On the Banham wagon

Reyner Banham was a self-proclaimed academic with pseudo-eccentric dress sense, thought Hugh Pearman. Until he read a collection of his essays, that is…

I was going to write about jam pot labels, or Russell Hobbs kettles, or some such. But having read A Critic Writes, a book of essays by the late Reyner Banham, they can wait. Banham can make you believe anything. For a few bad moments, he even convinced me, without once mentioning the matter, that history really has ended. It’s OK, I’m better now. But listen.

For those of you who know nothing of the man, Reyner Banham was the big noise architecture critic from the early Fifties through to the end of the Eighties, when he died. He grew to be legendary. He could write like an angel, he was famously provocative and lateral-thinking, he spun off into areas of design and society that were not strictly speaking architecture at all. He dressed oddly – in his later, American-based years adopting a curious hillbilly garb that, with his bulk and bushy beard, made him look like a member of ZZ Top. And I confess: For a very long time I hated the whole idea of Banham.

It was partly that mythic status. When I came on to the architectural scene at the end of the Seventies, I associated him with old men’s heroes like Alison and Peter Smithson – he championed these self-regarding New Brutalist architects, whom I considered then and now to be quite extraordinarily over-rated. I was suspicious of what seemed to me to be a carefully cultivated eccentric image. I looked askance at the fact that he spawned adoring disciples – privately I dubbed them the Banhamettes – who modelled their own style on his. I noted that he was not averse to showing off in print. Like the irritating Dr Oliver Sacks with his modern day freak-show of mental patients, he missed no opportunity in demonstrating the breadth of his knowledge and interests, so we all knew that he was anything but a narrow-minded specialist. High art and low bars, planes and cars, Banham had a few thousand words for them all.

He was not adverse to deploying that academic’s low-down trick of not acknowledging precedents. Visiting Stonehenge in 1962, Banham grandly declared the sacred site to be architecture, not archaeology, because of the cut and fit of the stones. He neglected to mention that Inigo Jones had reached the same conclusion several hundred years previously. He was indulged: he even wrote about passing his driving test, as if anyone cared (they did). And, of course, anyone fresh out of college in the late Seventies buying Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model would instinctively be on their guard against someone who quit the UK to become big in the US, particularly California, as Banham did. There were lots of other irksome little things about the man, all just as superficial. Banham? Pah! I did not buy the Banham brand.

What changed my opinion, not so long ago, was digging out the slender eponymous Foster Associates book of 1977 for which Banham wrote the intro. His first line went as follows: “The collapse of the Modern Movement, when it finally happened, proved not to be as much fun as had been anticipated.” I stared at this. Bastard! How dared he write something so flippant and so true at the same time! I read on. And now this book – a selection of his magazine journalism from early to late – is here. There are some longueurs – he was sometimes given too much space, which he packed a little too densely – but its overall effect is brilliant. Coruscatingly brilliant. Read him about power stations. Read him about potato crisps. Read him about anything at all.

This is why I considered the notion of the end of history. Today’s critical insights? Banham has been there and thought it all through before, and better. Today’s architects and designers? Merely retreading the ground pioneered by Banham’s coterie.

But as I said, I’m better now. Subsequent history shows that the great man was occasionally fallible. To whit: in 1962 he flew across America in Douglas DC8s and the rival Boeing 707s. Banham enthusiastically backed the DC8 (“the aircraft that sets the standard by which all other jets fail”). In comparison, the woeful Boeing was “a mass of neurotic twitches”. So Douglas rules the skies today, does it, Mr Banham?

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