words Justin McGuirkThere’s no one like Reyner Banham today. Imagine a serious architecture critic writing a detailed analysis of crisps – their form, their packaging and the reasons why people assumed they weren’t fattening. “Apply tooth-pressure and you get deafening action; bite again and there’s nothing left,” wrote Banham in 1970, as only he could. He was the most gifted design critic the English language has produced, and that was just something he did on the side, when he wasn’t being the architectural historian who helped define early modernism, brutalism and high tech.
What made Banham unique was his combination of the academic’s rigour, the populist’s lightness of touch and the geek’s enthusiasm for modern technology. Tweedy and professorial on the one hand, he was also the hippest old fogey in town. He’s even on Facebook, even though he died in 1988.
Banham started his career as an art historian but came to prominence with his history of early modernist architecture, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960). Over the next three decades he wrote several seminal books, including The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (1969) and Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971), but it was in his hundreds of articles that he established himself as a writerly hero. He wasn’t just an insightful critic, he was hugely entertaining. His 1987 piece on Frank Gehry’s Santa Monica house draws heavily on the Douglas Adams character Wonko the Sane, whose house was inside out, and paints the pre-starchitect Gehry as “just an old Jewish poppa who builds things as best he can”.
The thing about Banham was that he wasn’t just writing about architecture, he was writing about modern life. He was an optimistic believer in modernity and not just another stuffy heritage fetishist like his one-time teacher Nikolaus Pevsner. It would have been beneath Pevsner to write a book about mechanical services – mechanical services! – but that’s what Banham did in The Well-Tempered Environment. This wasn’t about old-school aesthetic appreciation: he saw that architecture was becoming inseparable from technology. And he was a geek. He loved gizmos and gadgets, he was all about mod cons. They were the enablers of the leisure society. He would happily write about catalogue-order outboard motors and portable air-conditioning units – and not in trade rags, but for magazines like the New Statesman or New Society. He was a lover of pop culture. More theoretical counterparts like Roland Barthes were writing about steaks and Citroen DSs, so why shouldn’t Banham write about clipboards and ice-cream vans?
Banham also had the chutzpah to take uncomfortable positions, which he did when he wrote Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. At the time, LA was widely disparaged as an urban disaster, but Banham presented it as the quintessential modern landscape, the first instant city. For anyone who doesn’t want to read the book, a quick Youtube search will yield the BBC documentary Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles. Driving around in his Baede-Kar (a typical Banham joke), he gushes at the informal architecture of hotdog stands and petrol stations. Like a big kid, he interviews Ed Ruscha while tucking into an ice-cream sundae. The film also reveals the other brilliant thing about Banham, the fact that no one really knew what he looked like. He always seemed to be wearing one of those spectacle-nose-moustache disguises, squeezed between a hat and a beard.
Disguise or no, there are few architecture critics who can match Banham for sheer audience engagement, and no design critics. But the quality of the writing isn’t the only thing that’s hard to match these days. One of the reasons for Banham’s enthusiasm was that he believed in progress. His gizmology was uncynical and forward-looking in a way that, if we’re honest, few critics are now. These days product design and machinery spell waste and carbon dioxide. The new design challenges are bound up with guilt. We need a voice with some of Banham’s optimism more than we think.