Reyner Banham was one of the last century’s most influential architecture and design critics
Reyner Banham (1922–88) was one of the 20th century’s most influential writers on architecture and design. Combining historical and theoretical rigour with an eclectic Pop culture sensibility, his writing has become a benchmark for subsequent generations. Originally trained as an engineer, Banham brought a technological dimension to Independent Group meetings in the early 1950s, and a decade later his first book Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960) provided the intellectual underpinning of Archigram magazine.
Although Banham’s brand of technophilia fell out of favour in the late 1960s, his intelligent iconoclasm, acute observations and unfettered enthusiasm for his subjects have secured his lasting relevance.
In 1972 I was one of three Victoria & Albert Museum curators who worked with the architecture critic Reyner Banham on a show, ‘Invention and Design’ that we hoped would stimulate a broader appreciation of design. Banham briskly disposed of the idea of 20th-century design classics. The century, he declared, had only produced one design classic in its first three score years and ten – the Barcelona chair, by Mies van der Rohe. And that, he added, ‘could have been made in any century at all since the forging of steel became possible’.1 He wrote: ‘Designs for the technology and production processes of our time must be provisional, temporary – they illuminate their period rather than the eternal values of the human condition. If they don’t date, they are in some senses suspect […] there is no point in having high technology unless it improves the product in some sense, and each technological improvement erodes, or completely removes, the basic assumptions on which the designer based his conception. Thus the significant products of a culture are true only to their time, and their times may be very short.’2
Banham’s proposal for the show involved a study of chairs, bicycles, radios, typewriters, telephones and kitchen appliances. All that was required was the approval of the V&A’s director, Sir John Pope-Hennessy. In Vision and Accident (1999), a history of the museum, Anthony Burton paints a vivid portrait of the director’s office at that time. Visitors were seated in low bergère chairs, looking up at the ‘Pope’, with his half-moon glasses, as he peered across a large desk. Sir John listened to the proposal and then told us of a visit he had recently made to the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. There he had seen, he said, a marvellous exhibition about kitchen design. This would surely be a far more interesting subject. There was an appalled silence, into which I inserted the question, ‘Yes, but how do you define what belongs in a kitchen?’ The Pope’s reply was unhesitating: ‘I don’t know, I never go into my kitchen.’ I fleetingly remembered gossip about his house having a complement of Filipino domestic staff.
That was the end of ‘Invention and Design’. I recall the astonishment still visible on Banham’s face as he mounted his Moulton bicycle outside the main entrance and set off back to Gower Street. He looked like a man who had cycled to South Kensington thinking that the museum he was visiting was the V&A but had found himself instead face to face with a dinosaur.
Banham’s general view of photography was conditioned by growing up in the 1930s surrounded by picture magazines, cinema and mass culture in general, and by his being one of a number of bright sparks who chose not to turn their backs on popular culture when they became adults and intellectuals. They came together in the early 1950s as the Independent Group at the then young Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Their role in the rigorous study of popular arts segued into the creation of Pop art. Banham was a major critical voice for the IG’s ideas, art works and exhibitions. One of his first articles for the Architectural Review is titled ‘Photography’ (October 1953), an adroit rumination on the medium and a puff for an exhibition put together by members of the group at the ICA in 1953 called ‘Parallel of Life and Art’. He wrote: ‘The veracity of the camera is proverbial, but nearly all proverbs take a one-sided view of life. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but many of the camera’s statements are stranger than truth itself. We tend to forget that every photograph is an artefact, a document recording forever a momentary construction based upon reality. Instantaneous, it mocks the monumental; timeless, it monumentalizes the grotesque.’
I’m not sure who else in Britain at the time – except perhaps other IG members such as Lawrence Alloway, Richard Hamilton or Nigel Henderson – could have thought up such wonderful sentences. Such a nuanced view of photography contrasts with the stark pronouncement made the following year by the then director of the V&A, Sir Leigh Ashton, who wrote to Roger Mayne that ‘photography is a purely mechanical process into which the artist does not enter’.3
Banham goes on to make an essential point about photography as a medium with its own properties: ‘the photograph, being an artefact, applies its own laws of artefaction to the material it documents, and discovers similarities and parallels between the documentations, even where none exists between the objects and events recorded. Thus photographs make us see connections between a head carved in porous whalebone by an Eskimo and the section of a plant from Thornton’s Vegetable Anatomy.’
Such visual wit was typical of the organizers of the show: Henderson, Eduardo Paolozzi and the architects Alison and Peter Smithson. It is also typical of a book Banham revered, László Moholy-Nagy’s The New Vision (1928), in which the Hungarian artist illustrates texture in the skin of a 130-year-old man from Minnesota and an apple that appears to be about the same age, and connects a Jackson Pollock drip painting with the shell of a guillemot’s egg.
Banham didn’t leave matters there. Even in a short article he returned to one of his core themes: how does this medium shape up in terms of real experience? He wrote: ‘The camera, with its strong moral claims to truth and objectivity now over a century old, has established its manner of seeing as the common visual currency of our time, and we come to think of the photographic experience as the equivalent of personal participation. But we should ask ourselves who would be truly richer – one who possessed photographs of every surviving building of the Classical world, or Sir John Soane, who had measured every stone of the orders of the Coliseum and could quote its intercolumniation even in his old age.’
More than merely sceptical of the perfect black and white photograph of the classic architectural masterpiece, which looks as pristine as a sculpture, and as unoccupied by people – users – as sculptures generally are, the way in which photography can lead to a false construction of architecture was a running theme of his work. This can be illustrated by an extreme case in which false construction is not only metaphorical but literal. It comes from Banham’s final book, A Concrete Atlantis (1986), in which he discusses the famous flat roofs of Modernism and the fact that they often leaked. There were plenty of examples of pre-1900 leak-proof flat roofs in Europe, so why should the Modernist ones fail? The cause was, he argued, photographic: ‘In so far as the International Style was copied from American industrial prototypes and models, it must be the first architectural movement in the history of art based on photographic evidence rather than on the ancient and previously unavoidable techniques of personal inspection and measured drawings.’4
Banham cannily notes that the pictures that inspired the architects appeared to be news photographs, not ‘art’ photographs, which come with their own admission of subjectivity. He points out that Walter Gropius referred to his collection of such photographs as ‘news clippings’. The photographs seemed as forthright as the structures. They ‘represented a truth as apparently objective and modern as that of the functional structures they portrayed’.5 Not only that, but, as Banham adds later in the book, if the photographs did not provide the evidence required, architects were not above tampering with them. For example, in his book Towards a New Architecture (1927) Le Corbusier published a photograph of a grain elevator in Buenos Aires. He mis-captioned it Canadian, and gave it a flatter skyline by ‘whiting out every one of its numerous pediments’.6 Paul Venable Turner’s The Education of Le Corbusier (1977) illustrates the same building as reproduced by Gropius in 1913 and as doctored by Corbusier in 1927. The same increasingly smudgy photographs of concrete ‘functional’ buildings passed from book to book, Banham noticed, accumulating new errors as they went, or obliterating essential details – such as, for example, the inch-thick chamfering on columns which protected them against frost spalling (splintering). European Modernist architects, he wrote, ‘having never seen the original buildings […] had to discover such usage for themselves, painfully, often too late, and usually at the clients’ expense’.7
For his book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971) Banham chose photographs from many sources, including ones by himself and a startling photograph by Marvin Rand of the Hunt house in Malibu (architect Craig Ellwood), from 1955. Here we see a kind of perfect, hermetic, architectural Minimalism that seems to be a signature LA style. Banham also makes excellent use of Ed Ruscha’s now canonical photographs of LA parking lots, from the series published in booklet form as 34 Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967). Surely no one else had noticed and made a point of photographing these essential parts of the LA terrain, let alone published them as an artist’s book. Ruscha’s Conceptual art piece became, through Banham’s influential book, part of the general conceptualization of Los Angeles.
Banham the picture editor reserves even more visually striking cards for the final two chapters. Here he unleashes the iconic phototograph by Julius Shulman of Case Study House 22 in the Hollywood Hills (1959), by Pierre Koenig – the supreme architectural fantasy of greater Los Angeles. This image is followed closely by another iconic picture, David Hockney’s then recent A Bigger Splash (1968). He signed off with Ruscha’s Hollywood silk screen print (also 1968).
When Banham started writing for the Architectural Review, in 1952, it was expected that staff writers would take occasional pictures for their articles using an Architectural Press Rolleiflex. This was the good-quality German professional twin-lens reflex camera, introduced in 1929, that was used by Bill Brandt, Lee Miller and many other documentary photographers of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. The first camera he owned was a German folding-bellows model, followed by a Yashica 44, basically a smaller version of the Rollei, taking 44 mm square negatives. Photographs of this format were taken for the LA book, which opens with Banham’s ‘Chaos on Echo Park’. There are plenty more Banham photos in the book, both of ‘Pop’ subjects – such as the decorated surfboards he liked writing about – and of less obvious architectural and environmental subjects, such as Johnnie’s hamburger joint on Wilshire Boulevard’s Miracle Mile.
Soon after taking the photographs for that book Banham moved on to use a secondhand Pentax and then graduated to a Nikon G4, a fine professional-quality single-lens reflex with a 50 mm lens, which is usually thought of as equating to normal vision: he never acquired wide-angle or telephoto lenses. He knew enough to photograph what he needed. No doubt he agreed with Moholy-Nagy, writing in Vision in Motion (1947), that ‘the illiterate of the future will be the person ignorant of the use of the camera as well as of the pen’.
Few of Banham’s photographs were taken for purely aesthetic reasons, and yet he photographed the same motif again and again for reasons that must have included the aesthetic – his response to desert light or to a certain satisfying partnership of contrasting structures such as the high-tech canopy that protects the Casa Grande, a 13th-century Hohokam Indian building near Coolidge, Arizona. These photographs also express Banham’s interest in the desert as destination – a place made to be visited by desert freaks like himself.
Banham did not only teach from slides – he bought a Super 8 camera in the early 1960s and used it to film buildings peopled and in use. His own photographs are verifications of what he saw with his own eyes. In his inaugural address in 1988 as the Sheldon H. Solow Professor of Architectural History at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, written but, because of his untimely death, not delivered, Banham described himself as, like Pevsner, an ‘observational’ historian. ‘This kind of architectural history’, he added, ‘has been called, by Robert Maxwell of Princeton, a “rhetoric of presence”. I have been there and seen for myself, and that is my licence to speak.’8
Banham wrote enthusiastically about the street photography of both Henderson and Roger Mayne in the New Statesman in the early 1960s,9 and wittily about cameras in ‘Sex and the Single Lens’ for New Society (19 December 1974). However, Banham’s most important photographic criticism is his text for Desert Cantos, by Richard Misrach – who was then unknown – published by the University of New Mexico Press in 1987. It is not surprising that Misrach’s highly original photographs of desert landscapes chimed with Banham’s own view of these extraordinary places, because Misrach was deeply influenced in the first place by reading Scenes in America Deserta (1982). In his article, titled ‘The Man-Mauled Desert’, Banham wrote: ‘The desert that Richard Misrach presents here is the other desert. Not the pure unsullied wilderness “where God is and Man is not”, the desert of Christian purification and American longing, but the real deserts that we mortals can actually visit – stained and trampled, franchised and fenced, burned, flooded, grazed, mined, exploited and laid waste.’
The next passage refers to the Salton Sea, in south-east California. Although a lake existed on the site in earlier times, the present one was created by colossal human misadventure but is now a vital part of the Californian ecosystem. Banham wrote: ‘Colour and atmospheric effects like these are still to be seen in the deserts, even in the parts that have been so seemingly altered by the works of men – the proof is here in these photographs […] Look well at Misrach’s pictures of the Salton Sea, calm as death under its veil of mist, reflecting the stranded trivia of human construction in its mirror-smooth surface. This accidental sea may indeed be – Hell, no. It is! – as beautiful as the back shores of the Venetian Lagoon.’
Without being narcissists, we all become aware of how photographs do funny things with our appearance. Sometimes, in self-defence, we attempt to have some say in the proceedings, by selecting our ‘better’ side, a would-be amusing or ironic expression or an appropriate stage prop. Banham was canny about this, as we might expect, from an early age – about three, I think. Under the directorship of Charles Saumarez Smith the National Portrait Gallery acquired a portrait of Banham. It was taken in 1979 by Louis (Bud) Jacobs (then on Banham’s faculty at the State University of New York at Buffalo) for a final poster before the Banhams left for California at the end of that year. There are many others the NPG could have chosen. There is Banham on the Moulton in London, which originally appeared alongside a typically arresting title, ‘The Atavism of the Short-Distance Mini-Cyclist’ (in Living Arts, 3, 1964). There is Banham on the Bickerton at Silurian Lake, by Tim Street-Porter, who thinks that Banham himself suggested the photograph. Being in colour, which in photographic terms represents the future (according to the philosopher Stanley Cavell), this even better represents Banham as the ‘historian of the immediate future’. Possibly the NPG might even consider representing Banham not only by a suitably un-classic photograph, but by some even more un-classic video footage of him in action? Perhaps an extract of Banham wearing a Superman T-shirt to speak at ArtNet, in West Central Street, WC1. The lecture took place in 1976 – 30 years ago – and was occasioned by the ‘This is Tomorrow’ exhibition 20 years before that.
Cervin Robinson, a photographer who often worked with Banham, told me about an occasion when Banham flew down from Buffalo to give a lecture in New York and – nightmare – got separated from the bag containing his slides. It didn’t matter at all, Cervin said – Banham simply conjured up the buildings with his wonderful words.
Mark Haworth-Booth is Visiting Professor of Photography at University of the Arts London and Honorary Research Fellow at the V&A Museum. His most recent book is Wild Track: poems with pictures by friends (Trace Editions, 2005).
This essay is an edited version of the 18th Reyner Banham Memorial Lecture, delivered by the author at the V&A on 23 February 2006. Thanks to Mary Banham, Valerie Bennett and her colleagues, Robert Elwall, Richard Hollis, Richard Misrach, Frances Terpak, Cervin Robinson, Professor Penny Sparke and Tim Street-Porter.
1 Banham’s outline of the show, from the file in the V&A’s Archive of Art and Design
3 Haworth-Booth, Photography an Independent Art: Photographs from the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1839–1996, V&A Publications, London, 1997, p. 6
4 Banham, A Concrete Atlantis: Industrial Building and European Modern Architecture, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1986, p. 18
6 Ibid., pp.219–22
7 Ibid., p. 87
8 Quoted by Nigel Whiteley in Reyner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2002, p. 400
9 Haworth-Booth (Ed.), The Street Photographs of Roger Mayne, Zelda Cheatle, London 1986, pp. 76–78 Quoted by Whiteley, p. 400
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