Picking up naomi stead’s discussion of criticism, julian raxworthy explores the legacy of reyner banham – one of the twentieth century’s most influential critics – to argue for engaged and ‘interested’ criticism.
IT’S HARD TO BE dispassionate about Reyner Banham. For me, and for the plethora of other people with strong opinions about Banham, his writing is compelling, and one’s connection to him as a figure quite personal. For me, frankly, he rocks. As a landscape architect, I gleaned most of my knowledge about Modern architecture from Banham. His Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, along with Rowe and Koetter’s Collage City and Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture were the most influential books in my library, by far. Later, as a budding “real scholar”, I was disappointed to find that, while these authors had serious credibility, the writings themselves were regarded as “polemical” – when in fact what I admired about them most was their ability and willingness to make rough groupings and gross generalizations, and to offer fickle opinions. It spoke to me of a real personal engagement and an active, participatory reading of the architectural culture they discussed. They were at their best in their witty, cutting, but generally pithy, creative prose, such as in Rowe’s extrapolation of the modern citizen as the latest “noble savage”, or Banham railing against conservative social advocates and their response to high density housing: “those who had just re-discovered ‘community’ in the slums would fear megastructure as much as any other kind of large-scale renewal program, and would see to it that the people were never ready.” Any reader of Banham will be able to find a gem that will relate, somehow, personally, to what they are doing right now. For Banham, it was all personal, and the gaps in his scholarship, rather, were the dispassionate places: “Such bias is essential – an unbiased historian is a pointless historian – because history is an essentially critical activity, a constant re-scrutiny and rearrangement of the profession.” ›› Reyner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future, Nigel Whiteley’s recent “intellectual biography” (the MIT Press, 2002), allowed me to revisit Banham’s passionate mode of criticism and to consider what his legacy might be. The book examines Banham’s body of work, grouped according to his various primary fascinations, as well as his relationship to contemporaneous theoretical movements, such as postmodernism. His mode of practice, as a kind of creative critic, is also considered in some depth. While there are points where the book delves into Banham’s personal life, on the whole Whiteley is very rigorous in considering and theorizing the work itself: more than 750 articles and twelve books. In academic terms, this is good practice. However, considering the entirely personal nature of Banham’s writing itself, this separation seems artificial. Banham, as he himself noted, “didn’t mind a gossip”, and often when reading the book I was curious about what was happening to him at the time. Banham’s was an amazing type of intellectual practice, and one that academics (a term he hated) could do well to learn from. While Whiteley spends a lot of time arguing for his practice to be regarded as such, and makes strong points about both the role of the critic, and the importance of journalism, rather than scholarly publishing, I found myself wondering what his study looked like. What books he had in his library. Did he smoke when he wrote? What sort of teaching load did he have? He is an inspiration to design writers and thinkers, and I, personally, wanted to know how he did it.
When reading A Critic Writes, a collection of Banham’s popular essays (compiled by Mary Banham, Cedric Price and Sutherland Lyall, and published in 1998, ten years after Banham’s death), I became aware that architecture was only the dominant subheading of his larger passion for technological culture. He wrote regularly for a range of left-wing popular magazines for the whole of his life, on topics such as surfboards, cars, architecture, software and oil rigs – with the overarching intention of explicating what it was to be a Modern citizen, something that he believed in passionately, and regarded himself to pre-eminently be. As Whiteley points out, he was interested in the “cultural content” of works of architecture, and particularly in how this was represented in form; however, he regarded self-referential criticism as “academicism”, as navel gazing. Like Banham, who studied engineering and then art history, Whitely is not an architect, so his spin on Banham’s work tends to focus on larger “design” theory implications, rather than doggedly pursuing Banham’s reading of the architectural canon. I suspect that this is something that Banham would appreciate. But the true brilliance of Reyner Banham lies in his ability to discuss the real particularity of form at the same time as locking it intractably to a theoretical discussion, and in such eloquent and readable prose.
Reyner Banham was a diehard, card-carrying Modernist to the end. While the reader initially admires him for this, when it gets into some of the allegedly “High-Tech” architecture that he remained passionate about (which seems pretty much like Victorian machinae to me), his inflexibility is frustrating – even if one is inclined to agree with his thoughts about postmodernism. Ecological, social and cultural consequences are all ignored, even though he was a leftie, believing as he did that technology would ultimately be able to sort it out. That said, however, Banham’s core ideas give him a nifty back-out clause: he believed that “good architecture is timely not timeless”. Likewise, his work is dated, as it should be – those times are passed. Whiteley’s biography consolidates such themes, and strongly qualifies the sense with which “the Modern” is used – with technology being society’s cultural link to the Modern, which Banham believed was fundamental. Banham’s qualifications, rather, were for architecture: maybe you were on the money in the 1920s, but it’s time to catch up! Reading Whiteley’s book, one has to decide where one sits on technology and culture. I found myself interested in technology, but more interested in culture’s relation to it. But given Banham’s time (in relation to his timely/timeless argument), he was consistently a part of it.
Banham’s characterization of The First Machine Age as comprising a “respect” for technology, and of the Second as an “expression”, left me wondering about the Third.
Whiteley fiddles around with this in relation to changes in “symbolic content”, but this seems a lame rejigging of the form/function base to Modernism. Perhaps the Third Machine Age is one of implicit, “ambient” technology? If so, perhaps we can ditch the whole aesthetic – as Peter Corrigan noted in his A. S. Hook address last year, there is less difference in the “look” of architecture in the last fifty years than in the preceding fifty. (Considering the formalistic, though non-Euclidean, software-driven architecture of the digital age that is everywhere now, I imagine Banham turning in his grave.Would he favour, perhaps, the culturally complex, and still ambiently technological, work of ARM?)
Banham still provides the best model I can think of in terms of the role and practice of the critic. When, in the process of saying what must be said, a critic offends another’s sensibilities, we might remember: “extreme viewpoints are illuminating; animus has long been the very breath of life to historians for as long as the tribe has existed.We may complain about Whig historians, and Maoist historians, and Pop historians, and Structuralist historians, but the bias they all exhibit is their point.”
JULIAN RAXWORTHY IS A SENIOR LECTURER IN LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE AT RMIT UNIVERSITY.