Reyner Banham could occasionally be heard lamenting that his fellow historians would not consider anything less than 30 years past ‘historic’*.
34 years after his death, his own work now seems to be considered properly part of the history of design; some of his books have been re-published and his multitude of essays & articles are much-discussed on-line, in podcasts and, even, in academe.
The recent change in his reputation is noticeable; 20 years ago the idea that someone would organise an event to mark the centenary of his birth would have left many non-plussed.
On the afternoon March 4th. the Architectural Association will be host to What happens on your 100th birthday?, a symposium which will “bring together multi-generational duets of scholars and practitioners engaging on themes key to the life and intellectual legacy of the English critic”.
A biography of Reyner Banham, Reyner Banham Revisited, by Richard J. Williams, Professor of Contemporary Visual Cultures at the University of Edinburgh, has just been published by Reaktion Books
Hardcover: 296 pages
Publisher: Reaktion Books (17 May 2021)
Product Dimensions: 22.2 x 14.4 x 28 cm
Reyner Banham (1922–88) was a prolific, iconoclastic critic of modern architecture, cities and mass culture in Britain and the US, and his provocative writings are inescapable in these areas. His 1971 book on Los Angeles was ground-breaking in what it told Californians about their own metropolis, and architects about what cities might be if freed from tradition. Banham’s obsession with technology, and his talent for thinking the unthinkable, makes his work vitally important today, more than thirty years after his death. This book explores the full breadth of his career and his legacy, dealing not only with the major books, but a wide range of his journalism and media outputs, as well as the singular character of Banham himself.
Now back in print after decades and with original editions fetching well over $100 on the secondary market, Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past is part of the recent surge in attention to this quixotic form, of which some examples were built but to this day remains–decades after its codification–more of a poetic idea than a real architectural type.
Hardcover: 232 pages
Publisher: Monacelli Press (16 Jun. 2020)
Product Dimensions: 22.5 x 2.4 x 26.2 cm
Reyner Banham’s 1976 book compiled the origin stories & ongoing mythos of this visionary movement, seeking to chart its lively rise, rapid fall, and ongoing meaning.
Mary Banham was an artist, curator, writer and editor, and a committed Modernist. Born in 1922, she was the elder daughter of Kathleen Mullett (née Garrett) and her husband, John, a farmer’s son from Dorset who was sent away to sea as a boy and ended his career as a London County Council parks inspector. Mary and her sister Anne grew up in London, mainly at Blackheath, south of the river. It’s quite hard to imagine Mary as a baby, but apparently, when she was tiny, her mother took her shopping in the pram, parked it outside a shop, as one did in those days, forgot all about it and went home on the bus. Fortunately Mary was retrieved unharmed, and, as far as we know, most of her childhood was unmarked by existential threat. Except that, when the second world war broke out, her secondary school was evacuated to the south coast, only to return hurriedly when the coast was bombarded.
Like most of our family, Mary was interested in both arts and sciences. At school she wanted to be a surgeon, but she was told her maths wasn’t up to it, and when she left, it was to go to art school, where she had hair-raising stories of fire-watching on the roof. Most of the London art schools were evacuated together to Northampton, and when Mary returned to London, it was to the Central School, where she completed her Art Teachers’ Diploma. Art school was a mind-expanding experience for Mary. She used to laugh at her mother saying ‘You’ve never been the same since you went to that art school,’ but my gran wasn’t wrong.
Mary’s first teaching job was at Notre Dame High School, in Norwich, where the mother superior liked to have a few ‘heathens’ on the staff (Mary was at that time a communicant member of the C of E). In Norwich she met my father, Peter, then stage manager at Nugent Monck’s Maddermarket Theatre, and the couple lived next door to Monck, in a cottage known as ‘the Offing’, with their friends Don and Sonja,. My grandmother refused to come to the wedding, as she thought Peter ‘not good enough’ for Mary, but relented when my grandfather said that he wouldn’t go without her, and then Mary would have no family there. Peter’s brother Paul was at the back of all the wedding photos, as they only had one suit between them.
In 1949, Mary returned to London with Peter, when he began his studies at the Courtauld. Mary worked initially at the Daily Mirror, subbing the agony aunt’s column, which was entertaining, but not very well paid for someone supporting two adults. Fortunately she soon got a teaching job, at a big secondary school in Wanstead. In 1951, the Festival of Britain was a big inspiration to her and Peter, like many of their generation, despite reservations about spending public money on such frivolity at a time of austerity. The buildings on the South Bank were a particular source of excitement, showing what could be done when innovative architects and designers received official patronage. Another major inspiration was the Independent Group that met at the Institute of Contemporary Arts from 1952, comprising some of the most radical artists, designers and thinkers in London at the time, including Peter, all bubbling with pent-up creativity after the war years. There the ideas were discussed that culminated in the This is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel in 1955. Mary and Peter used to hold ‘open house’ where these discussions continued, originally on Sundays, later on Friday evenings.
When Peter started work at the Architectural Press, Mary took a break from teaching to have children, becoming my mother at the then advanced age of 31. Ben followed in 1955. When Ben was only a year old, Mary developed unexplained pains in her right leg, which turned out to be cancer. This resulted in amputation and a fairly long period of convalescence and rehabilitation. She had to learn to drive in fairly short order, and bought a pale blue Heinkel bubble-car, essentially a motorbike under a glass dome. Despite being quite alarming mechanically, this vehicle was popular with a lot of people, including the local kids, who all wanted a ride to school in it, even those still too young to actually attend school. Mary decided not to return to the hurly-burly of teaching, but to concentrate on her artistic practice. In the 1960s she took a technical-drawing course, and produced exquisite architectural drawings for Peter’s book The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (1969), but her main focus for many years was on print-making. She joined a screen-printing class in Kentish Town, and kept in touch with many of the participants for years.
In the early 70s Mary worked at the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Drawings Collection, and curated an exhibition at their Heinz Gallery on the Festival of Britain South Bank buildings. This led to a commission to organise a much larger show about the Festival at the V&A, with Bevis Hillier, and write the catalogue, A Tonic to the Nation, together. Both exhibition and publication were a great success. By the time the show opened in 1976, Peter was working in Buffalo NY, where Mary joined him the next year. There she continued her print-making work, and worked on a guide to the then little-known architecture of Buffalo, but the upper New York State winters were too much of a challenge to her mobility. Sometimes she would park outside a building, but be unable to cross the snow-packed sidewalk to the door. After three years, she and Peter moved to Santa Cruz, in California, where they enjoyed the much balmier climate. They had a house by the ocean, and Mary ran a gallery on the idyllic campus, exhibiting many of the most interesting artists in California and further afield. In her studio at home she made prints inspired by the spectacular coastal landscape of Monterey Bay.
Mary made many good friends in both Buffalo and Santa Cruz, but when Peter died in 1988, she came home to London, living with Ben off Tottenham Court Road. Despite her fierce commitment to Modernism, Mary was quite traditional in some ways. She saw it as her role to support Peter and his career, perhaps not in preference to her own, but certainly as an equal priority. She was involved from their inception with the Banham lectures, given in Peter’s memory and organised jointly by the Design History Society, the V&A and the Royal College. The annual trip to the V&A, and later the RCA, for the lectures, and then to the Polish Hearth Club for drinks, became a major gathering for friends and family. But Mary also got involved with plenty of activities that had nothing to do with Peter. In 1993, at the age of 71, she took an MA with Winchester School of Art, needing a special dispensation, as her wartime art-school training did not have degree status. The course group spent most of the year in Barcelona, where Mary had a fantastic time, and returned to painting for the first time in many years.
Back home, she initially took a studio in London Fields, but in 1997 she commissioned Jonathan Ellis Miller to build her a striking single-story building at Prickwillow, near Ely, in Cambridgeshire, where she could watch the sun set behind the cathedral. She spent the next fifteen summers in the Fens, producing a new burst of work, exhibiting in the annual Cambridge Open Studios event, and making many good friends among the local artistic community. She also joined the Connect group of artists in London, which included some of her old friends from Kentish Town. In Ely, Mary chaired a schools’ art competition for the new public library. We used to have our family Christmases at Prickwillow until three years ago, and quite a few birthdays, too, so Mary’s studio was a focus for the whole family. For my most recent birthday, in June, we all went to Kew Gardens, our last family outing together.
Mary was a great swimmer. In the water, she wasn’t disabled. She swam in Buffalo and Santa Cruz, and until fairly recently she was still swimming at the YMCA off Tottenham Court Road, and in Ely in the summer. Then she started getting pains in her upper body when she swam, which in retrospect must have been angina. A heart attack followed at Easter 2010, and, although Mary made a good recovery, her health slowly began to decline from then on. Her activities gradually became more limited, but even very recently she was still enjoying visits from friends and family, including her special ‘girls’ lunch’ group (no participant under 60). She also enjoyed tea and cakes once a month at Honey and co, and following people’s news on social media. At 96, she had lived a long life, full of variety and interest, as well as challenges.
Mary was a big personality. Her namesake and neice, Mary Harborne, has talked about losing ‘the matriarch of our family’, and other people have spoken since her death of her charisma, her zest for life, and of her being an inspiration, and a force of nature. Her strength of character helped her live with physical limitations that would have defeated a lesser mortal. She didn’t suffer fools gladly, and you might think yourself a fool if you disagreed with her. But you always knew where Mary was, what she was doing, and what she thought. Things were rarely dull when Mary was around. She’ll leave a huge hole in our lives.
The fictional Baede-Kar Visitor Guidance System that serves as a continuity device in Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles bears the mark of Banham in its groan-inducing pun of a name, but Banham never claimed that the underlying idea was his.
Many of the crew who worked on the shoot were also involved with the BBC TV science & technology magazine program “Tomorrow’s World”; the clip below appeared on the show the year before ‘the LA movie’ was first shown.
Who developed this ingenious (but doomed) ‘cassette navigation’ system?
March 2nd. 1922 – March 19th.1988
Born: Norwich, Norfolk, England – Died: London, England
Maverick architectural theorist and historian; modernism and pop-culture revisionist.
Banham’s parents were Percy Banham, a gas engineer, and Violet Banham (née Reyner). The younger Banham was educated at King Edward VI School, Norwich, UK. Too young to join the military during World War II, he worked as an engine fitter at the Bristol Aeroplane Company. He married Mary Mullett in 1946.
Banham entered the Courtauld Institute of London University in 1949 to study art history. During this time he wrote criticism on contemporary architecture for The Architectural Review and other journals.
Banham’s revisionist stance on Modern architecture influenced the Independent Group, a loose association of artists, architects and historians connected with the London-based Institute of Contemporary Art. As a critic, he particularly espoused modernist architecture. Banham wrote his doctoral thesis supervised by Nikolaus Pevsner; revised & expanded, it appeared as a book, ‘Theory and Design in the First Machine Age’, in 1960. His topic focused on Expressionism and Futurism’s contribution to architecture, but it became the definitive text throughout the world on the modern movement in architecture. In 1953 Banham was hired as deputy editor of The Architectural Review.
He began lecturing at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College, London in 1960, joining the faculty as a senior lecturer in 1965. In 1966 his book on modernist architecture, ‘The New Brutalism’ appeared. He championed the 1960s futurism of the Archigram group. Banham rose to professor of the history of architecture in 1969. At the same time, Banham had developed a fascination with Los Angeles, California. His seminal ‘Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies’ appeared in 1971. The following year he produced the film, “Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles”.
The success of ‘Theory and Design’ and ‘Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment’, particularly in the United States, brought Banham an offer to teach there in 1976. He accepted the chair of the department of design studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo. By 1980, he had been named professor of art history at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In California he was a member of the Architect Selection Panel for the J. Paul Getty Trust, which, in 1984, selected Richard Meier to design the Getty museum in Santa Monica, CA. He joined the faculty of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts as Sheldon H. Solow Professor of the History of Architecture in 1988, but never taught. Banham was diagnosed with cancer in 1987 and returned to England where he died at age 66.
Banham was known for “a propensity for a vigorous and often destructive criticism” (Times, London obituary). His appreciation for proto-Pop and Conceptual art resonated with the Independent Group’s fascination about the same. Banham’s work revised the 1940s history of the Modern Movement, including that of his mentor, Pevsner, which he saw as “a nice, tidy propagandist’s firmament, ordered by a cosmology so simple as to be almost simple-minded.” He was among the first architectural historians to “give the same degree of attention to the architecture of the everyday landscape that scholars give to monuments and cathedrals, and he was particularly entranced with the American cityscape” (Paul Goldberger; New York Times obituary).