For Pete’s sake!

In 1983 or 1984, I had a good look around Charles Jencks’s Thematic House, then recently completed. It is now the only Grade I listed building in the Ladbroke Conservation Area in Kensington, owing to its unique importance as an early example of Postmodern architecture. I was given a thorough and discursive tour by Jencks, not because he had the slightest notion who I was, but because I’d been taken along for the ride by my grandfather, the architectural historian and implacable opponent of Postmodernism, Reyner Banham. Banham had supervised Jencks’s PhD, and the two men had subsequently adopted stringently antagonistic positions in theory and in print. I can only speculate as to how cordial relations were between the two, but it is possible that Pete (as friends and family knew Banham) took his grandkid along to defuse any tension that may have existed. After Pete’s death, my grandmother Mary certainly didn’t maintain any kind of friendship with Jencks, as she did with many of Pete’s colleagues, ideologically aligned or otherwise, and she could barely pronounce the term ‘post-modern’ without swearing.

If there was any ill-feeling, it was the exception rather than the rule. Despite his reputation as the enfant terrible of architectural theory, Pete was a very personable individual, who made friends easily and kept them for a long time. Todd Gannon’s book, Reyner Banham and the Paradoxes of High Tech (is it just me, or does that sound like the first in a series of thrilling adventure yarns?), relates certain methodological tensions within the architectural style of High Tech to Banham’s intellectual modus operandi, of putting dialectic oppositions at the centre of his analyses. He traces this practice to Banham’s earliest work as a theorist, and argues that it continued to inform his changing approach to the intersection of architecture and technology. But to someone who knew Pete as his beloved Grandpa, and knows the big picture of his work only through inference, and through the syntheses of scholars such as Gannon, the more obvious tension was between the public and the private, the personal and the professional.

Much of Sir James Stirling’s later building was finished and detailed in ways that accommodated the 1980s fashion for Postmodern styling, but Big Jim was one of Pete’s close friends (the only big-name architect that I recall visiting him in his hospital deathbed), and there’s little to be found in Banham’s oeuvre that traduces this work in the manner one might assume it deserved. Gannon also identifies profound reservations in Banham’s writing about ‘Clip-on’, a short-lived antecedent of High Tech which produced few actual buildings, but which remains influential to this day. However, the leading proponents of this approach were also Pete’s close friends, and hearing him speak about their work informally, there was never any sense of reservation: he was a delighted enthusiast.

Such discrepancies are mirrored in Banham’s professional struggle to reconcile his commitments to functional and aesthetic priorities in building. This might be taken as evidence of intellectual inconsistency, but Gannon doesn’t seem to think so. In fact his tone is respectful throughout, and posits Banham’s positions (note the plural—‘I like to show I have a mind by changing it occasionally’, he once said) as necessary steps in a project to resolve these competing demands. While Banham is known as the man who called for the fabric of a house to be excised from its essential mechanical services, he also argued consistently for the importance of visual coherence—of what might be called rhetoric, if we were discussing texts.

To the Postmodernists, who seemed to Banham to constitute the antithesis of High Tech, we are discussing texts, but to run with that rather tenuous metaphor, Postmodern architecture looks to me like words spewed all over the page, not assembled rhetorically into tropes or narratives. Postmodern theorists’ insistence on architecture as a linguistically structured discourse doesn’t appear to me to justify Postmodern architects’ apparent lack of interest in unifying or relating the structural-mechanical and aesthetic-decorative facets of their work. But then my understanding of architecture is formed on the personal side of the dialectic, by Pete (and Mary) showing me stuff and me learning to associate certain values with particular stylistic vocabularies: with that background I’m hardly likely to look too hard for the sense and structure in assemblages of Classically derived ornamental details.

I can’t say much about Banham’s work as a chronicler and theorist of architecture, although I know slightly more about Pete’s personal enthusiasms for buildings and other design objects. I have to defer to the experts, like Gannon, and like Nigel Whiteley, who published an intellectual biography of Banham in 2002—I have neither the wherewithal to assess the quality and rigour of their work, nor the inclination to engage in the years of scholarship that would enable me to do so. I can, however, take pleasure in their efforts. Most people would probably regard me as something of an oddball for it, but I actually enjoy reading scholarly monographs, even (or perhaps especially) when I know little about the field in question. Reyner Banham and the Paradoxes of High Tech is no ordinary academic book, however.

It is engagingly written, and its arguments are hung with the professional garments by which its author can be recognised as a scholar (i.e. it appears to be done right, though obviously I haven’t checked). It contains the draft opening chapter of the next book Banham would have written, under the same title as Gannon’s, which was a particular treat—Banham’s writing always comes off the page in Pete’s voice, for me, and I was moved to spend a little time in his company. But it is also a lavishly produced, large-format coffee table book—presumably because those in the market for books about architecture are willing to pony up for that sort of object.

The book is bound between two heavy slabs of card, and its spine matter is printed directly onto the perfect binding, which makes it look a) like a layer cake, and b) like a conscious attempt to unite form and function in a visually coherent way, to expose its structure aesthetically in the manner of High Tech architecture. It has earned a permanent pride of place on my bookshelves, and it’s likely to be regularly opened for the pure pleasure I can take in its design, and in the large plates of buildings that have been familiar to me since childhood. I knew Pete well, and continue to remember him, often and fondly. Reyner Banham, on the other hand, is someone with whom I’m continuing to acquaint myself, and I’m grateful to Todd Gannon for (partially) explaining him to me. Now I’m dying to learn what scrapes our hero gets into after seeing off those dastardly Paradoxes of High Tech.

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