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Rory Olcayto on criticism - The mysterious contents of Banham’s black box

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What’s in the Black Box? More than 20 years after Reyner Banham questioned how to recognise the elusive qualities of good architecture in his essay, A Black Box: The Secret Profession of Architecture, today’s architecture critics are still no closer to knowing.

The nagging questions remain: What is the secret of good architecture? Is there actually anything inside the box at all?

Composed on his deathbed, the essay was the last piece Banham wrote for New Statesman and Society after 30 years of service. As well as making smart, provocative claims that would resonate with his audience – Hawksmoor was an architect, Wren wasn’t; a bicycle shed can be architecture – Banham, a committed Modernist until the end, also settles scores: Rival critic Charles Jencks’ house, for example, with its reliance on erudition, ‘leaves post-modernism in the same relation to architecture as female impersonation to femininity… not architecture, but building in drag’.

The most interesting point Banham makes, however, is that we – critics, architects and academics – spend more time commenting on what good architecture isn’t, than what it is: ‘What’s not in the Black Box?’, so to speak. The reason is that the profession has been greedy, claiming ownership of anything built, anywhere, at any point in time. ‘Throw out all the Zulu kraals, grain-elevators, hogans, lunar excursion modules, cruck-houses, Farman bi-planes and so forth and look again at “this thing called architecture” in its own right’, Banham implores. Yet no-one has bothered to take this advice in the two decades that have since passed. If anything, the list has got bigger. Urban design, computer games, community consultation, they all come under the rubric of architecture today.

Banham goes further when he makes clear that quite often, architects themselves fail to design architectural buildings. They lack that certain Black Box magic. And it is here that today’s most vociferous architecture critics share common ground with their patron saint.

The notorious website Bad British Architecture (still online but dormant) spent 13 months ripping into the kind of buildings – speculative housing, supermarkets and business parks – that kept the British profession in tidy profit for a decade or so. ‘I hate how no-one ever talks about how bad British architecture really is. I hate the bastards who make these buildings. So here I am, taking the piss out of them,’ writes blogger Ghost of Nairn (recently outed as – but unconfirmed by – Evening Standard architecture critic and former AJ editor Kieran Long) in justification of his rage.

Owen Hatherley, whose blog and book, The New Ruins of Great Britain, covers similar ground, railing against the ‘psuedo-modernism’ of CABE-backed regeneration schemes up and down the country. There is often so much more to say about something that doesn’t make the grade than something that does.

Yet critics must exercise a degree of responsibility. They must make clear the parameters of their critique, upfront. What aspect of architectural practice do they hope to enlighten with their insight? Is it a technical appraisal? Is the focus on form? Or does the critique investigate the social, political and economic values that shaped the architect’s vision?

In Black Box, Banham, without committing, suggests architecture might be something very specific indeed: a practice defined by a process of drawing and pattern-making that follows in the tradition of disegno, a style of drawing first practiced in central Italy during the Renaissance. At the AJ, we like to think our appreciation is slightly broader than that – certainly Zaha Hadid’s parametrics would not fall under Banham’s definition – but his central thesis, of being concerned with the secrets contained within the Black Box, the ingredients, the spell-book of good architecture, rather than the obviously bad – is one we passionately share.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Yes, but is the "black box" akin to that of the flight recorder recovered after the crash, or to the widget that takes an input, does something with it and spews out an output, without us having to know what goes on inside (not very well put, but like in electronics)?
    I'm sure Banham didn't appreciate this subtlety when he wrote it, but I think there is profit in exploring the differences. One is about the recording of history, the other about the anthropological discourse of architecture, which Banham advocated in his essay (and still hasn't been done).

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