A passion for design
Reyner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future By Nigel Whiteley.MIT Press, 2002. 494pp. £27.50
There may be something peculiar about writing the history of a historian, but in the case of Reyner Banham it needed to be done.
As well as explaining 20th century architectural history astutely, Banham became an unabashed participant in it (especially as an advocate of New Brutalism and Pop), and provided designers and design theorists with a bag of analytic tools to carry on the work.
From the 1950s to the 1980s this created an expansive, influential, diverse and stylish body of writing to which Whiteley has provided a useful guide, in a methodical prose that foregrounds Banham's unsettlingly powerful authorial voice.
Of Banham's multiple insights into the object world, some stand out. Modernism, he noticed, was as much wilful, stylistic and expressive as it was rational and inevitable;
meanwhile, its prosaic technical detailing of environmental servicing was just as important as its demonstrative, aircraft-and-oceanliner technological symbolism. Modernism could be viewed as the outcome of a series of 'machine ages', the first being the triumph of industrial technology, the second its domestication, shrinkage and mass distribution.
So, in the second machine age, the true value of a design would be measured not by its form but by its function in the largest sense - sensory and enabling, as with cars and electronic devices.As the pace of life quickened, so the designer would have to give up building monuments and concentrate on the more transitory and expendable qualities of the environment.And each designed object in this new machine age would be evaluated of its kind rather than according to some absolute, ideal standard - the transistor radio standing proud alongside a Louis Kahn museum.
Banham fans reading this book will likely find the basic teachings reassuringly familiar, though it is nonetheless interesting to see how the oeuvre fits together - and how it doesn't always fit together. This is no hagiography; Whiteley reads closely and critically, routinely exposing contradictions and inconsistencies in the work, acting as virtual referee in the final rounds as Banham slugs it out with David Watkin and Charles Jencks.
Affinities with Roland Barthes, Tom Wolfe and Marshall McLuhan are explored, and in this we should be reminded what 'fast company' (to use a Banham phrase) Banham's writing kept, and how puzzling it is that he was not even better known in his day.
As Whiteley notes, Barthes and Banham had differing relationships to their objects of study. To an extent the varying approaches of the two critics embodied the classic rivalry of French theory and English empiricism ('get it right', Banham would scribble in empiricist irritation in the margin of Jencks' PhD thesis).
Barthes could analyse a packet of Omo as deftly as Banham could decode a packet of potato chips yet, where Barthes observed, Banham's ardour for his subjects took him from history to criticism to intervention.
Understanding Banham's infectious enthusiasm is probably important in getting to grips with an 'enigma' in his work: what was it that he was really looking for in design, as he championed anonymous engineering alongside the canon of the masters, or as he defended stock car racing enthusiasts and James Stirling? Banham sought, it seems, a direct, innocent sensual gratification, his own erudition being simply a way to deepen and share the fun. So it was that Banham found satisfaction in Frank Gehry's buildings, but not in those of the 'post-graduate weirdos' (a typically piquant Banham phrase) operating elsewhere in Post-Modernism.
Banham's passionate, even macho enjoyment of design might have been the source of his genius and its undoing. His assertion that technology in itself is value-neutral, and his reluctance to critique the mass economy and consumption upon which the second machine age was based (a stance shared by his friends in the Archigram Group), forced Banham from vanguard to rearguard in the 1970s, where he might remain were it not for the Post-Modern and enterprising mood that, ironically, he disavowed.
Yet there was, too, a distinct class-warrior aspect to Banham, an intellectual 'recycled', as he put it, from an apprentice engineer, and his embrace of blue-collar chrome was calculatedly offensive to the design establishment. As enraptured as his Futurist heroes had been with the possibilities of design, Banham refused to let critique spoil his experience of Modernity.
His experiencing of the 20th century Western world was, after all, central to his methodology - wherever possible, examining Modernisms from the inside. It gave his writing an honesty and wit lacking in that of later generations, who thought themselves more angry and more savvy.
Simon Sadler teaches at the University of Nottingham