Hero Image
Reyner Banham and the Paradoxes of High Tech

Todd Gannon
The Getty Research Institute, 2017

Todd Gannon’s Reyner Banham and the Paradoxes of High Tech is a remarkable achievement, breaking new ground despite the substantial volume of publications following the death of Reyner Banham in 1988. It not only recounts the intellectual biography of Banham, commonly portrayed as the inventor of Brutalism or as the promotor of Pop architecture, but more importantly, it establishes him as the spokesperson of a postwar generation, searching for a resolution to an architecture caught between tradition and technology. In recounting the career of this multifaceted and mercurial talent, Gannon offers detailed analyses of the objects of Banham’s vision, including even those he passed over. While ostensibly a monograph on a single author, the book finds its voice—and Gannon’s incisive prose is often a match for Banham’s own—as a discursive history that is both a sympathetic tracing of Banham’s search for an “other” architecture and a complex account of the rise of a High-Tech ideology lying at the roots of our own present techno-environmental problems.

“Peter” Reyner Banham’s interest in technology, as Gannon recounts, was no accident. Trained in mechanical engineering and serving as an engine-fitter during the war, he spent the next several years making ends meet, teaching adult education classes, and writing reviews for local art galleries. Upon moving to London with his new wife Mary, nee Mullett, an artist, printmaker and teacher, he enrolled as an undergraduate in Art History at the Courtauld Institute, developing his enthusiasm for architecture in the debates at the ICA and in the Independent Group. These interests were fostered under the mentorship of Nikolaus Pevsner, who enlisted him for the staff of the Architectural Review. There, Banham developed his own voice, publishing chapters of his dissertation, and completing his first book Theory and Design in the First Machine Age. This book not only took issue with Pevsner’s own vision of “high” architecture, but also with the entire modern tradition of the 1920s and ‘30s, and concluded with a peroration castigating modern architecture for its academic traditionalism, and calling for a technological architecture that in the end might not even be recognizable as “architecture.”

Gannon’s text takes us through this intellectual trajectory in detail. What is especially rewarding is his insistence on providing the architectural as well as theoretical ground on which Banham played. Thus, rather than simply recounting Banham’s appreciation of the Smithsons’ Hunstanton School, and of the subsequent polemical essay on “The New Brutalism,” Gannon pushes back on Banham, so to speak, with an analysis of an overlooked project by the Smithsons for an “Architects House at 24 Colville Place W1.” Gannon sees their presentation, which the Smithsons themselves characterized as ‘Brutalist,’ as an intentionally witty play on words. He finds echoes of the Greek agora and acropolis at Pergamon in the Smithsons’ project for Sheffield University, and summarizes Robin Middleton’s defense of what was, in the late 1960s, becoming a recognized architectural manner, still named “Brutalist.”

Disappointed in Brutalism’s ostensible turn from “ethic” to mere “aesthetic,” Banham then moved to an enthusiasm for what he called a “Clip-On” architecture—anticipated by another of the Smithsons’ designs, the “House of the Future,” with its proposed unified plastic shell and endless combinatory potentials. Gannon assesses the influence of Buckminster Fuller and analyzes key projects that, for Banham, exemplified a technologically driven architecture of mass production. For a moment, Peter Cook’s project for a Plug-In-City of 1964 would form the key image for Banham: “A Plug-In-City must look like Plug-In-City,” he insisted. In the end, however, Banham refused to accept the “dissonant” aesthetic of plug-ins and clip-ons—even criticizing his friend Stirling’s ostensibly High-Tech project for Olivetti at Haselmere—and refused comment on the evidently “clip-on” works of Farrell/Grimshaw’s “Bathroom Tower” (Student Hostel Service Tower, International Students’ Club, 1967) or Richard + Su Rogers’ Conversion and Roof Extension for the Design Research Unit (1969-71, the DRU Conversion). As such, Gannon lays the groundwork for the main theme of his book by introducing the careers of these future High-Technicians—including that of Renzo Piano, and of Jan Kaplicky, whose collage of a VW with exhaust tubes on the roof of the DRU prefigured his later work with Future Systems. This rescue of forgotten projects is continued by Gannon’s treatment of Edward Cullinan’s work at Haslemere, where he had the task of renovating the main house on the site, contrasting with Stirling’s GRP clad wings in the garden. In this way, Gannon adds to and develops Banham’s own not entirely favorable critique of High-Tech with his own assessment of this hybrid work, outdoing even Banham in his characterization of Stirling’s contribution as exhibiting a “blend of deadpan efficiency and brash dissonance” (75).

Banham’s progress from a call for sheer imageability to a demand for “technical legibility” is traced to what Gannon terms as “perhaps his most radical book,” The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, with its extraordinary analytical drawings prepared by Mary Banham. It is to Gannon’s credit that he fully acknowledges the decisive contribution of these drawings to Banham’s narrative; Mary Banham will also provide the careful tracings of Los Angeles maps for Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971), which is often derided, if not tactfully ignored, in this era of heightened sensitivity to environmental concerns and energy conservation, and with its blind spots with respect to electrical generation in its own moment of ecological consciousness. But this book finally receives its due both in terms of its innovative reformulation of conventional architectural history and its broad definition of architecture as a whole. As Gannon emphasizes, its radical nature stems not only from its internal upturning of art historical approaches, but also as a counterpoint to the emerging culture of postmodernism. For 1969, its year of publication, was also that of another ground-breaking volume, edited by George Baird and Charles Jencks—Meaning in Architecture, the offshoot of their 1967 co-edited issue of the Architectural Association Quarterly, which directly countered the growth of the systems programming movement led by Frank Duffy. As a mark of the still unclear boundaries of this debate, Baird accepted two essays from Banham himself.

Gannon incisively summarizes the growing influence of structuralism and its semiological offshoots, especially of Claude Levi-Strauss, pointing to the paradoxical ways in which the anthropologist’s notion of the bricoleur, originally intended to explain the way in which mythologies were built up, was now promoted as variously the model for an engineering approach, a counter to scientific engineering, or a figure of piecemeal fabrication, the architecte sauvage. But the real heroes of Gannon’s book are Richard Rogers and Norman Foster. Gannon’s final chapters are devoted to the development of the High-Tech movement from the early work of Team 4 (Norman Foster, Wendy Foster, Richard Rogers, Su Rogers) at the Reliance Controls Building, Swindon (1967), to Fosters’ Willis Faber and Dumas Headquarters, Ipswich (1974), and Piano + Rogers’ Centre Georges Pompidou (1977). For Gannon, and no doubt in retrospect for Banham himself, this “monumental” example of High-Tech building represented the apogee of the movement. Indeed, Gannon detects a “pathos” that was to color Banham’s subsequent writings, sensing the diminishing role of architecture and its turn towards a historicist postmodernism as he, in Gannon’s words, slowly moved “from aggressive critic of the modern establishment in the 1950s and ‘60s to one of modern architecture’s most dependable apologists in the 1970s and ‘80s” (138).

Gannon concludes with a sensitive reading of two of Banham’s last texts: his draft of a book never to be completed on High Tech Architecture and “A Black Box: The Secret Profession of Architecture.” The former was intended to sum up the history of an already past movement, following his similar epitaphs for Brutalism and Megastructures, and the latter lamented the increasing triumph of the traditional “secret society” of architects, and the failure of technological architecture to develop a new and “other” architecture. Finally, the handwritten lecture “not delivered” for Banham’s reception of the Sheldon H. Solow Professorship at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts represents the tragic coda to a life dedicated to the continuing search among “A Set of Actual Monuments” for an architecture aesthetically and technologically suited to a second machine age. We are left, as Gannon incisively concludes, with all the paradoxes involved in Banham’s search for an “architecture beyond building” that could never quite escape the aura of traditional architecture. Banham spent his entire career wrestling between “on the one hand, an architecture of rigorous formal coherence and memorable visual images; on the other, an architecture of dissonant juxtaposition with a tendency to dissipate into adjacent fields of cultural production,” dichotomies that Banham had, in his late writings, tried to hold “in paradoxical suspension.” It is the extraordinary merit of Gannon’s work to have himself held these paradoxes in suspension, providing us with a dramatic and incisive narrative of the struggles of an engaged intellectual in a culture itself torn politically, socially, and architecturally.

Anthony Vidler is professor and former dean of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture of The Cooper Union. A historian and critic of modern and contemporary architecture, specializing in French architecture from the Enlightenment to the present, his publications include Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1990), The Architectural Uncanny (1992), Warped Space (2000), Histories of the Immediate Present (2008), and Scenes of the Street and Other Essays (2011).

How to Cite This: Vidler, Anthony. Review of Reyner Banham and the Paradoxes of High Tech, by Todd Gannon, JAE Online, December 4, 2020.