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The Many Loves of Reyner Banham

From modern architecture to American mass culture, writer Reyner Banham championed the progress of his 20th century world – but always with an eye to the interaction between class and design.

Reyner Banham, photographed in 1968. (Peter Johns)

One of the greatest of those great 1970s BBC programmes that you could never imagine getting made today is one that, in the phrase used by their presenters incessantly today, ‘takes you on a journey’. Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles is a 1972 documentary about the Southern California metropolis, opening with an incongruous clash of wah-wah guitar, concrete, palm trees, and a harshly Norfolk-accented voiceover.

Over the next hour, the luxuriantly bearded Banham, who, as he tells us in the first seconds, is a professor of architectural history, drives us around the sights of LA, delighting in the way it makes ‘nonsense out of history’. Suburbia, Hollywood and its studios, custom cars, modernist villas in the hills, burger bars and hippies, and most of all the beach—all of these are toured round by Banham in his car, as he explains how this much maligned city, which breaks every single European rule, actually works. People, he argues—ordinary people, not other professors of architectural history—like this place, and want to live in it. Rather than being horrified by this fact, he tries to discover why.

Still from ‘Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles’, 1972. (BBC)

The programme was an adaptation of his 1970 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, and is one of the main subjects of Richard J. Williams’ new book Reyner Banham Revisisted. Unusually for a critic, Banham has been well-served by biographies and monographs, most of them coming from American architectural academia. What makes Reyner Banham Revisited so interesting is the way it retells the story of this critic, historian, journalist, and TV and radio presenter in a British context, one which has particular attention to class. Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles is, he notes, among other things one of the great self-reinventions, where the transformation of an ordinary working-class provincial Englishman into a bearded hipster Angeleno, assured behind the wheel, is part of the story.

Early in the film, Banham suddenly leaves the sun-baked concrete freeway and takes us off in Norwich, where he grew up in the 1930s, son of a gas engineer. We see the cathedral, the terraces, and the big Victorian board school he attended. ‘It stirs no nostalgia to go back there,’ he tells us, but what does stir him is remembering the shabby picture palace nearby, where he spent hours and hours as a child watching Los Angeles, without realising it, whether it was featuring in a Laurel and Hardy comedy or in a Film Noir.

Banham, Williams writes, ‘was caught between two things: an adherence to mainstream Labour politics, with its somewhat censorious and utilitarian view of culture; and a genuine love of mass-produced, particularly American, culture, which he developed as a child in Norwich.’ These are the two poles of twentieth-century working-class experience—the working class’ attempt to liberate itself as a class through socialist politics, and to liberate itself from class altogether through the dream-life of a classless capitalist utopia.

Reyner Banham, John Summerson and Nikolaus Pevsner in 1961. (RIBA)

Banham generally, it must be said, showed much more interest in the latter than the former, but Williams treats this tension with the seriousness it deserves. We all share this conundrum—everyone on the left, from the most prolix value theory Marxist to the most hard-nosed and moralistic Anarchist has at least some fragment of American mass culture that they love, whether it’s hip hop or comics or disaster films or sweets or burgers, though the love for Americanised pop culture generally increases the less posh the socialist. Among the questions Banham’s work asks are: does this matter? Why should we be embarrassed about it? And can it inform what sort of worlds we imagine?

For Banham, an escape into the imaginary America was one of several escapes in his life. He escaped his class through a scholarship, which eventually led to him studying art history at the Courtauld Institute. Reyner Banham Revisited features a poignant photograph of Banham at the Royal Institute of British Architects, after a lecture in 1961. He is standing with the great architectural historians John Summerson and Nikolaus Pevsner, and is visibly very awkward in his evening dress, especially next to the older pair, who look, Williams writes, like they were ‘born to rule’ (which in the case of the upper-class Summerson, they were, though it’s much more debatable about the German-Jewish refugee Pevsner). The story of the book is first about how this gas engineer’s son from Norwich got to address a black-tie event at the RIBA in the first place, and then how he got out of it and created a new identity for himself, one in which he clearly felt more comfortable: as a hirstute, Alan Partridge-voiced Pop Art seer.

The first part of that story hinges on Banham’s experience as an engineer, especially as a very young man during the war, where he worked as an aircraft engineer in Filton, Bristol. This gave him a love of and understanding of machines—especially destructive machines—and an enduring, usually repressed, trauma. Nearly all his colleagues—two hundred people—were killed one night in an air attack. Banham discovered and became a fan of modern architecture through the work of its great populariser Nikolaus Pevsner, who would supervise his PhD, published as Theory and Design in the First Machine Age.

Banham was never sentimental about his working-class background, and seldom mentioned it—but Williams puts it right at the centre of his life and work. Banham’s experience as a manual worker and engineer was, Williams argued, one reason for his enthusiasm for the art and architecture of Italian Futurism, which he effectively rediscovered in the 1950s—typically, he shared this revelation not just through academic work, but through a BBC Radio talk in 1959.

Alison and Peter Smithson, architects associated with the New Brutalism. (Newcastle University)

Exactly the things that historians and critics found offputting about Futurism—its machismo, violence, and comic book melodrama—were those Banham found fascinating, while the architectural visions of Antonio Sant’Elia, vast megastructures layering train lines, cars, and aeroplanes at multiple levels, were for him prophecies of the city of the 1960s. While others tried to imagine a technology freed of connection to war, Banham calmly celebrated artwork which made a fetish of it.

Banham’s involvement with the interlocking art movements of 1950s London was similarly inflected by class. He was close to the artists of the Independent Group (no relation to the embarrassing political party of the late 2010s) and the architects of the New Brutalism, especially the architects Alison and Peter Smithson, and the artists Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton. Most of these people came from working-class backgrounds, and all had a ‘fascination with the emergent, particularly American, consumer culture’—adverts, cars, sci-fi films. For a time, the Smithsons tried to fuse these pop art ideas with a social architecture, in their designs for council housing and comprehensive schools. Banham was constantly searching for an architecture that would reflect this tension between social purpose and consumer futurism, and found it in a variety of movements of the ’60s and ’70s.

Banham was a brilliant writer and thinker, and exemplary in the way he explained complex ideas in popular forms, but there is a lot in his work which now reads uncomfortably. This isn’t just in the naff hepcat sexism, or the way his tendency to celebrate rather than criticise the products of advanced capitalism led to blind spots (look at the way the Watts riots are mentioned and then dismissed in Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles), but also the way he wrote about energy and environmentalism.

One of his most interesting books, The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (1969) is a book in praise of plumbing and air-conditioning, the technologies that made the vast new buildings of the twentieth century actually liveable. It’s full of stories about the forgotten backroom inventors who designed things like the aircon systems of early skyscrapers or the 1906 Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast (which he credits as the first fully air-conditioned building), and celebrates modest but revolutionary achievements like the passively heated 1950s ‘Solar Campus’ in the Wirral.

Wirral’s Solar Campus. (Wirral Council)

Much in this is still enduring. But his response to environmentalism and early ‘green’ thinking was highly critical. Banham, Williams writes, was against ‘a perspective on construction that favoured adaptation and reuse over new development’. He regarded the 1970s movement to retain Georgian buildings as a ‘post-hoc rationalisation’ of ‘aristocratic taste’. Banham argued that

‘it was not evidently true that Georgian houses were much good for the environment. They had energy requirements like any building or they would cease to function—just in this case the energy input was not obviously named. It was provided by a “serving wench, and the fact that she doesn’t appear on the architect’s plan doesn’t mean she wasn’t there”.’

Radical environmentalism seemed to Banham like another de haut en bas movement of middle-class intellectuals telling others how to live, whereas the modern architecture he celebrated, from Futurism to Brutalism, was based on making new things possible.

Banham pointed out that the London Architectural Association paid more in heating bills for their Georgian buildings than they did for their rent—as Williams delicately notes, this showed that Banham was ‘an engineer, not an economist’. He was writing in the mid-70s, when rents in London were incredibly low as a result of decades of mass council housing construction, and gas was incredibly expensive, as a result of the oil crisis. Banham was right that Georgian or Victorian buildings were draughty and leaky, and the environmentalists were right that it was more energy-efficient not to knock them down—though only after they had been so totally reconstructed that they were far more insulated and serviced than they were when built.

Banham’s late work, Williams points out, was melancholic. It often concentrated on the already ruined monuments of high modernism, as in the (recently republished) Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past, or A Concrete Atlantis, a moving and funny history of the misunderstandings between American industry and European modernists, centred on Buffalo, the depressed post-industrial city where he lived and taught in the 1980s. He died relatively young, in 1988, and it’s interesting to wonder how he’d have seen the 1990s and 2000s—interested in everything, he’d have had much to say about subjects from New Labour to Amazon distribution sheds to the internet. It’s equally possible to imagine him as a critic of inner-city gentrification, as one of those left-accelerationists imagining a ‘People’s Republic of Walmart’ or as a Spiked Online-style right-wing contrarian.

One of the rare examples of where his ideas were implemented is not encouraging. One of his most only programmatic projects, ‘Non-Plan’, a collectively written manifesto for abolishing the British town planning system in certain experimental sites, was actually carried out in various places in the 1980s, in the ‘enterprise zones’ of post-industrial Britain. Would he have loved Bluewater, Ebbsfleet, Salford Quays, or Canary Wharf as he did L.A, or would he have found them joyless, mean, and cramped? We’ll never know, but the questions he posed between the ’50s and the ’70s about how class, design, and pop culture rub up against each other in difficult ways still remains current.