Thinking of Todd Gannon’s Reyner Banham and the Paradoxes of High Tech as simply an excellent biography of one of the 20th century’s most celebrated writers on architecture would be quite off base. It is simply too big and heavy (at nearly 5 pounds), too lavishly produced (by the Getty), and too all-encompassing in its scholarship to join ranks with its intellectual rivals. Banham was well known as the bearded, hard-driving scourge of the British establishment, sitting naked and guru-like in François Dallegret’s portrayal of a “standard-of-living package,” and lolling through Los Angeles’ four ecologies at the wheel of an open-topped muscle car in the '60s. Banham was a provocateur with a pedigree—he’d been Nikolaus Pevsner’s protégé and a contributing editor at the prestigious Architectural Review. “Peter,” as he was known to friends James Stirling and Richard Rogers, came into his own as the champion of a wave of architects and artists who had grown up sharing the outlook of Look Back in Anger playwright John Osborne, and were eager to topple long-held architectural precepts. As such, Gannon’s book is an encyclopedic recounting of the growth of England’s architectural culture during Banham’s purview: its advocates, its internal debates, its flashes of brilliance, and its turbulent (though theoretically harnessed) explorations. If one wishes to understand the gestation of this important movement in modern architecture, there are more revelations, more “gotcha’s,” and more keen observations (with Gannon as guide) than one is likely to find in a decade-long subscription to Architectural Review. As a bonus, it’s even fun to read! Gannon has clearly mastered the art of serving up colorful prose without compromising either content or veracity, which is a welcome and indispensable attribute in this era of jargon and political introspection. In the book, Gannon highlights the conceptual bonds that united a band of rebellious architects and links their ideas to both the designs they produced and the philosophy they espoused, in order to create what may well be the definitive history of architecture in the age of Banham. Loaded with original research and structured in apt and revealing chapters, Reyner Banham and the Paradoxes of High Tech delivers a convincing mix of anecdotes and informative images in a graphically rewarding format. Measured and precise, with a jaunty sense of discovery (you can almost see the high fives), Gannon’s text expands into detailed descriptions of the nooks and crannies of complex spaces such as those at Stirling’s Olivetti Training School in Haslemere. He then moves into a discussion of the social forces of England in the 1960s before displaying with appealing modesty the hundreds of sources girding his work. This is a vastly entertaining project. One can feel the glee with which Gannon deconstructs morsels like the Smithsons’ Soho house at Colville, where “the project’s insistent symmetries, proportional rigor, and cheeky axial relationships appear to have been devised with a mischievous wink in the direction of those who were paying attention. The axial comedy is best observed in the basement, where the toilet, lit from above by the south-facing bench-cum-clerestory is honorifically aligned with both the bathroom door and the prominently placed drain pipe centered on the opposite wall.” The author also notes and quotes Banham’s quip that “if it isn’t modern nowadays it isn’t architecture anymore, but archaeology, cowardice, or fancy dress.” These are sentiments that seem particularly apt here in the U.S. 60 years later. Like The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson’s account of the Chicago World’s Fair and Louis Sullivan’s role in it, Gannon plunges the reader deep into the subculture that fed Banham’s thirst for a radical, nuts-and-bolts architecture. Thus, for Gannon, Banham seems more like an “inspiration” than a “topic.” Getting into his head—rather than tracing his long shadow and seeing things as Banham might have seen them—is a remarkable exercise in its own right. Here, we have Gannon stalking Banham, then pouncing: “There is a stream of English fiddlers-with-cars, builders-of-boats, cannibilizers and people who always seem to have another way of using a working part from the one that you expect. In recent years, the originality of the Smithsons, Cedric Price, Norman Foster, and the Rogers team seem to have had far more to do with the latter instinct.” Gannon follows this up with a signature clip from Banham’ ripest prose: “A properly set up standard of living package, breathing out warm air along the ground…radiating soft light and Dionne Warwick in heart-warming stereo, with a well-aged protein turning in an infra-red [sic] glow in the rotisserie, and the ice-maker discreetly coughing cubes into glasses on the swing-out bar.” In this way, we see Gannon, the architect, viewing Banham as a lens rather than as a subject and leading us, his readers, through the thickets of his evolution. For Gannon, the signal preoccupations of his subject can be best understood as a linked series of insights, from The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment to Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, which he decodes with forensic diagrams and text. What is remarkable is that the threads of Banham’s propositions can be spliced so invisibly into an expanded narrative that embraces contemporary as well as historic issues. It is humbling to circle back to Archigram’s city-building exercises, or to relish the newfound passion for a smart city, only to discover that Banham’s pioneering work had been there—and done that—50 years ago. That is why, for this architect, and I expect many more, Gannon’s work is far more than a trip down memory lane. It offers us a chance to renew our vows.
Posts tagged with "Reyner Banham":
In 1965, architect François Dallegret was commissioned by Art In America to write an article "A Home is Not a House," with his new acquaintance, English architectural historian Reyner Banham. The essay critiqued the American home’s lack of adequate protection from the elements and its antiquated “pipes based (on) a widespread use of heating pumps, a general waste of energy and the production of an 'environmental machinery,'" according to writer Fosco Lucarelli. Dallegret produced six “mechanical drawings” for the article that became one of the important sets of theoretical designs of the 1960s (along with David Greene's "Log and Rockplug"). The best–known of this set of images is his now iconic The Environment-Bubble that featured a domestic tableaux and Banham’s face on Dallegret’s naked body in a perfect, clean, cybernetic paradise. The Environment-Bubble remained simply a drawing until this year, when Francois Perrin joined together with Dallegret (and choreographer Dimitri Chamblas) to have it fabricated. Now Performa, the biennale performance festival in New York, has helped realize its installation for the first time at Brooklyn Bridge Park and at Central Park. Performa describes the clear plastic bubble as “an active site of intellectual and physical engagement” with free, daily dance workshops, open to the public. Today, on Thursday, November 9, one-hour performances will take place in the bubble in Central Park’s Mineral Springs Lawn (Entry on West 69th Street) at 12pm and 2 pm. If you cannot make it to the live performance, it is being live-streamed and posted here.
The arts, media, and humanities-focused wiki Monoskop has published a scanned PDF of Reyner Banham’s 1966 tome, The New Brutalism. The 100-page book, long out of print, is impossible to find in stores. Recent years have seen Brutalism jump to the fore of several important preservation and development battles. Structures as diverse as Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens, Marcel Breuer’s American Press Institute headquarters, and Paul Rudolph’s Buffalo Shoreline Apartments have all been threatened with the wrecking ball. Over these years, as brutalist buildings and their admirers have made the case for preserving the complicated historical legacy these buildings embody, discourse on Banham’s text has been conspicuously absent, leaving a critical void in public debate. Monoskop’s recent publication of The New Brutalism could remedy that deficit. The book began as an essay in 1955 that Banham refined and expanded over the following 11 years, as his observations regarding the coalescence of the New Brutalist style took shape. Banham’s analysis begins with a political-historical discussion regarding the origins of the term “Brutalism.” He also chronicles the style’s historical underpinnings, chalking up the movement’s origins to a confluence between Nikita Khrushchev’s Soviet building program, Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation, Mies van der Rohe’s Illinois Institute of Technology building, and Alison and Peter Smithson’s Secondary School complex. The remaining four-fifths of the book is dedicated to chronicling New Brutalism’s manifestations in the built environment while discussing the political, philosophical, and tectonic underpinnings of the featured structures. Banham’s The New Brutalism is available for download at the Monoskop site here.
On Friday, the LA Times’ architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne reported that Craig Ellwood and Jerrold Lomax's Hunt House in Malibu faces a demolition threat. AN reached out to several experts on Ellwood, preservation, and modern architecture for comments on what this means for Los Angeles. Designed in 1957, the modest beachside home built for Victor and Elizabeth Hunt is considered an iconic piece of midcentury architecture. Late last year, Hawthorne noted, documents were filed with the Malibu Planning Commission to replace the 1,335-square-foot Hunt House (sold in 2012 for $5.3 million) with a “a new 28-foot-tall, two-story, 5,511-square-foot single-family residence.” “The Hunt House looming demolition is a textbook case of artwork misread as real estate object,” wrote architect and educator Pierluigi Serraino in an email. As author of numerous writings on midcentury design, including California Modernism (Chronicle Books, 2006), he put a fine point not on the historic value or the property value, but on the true cultural value of the structure. “This is one of the landmark buildings of California Modernism and its potential loss would be sheer loss of cultural identity. Collector value as opposed to real estate value can provide a more apt lens to evaluate this small inventory of gems,” he continued. “Imagine if what is threatening the Hunt House happened to the Eames House. [The] proposed demolition speaks to the utter disregard a selected few have for what belongs symbolically to the collective.” In 1967, Esther McCoy was commissioned to write an essay for the Craig Ellwood monograph published by Bruno Alfieri the following year. In it, she discusses how the Hunt House by Ellwood and Lomax (who is uncredited) sets the tone for the firm’s work to come and solidifies its influences. “McCoy’s essay points out Ellwood's love for good detailing, adherence to logic ("the logic of steel"), independent spirit, and a sense of refinement informed by the 'full stark splendor' of Mies and modular principles found in Japanese houses and industrial buildings,” noted Susan Morgan, editor of Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader. “[McCoy] wrote that the Hunt House—with its H-plan, distinct volumes and levels—was very important in Ellwood's development: The three space frames are more three-dimensional Mondrian than Mies.” Morgan also reminded AN that the Hunt House features in Reyner Banham’s Architecture of Four Ecologies as the northernmost edge of Surfubria, his first ecology on beaches. Rudolph Schindler’s Lovell Beach House marks the southern boundary. The Hunt House, like other midcentury designs, is particularly vulnerable to demolition due to trends for larger homes, maintenance issues, and land values. “It’s worth noting that the City of Malibu has no protections for its historic places and got an F on our 2014 Preservation Report Card,” said Los Angeles Conservancy's Director of Communications Cindy Olnick. In October, the Los Angeles Conservancy sent a letter to Malibu Planning Commission calling for an “Environmental Impact Report (EIR) prior to the approval of any project that would adversely impact the building.” The organization urges individuals concerned about the fate of the house to write to the commission via Malibu City Hall.
Alex Moulton, 92, died on December 9th at his home in Bath, England. His New York Times obituary on December 20th didn't mention that he designed an object loved by the entire architecture profession. Moulton an automotive engineer and entrepreneur designed, built, and manufactured the Moulton foldable, collapsable mini bicycle. The bicycle was made famous-at least to architect's by Reyner Banham who commuted daily on his Moulton F-frame and famously used a photographed on his mini for his books dust jacket. The prototype for Moulton was designed and built in 1959 and according to the Times, "immediately took hold in 1960s Britain, where, because of the their quirkiness and convenience," they became seen as a fashionable minibike, as the Moulton company says on its website "to go with mini skirts and mini cars." Just the thing for an architecture historian to fold up in their Bedford square office. The bicycle, the Times wrote, "was known was for its small 16 inch wheels, high pressure tires, front and rear rubber suspension system and a step through frame. But Banham who wrote a 1960 article on the bicycle "A Grid on Two Farthings" more brilliantly described its compelling design arguing against the notion “that the centuries have given a final shape, perfect beyond improvement, to certain basic tools such as the hammer and the oar, that generations of trial and error have produced working forms almost indistinguishable from platonic absolutes” including the diamond frame bicycle which had presumably “already achieved its ultimate norm or form around 1900.” Since the Moulton, Banham writes, “bicycle thinking can never be the same again, and there can be no more nonsense about permanent and definitive forms, for even the Moulton is capable of improvement.”
In last issue’s Eavesdrop we noted that world famous LA architectural writer Reyner Banham (Architecture of Four Ecologies), who died back in 1988, now has a Facebook page with over 600 friends, most of whom think he’s still around. We've discovered who’s behind the fake page. Architect Parsa Khalili tells us he started it for an assignment in a seminar course at Yale School of Architecture in 2008. Khalili says he forgot about the account until one day he signed in and saw 30 people waiting to be his friend. Since then Banham has accrued friends from around the world, sending him birthday wishes and thanking him for the great honor of friending them. “Honestly I have no idea why I even bother but it has become such an absurdity it's hard to totally let go,” explained Khalili.