed projects. In 1969 Banham was part of a gang of four—consisting of the professor of planning Peter Hall, the architect Cedric Price, and Paul Barker, the sociologist and editor of Banham’s favorite periodical, New Society—that proposed a radical experiment called Non-plan. (In fact, although the anthology does not include writings about Non-plan, Hall, Price, and Barker, together with Mary Banham and Sutherland Lyall, have put together this new anthology; it is almost like a late wake, a return to an adventure that, as Peter Hall writes in his foreword, “conferred on a group of us—he, Paul Barker, Cedric Price, and me—a certain collective notoriety” xv.) Non-plan was a reaction to the sophisticated and ubiquitous postwar British planning system, which had stretched a blanket of restrictions over the entire landscape. According to the Non-plan four, it was based on a set of values inherited from a class-based, prewar society, and could no longer accommodate the real dynamics of everyday life in the 1960s and ’70s: “To impose rigid controls, in order to frustrate people in achieving the space standards they require, represents simply the revived personal or class judgments of the people who are making the decision.”1 In the end this was an attack on overdetermination of space and a plea for the creative powers of unplanned urban processes. The gang proposed to get acquainted with these processes by creating non-plan oases in the desert of planning, and seeing what would happen there. As Banham wrote, “At the least, one would find out what people want; at the most, one might discover the hidden style of mid-20th century Britain.”2

Three areas in the southeast of Britain were hypothetically relieved of all planning restrictions; the non-planners then described how they might be expected to develop, given contemporary demographics, economics, technology, and especially consumer culture. For the area north of the new town of Harlow, called Constable country because of the bucolic landscape featured in John Constable’s paintings, the gang hypothesized that strip urbanization might develop between the towns and villages connected by the A11 motorway. Precisely the type of development that most official planning was trying to stop was described by the fab four as positively delectable:

Actually the close-textured, tree-grown, Constable-type country is supposed to be able to absorb practically anything that is not taller than a grown tree, and the buildings which free enterprise would put up in this planning-free situation would not be half that height… . So this small scale, rather private landscape might barely reveal its new commercial buildings to the eye. But this would be very bad commercial practice, since an invisible building is no advertisement, and there would certainly have to be a compensatory efflorescence of large and conspicuous advertising signs. The overall result could thus be low commercial buildings set well back from the road behind adequate parking courts, backed by tall trees and fronted by tall signs, with a soft roly-poly countryside appearing behind.3

Another scenario was for the Southampton/Isle of Wight area, in which the preservationist lobby permitted only “posh leisure zones.” Non-plan now lets the sexually and automotively liberated working class create their own “pleb leisure zones”: “Large retractable marinas would have sail-in movies and row-in bars. Beach buggies would drive through the heartland. Particular villages, especially on the Isle of Wight, would be got up as showpieces. Britain’s first giant dome would rise on the Isle of Wight coast: the first all-weather, all-public Ile du Levant nudist scene in the country—thermostatically controlled and ten bob a head.”4 For the region between Sheffield and Nottingham—called Lawrence country, because Lady Chatterly’s Lover was set there—a scattering of suburban clusters was foreseen as developing between stretches of forest. To preserve the much-loved large parklands, the quartet proposed simply that interested parties should acquire them: “Land for these parks would simply be bought in the market by a state Countryside Commission because the social benefits from recreation would outweigh those from development.”5 They seem to be saying: “if the state wants to forbid things, let ’em do it on their own property!”

Although non-plan might have conferred “a certain collective notoriety” on the four at the time, it certainly has not survived as one of the famous urban concepts of the ’60s and ’70s. This is due probably to the fact that non-plan could not be reduced to an architectural image; and also, of course, to the fact that it was not proposed as a design, but as an experimental project. Non-plan never projected an imagery upon cities (and, in any case, real cities always refuse to conform to these kind of expectations); instead, it stayed close to the “minutiae of everyday life,” using these, instead of the drawing board, as its point of departure. As urbanism, non-plan was radical, as were the first works of conceptual art. Not only did it seem to possess a much greater potential to “make a difference” than did restrictive planning laws, it also promised a new kind of bucolic landscape, car-fed and unashamedly populist. The “designing” was found not in drawings, not even in the noting of functions, but in the selection of areas, the specifying of certain land-use tendencies, and the subtraction of territorial claims. Non-plan was powered by a populist ideology, informed by a large imagination and a sharp aesthetic eye; it is indeed design.

Moreover, its unit of urbanistic manipulation was not the planning document, but the (Ur)Banhamian gizmo: the intelligently crafted, efficiently functioning, appropriately beautified object, for example, the filling station, houseboat, car, motel, airplane, telephone, Coke dispenser, the bungalow with all mod cons, the architectural masterpiece, country church, etc. While in America the gizmo served to transform the wilderness into an inhabitable space, in “sensible” countries like England, or for that matter Holland, the gizmo can hack a path through the forest of planning restrictions, creating space for the “style” of the period. And style pertains equally to the style of the object as to the style of life in which it plays its role.

Non-plan suggests a mode of urbanism that is still worthwhile. It recognized the unplanned dynamics of the “second machine age,” but did not trap them in a dialectic system of “order” versus “chaos”; nor did it trap them in a form of complexity represented in form, as Banham’s Team X peers did and as the current avant-garde still does. This “newly new” urbanism would be object-oriented, not territorial; it would use techniques of extrapolation, exchange, prediction, dispersion, networking, and graphic and industrial design, and it would involve lots of driving, walking, flying, and cycling around to see what’s really going on. Its heart lies in the ambiguous territory between surveying and actual intervention; its design technique lies in the precise framing of a piece of reality.

Banham observes the attributes of urban society very hard and with great concentration, just as one should observe a church by Hawksmoor or an airplane engine. And today the list of Banham’s urban gizmos might include the Powerbook, the condom dispenser, the cellphone, the methadone van, the mobile sound system, and the freight container. In these and other gizmos one sees contemporary life.

In the end, it would be reductive to equate Banham’s thinking and writing with a single urbanist model. The only analogy that fits this oeuvre is the city itself: a big, diffuse metropolis.

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
Issue No. 1