A small but intriguing exhibition at the Architectural Association in London presents a photographic record of the influential writer’s first trip to the US
Reyner Banham’s 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies redefined the intellectual world’s opinion of Los Angeles by depicting the city as a promising and exciting alternative to traditional urbanism. A new exhibition at London’s Architectural Association, however, presents Banham as an architectural photographer rather than a writer: through the images on display, he communicates his fascination with the United States of America.
The exhibition, Reyner Banham: America, essentially comprises a few photographs hanging on the walls of the AA’s Photo Library Corridor Gallery, but they reveal Banham’s experience as a foreigner visiting America for the first time. The images emphasise the differences that may strike someone just arriving from Europe – the omnipresence of cars, for example, is a recurring theme. Scenes that an American might find completely banal can prove extremely compelling to a foreign eye because of how accurately they capture the discrepancies between the old world and the new. The abundance of space, the lack of historical buildings, the ongoing construction – in some ways, Banham’s pictures are the most evocative way to prove his vision of America’s potential in terms of pioneering novel forms of urban living.
Simultaneously, the photographs give insight into the socio-political state of the country. The 1970s and 1980s can be characterised as a period of change in the United States – the American Dream was losing its power, the country’s military involvement in Vietnam and the economic recession caused by the oil crisis resulted in nationwide disillusionment. These images are conflicting – they capture a kind of depression, made apparent by the lack of people and vibrancy, but they also show hope for the future, a renewed belief in the country from an outsider’s perspective.
The exhibition is quite small, leaving the visitor wishing the rest of Banham’s extensive photography collection were available online to give a more rounded presentation of his experiences in America. However small, it is definitely worth a few minutes’ detour to come in and enjoy the pictures.
Emma Le Lesle