My grandfather’s hats

It’s a strange privilege to have had a grandfather who was, as he once put it, ‘world famous to five hundred people’. He was actually downplaying his public profile there, although that’s a fair description of many academics, whose disciplines tend to be both obscure and globally distributed. In my grandfather Reyner Banham’s case, his scholarly reputation sat alongside a strong presence in British journalism, and an iconic appearance which received some exposure beyond his specialism thanks to his occasional work as a talking head and documentary maker/presenter. This limited notoriety has given me the opportunity to continue to engage with him in the thirty years since his death—if I want to see a photo of him I just have to Google his name, for instance. His published work offers another way for me to continue to know him, although I have yet to read most of it, and recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in him among architects and academics, which has produced a couple of new books about him, most recently from Richard J. Williams, professor of ‘Contemporary Visual Cultures’ at Edinburgh University (which I think is what the hep cats are calling Art History these days). Williams made some good connections with the family while researching and writing his book, conducting interviews with Banham’s wife Mary (my grandmother, who died in 2018), his children Ben (my uncle) and Debby (my mother), and myself. He made a better impression on our matriarch than did Nigel Whiteley, whose 2002 book on Banham was traduced by Mary as a hack-job. As far as I can tell this was an entirely unfair assessment. It’s fifteen years at least since I read it, but I recall it as an apparently fair-minded assessment of his work, which dealt with him solely as an architectural theorist. Williams was more interested in presenting an image of Banham in the round—a writer, a historian, a critic, a journalist, and an individual whose biography is of some significance to the development of his work.

I’ve said some rude things about the practice of biography in this journal, and I don’t want to retread them here, but it’s worth reminding my notional reader that I harbour a profound scepticism towards some of its assumptions—the apprehension of historical figures as clearly defined social and psychological objects, for example, or of their lives as coherent sequences of causation. This scepticism arises from an understanding of the world as a network of intersecting and overlapping processes rather than a collection of self-sufficient objects, and one aspect of my grandfather’s thinking that Williams highlights here is precisely that he approached his subject, architecture, through an interest in systems as much as in buildings. In this, and in many other areas, I was surprised to find a real congruence between my own thinking, and Williams’s understanding of Banham’s. Reyner Banham Revisited is not the kind of biography that I struggle with, as it is largely focussed on Banham’s intellectual life, and predicated on the interest readers might take in that, rather than on any supposedly special qualities proper to him or his life, but I’m unlikely to treat it very objectively in any case, given the opportunity it affords me to re-encounter my much-missed Grandpa from a novel and appreciative perspective.

My grandfather was, as Williams puts it, a man of many hats. He cultivated a floating membership in many different communities, such as the academy, the working class, engineering, avant-garde movements in art and architecture, and so on. In all of these he exploited his multimembership (to borrow a term from the sociologist Etienne Wenger) to assert a radical, insurgent status, and spoke with an authoritative voice that challenged the members of those communities to actually throw him out if they didn’t like him—but he remained, in all of these places, an outsider. Williams takes a number of these self-images, sometimes symbolised by a literal change of hat, such as the Stetsons Banham began to wear when he got interested in the American deserts, and structures his book around them. That Banham adopted various versions of himself in a somewhat sequential manner abets this structure as a way to narrate his professional life, rather neatly beginning with a chapter entitled ‘The Futurist’, and ending with one called ‘The Connoisseur of Ruins’. This is of course far too neat to take literally, and Williams is at pains to show each of these ‘multiple Banhams’ as the manifestation of a tendency, which is more or less significant at different points in his career, but always present. This portfolio of group memberships, and the rather self-important way that he imposed insights validated by his externality on each group, while remaining neither fully committed nor fully admitted to any of them, is such a good description of my own behaviour that I’m pretty relieved I didn’t notice the parallel before—and also grateful to Williams for pointing it out now.

One clear divergence between my grandfather’s life and my own (apart from my refusal to pursue a career) is that I’ve never cultivated membership in anything resembling ‘the establishment’, and am very unlikely to ever be mistaken for a pillar of it. After a couple of decades of cultivating an image as the enfant terrible of British architectural criticism, this was precisely what Banham was accused of being, at the International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado, in 1970. This is an event of which I had been vaguely aware, but Williams’s gift to me has been to contextualise it (as well as fleshing it out) in a broader narrative of his development as a thinker and writer. Clearly such a narrative represents Williams’s particular position as a scholar and an individual, but as a lay-person and a blood-relative I’m ill-placed to assess that position critically—what I can say is that his account seems reasonable, and that it is really the only complete professional representation of Banham’s life to which I have access, and which can serve as a foil to the confused agglomerations of inherited family lore. So ‘Aspen 1970’ finally means something concrete to me. What had been a rather cosy conference in which members of the design and associated professions got together for a jolly and presented comfortably apolitical papers to one another was invaded by a real insurgent tendency, at a time of significant social and political rupture in the US and elsewhere. I won’t rehearse the details, but the design establishment, as represented by the conference’s inner circle including Banham, came in for a concerted attack from elements that thought politics and social justice were very much live issues in the practice of design. Leading the charge was a French delegation including the sociologist Jean Baudrillard, who named Banham in his critique of environmentalism as an establishment strategy of misdirection, functioning to insulate power against real opposition. This was a very significant moment in Banham’s professional life, and Williams’s storytelling has enabled me to appreciate the whys and wherefores of it for the first time.

Banham’s association with environmentalism is largely predicated on his use of the term to label the systems and processes in which he was interested, but as with his use of the term ‘ecology’ to characterise a taxonomy of Los Angeles, this bore little relation to the uses made of the word in the broader environmentalist movement. The degradation of biological systems, species loss, pollution and so forth were not Banhams’s specific interests, and while I’m sure he appreciated that, for example, his beloved Los Angeles was blighted by its vehicle emissions, he expected a technological solution to emerge—as it may yet, California being an important centre for the growth of electric car production and use. This faith in technology has been criticised as ‘positivism’, which is a misuse of the term—what is really meant here is something like ‘unrealistically optimistic’, and that’s probably fair. If there’s a single aspect of Banham that emerged for me in Williams’s account as a defining or dominant characteristic, it’s his optimism—his faith in the capacity of human ingenuity to find solutions to whatever problems may present themselves. That his primary interest was in the constructed physical environment in which humans exist probably accounts for how wrong-footed he was by the events at Aspen in 1970. While the many countercultural and student contingents at that conference were actively involved in finding new, radical ways to live, to organise, to design and to build, Banham simply took it as read that we would find ways when we needed them, and pursued his interest in the systems and processes of the built environment as he found them.

Aspen in 1970 is not the fulcrum around which Reyner Banham Revisited revolves, but it is central to the more holistic understanding of my grandfather that I’ve derived from Williams’s work. This is the point at which I can relate his multimembership to my own. I inherit the rough set of positions occupied by the Aspen interlopers from my mother, who turned seventeen ten days before the start of the conference, and who was already pregnant with me at the time. Whatever it is that needs to be done about ‘the future’ has always seemed to me to be radical and revolutionary, and that largely stems from my upbringing, in which I was encouraged to always question authority, to embrace change for the sake of change, and to reject any kind of mainstream assumption as inevitably compromised by money and power. That my mother ultimately went on to become a professional academic rather than a revolutionary activist is neither here nor there (and she has always been involved in activism for, e.g., peace, or bicycles)—I have rejected many of what might seem to be the pillars of my grandfather’s life, and yet I find it easy to see parallels. For example, I regard all institutions and hierarchies as instruments of coercion and injustice, I see grassroots communities as the sole credible source of social justice or political legitimacy (although I reject the term ‘legitimacy’ for its legalistic etymology), and yet… I have found a socio-economic niche in which I can happily get on with doing the things I enjoy (music, writing, cooking, critical thought, collecting comics, putting books in alphabetical order etc) and I do virtually nothing to effect political change or to cultivate membership in the groups that might bring it about, aside from some lazy advocacy. Banham would always have said he was a socialist if you’d asked him, but as far as I can see his work is devoid of any engagement with the ways in which capitalism structures the objects of his enquiries.

That this picture has emerged with such clarity from Williams’s account is a credit to his work, and to the critical distance he maintains from a figure he obviously admires. If I had any misgivings about his book prior to reading it, they centred around the possibility that he might produce some kind of hagiography. Instead he presents Banham as a flawed figure, but one whose thinking is nevertheless still valuable, still worth revisiting. Banham lived and worked in a time when one of the primary responsibilities of an art critic—one which was still embraced by the scholars who wrote and taught the undergraduate art history course I read with the Open University in the early noughties—was to say whether a given work was good or bad. Much of Banham’s work appears to have been directed at finding a theoretical basis for such distinctions, while maintaining a commitment to pragmatism that precluded nailing his colours to the mast of any fixed ideology. The upshot of this is a degree of inconsistency in his judgements, which Williams devotes a good deal of effort to teasing out. This accords with my own impressions—Banham was scathing about the stylistic ornamentation of Postmodern architecture, for instance, unless it happened to be the work of his friend James Stirling, in which case he just talked about some other aspect of the building; and as Todd Gannon pointed out in Reyner Banham and the Paradoxes of High Tech, despite Banham’s famous essay, ‘A Home is Not a House’, in which he advocates excising everything from a dwelling beyond its essential mechanical services, he criticised (unbuilt) projects under the ‘Plug-in’ rubric which clove to exactly that principle, on the grounds that they lacked any sense of a coherent aesthetic whole. One of Banham’s best-known lines is that he liked to show he had a mind by changing it occasionally, and the flip-side of those inconsistencies was his intellectual adaptability, his willingness to respond to a changing landscape, which Williams identifies as being of a piece with Banham’s enthusiasm for technology—even more visible now than in Banham’s time as a disruptive engine of cultural and social transformation.

I have to admit that, while reading the chapter that deals with the Aspen conference, I spent a good half-hour having confused Baudrillard with Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist of a very different stripe, but one who parallels Banham in ways that Baudrillard does not (although he did share with him a tendency to build his arguments on assertions that he didn’t expect anybody to refute). Like Banham, Bourdieu came to academe from a rural, working-class background, an origin which was marked indelibly by his speech patterns, (rather more pronounced in Bourdieu’s case, I gather). Like Banham he was scathing about anyone who embraced the term ‘postmodernism’. Like Banham he refused to adopt any fixed theoretical positions, working up his explanatory frameworks with direct reference to the empirical substance of his various studies—for Bourdieu, the truth was a moving target, and the last way one would be able to approach it would be to adopt a fixed position. But unlike Banham (as well as being violently averse to any kind of personal notoriety) he took a systematic approach to understanding questions of aesthetic value-judgement. His most influential book, Distinction, explores in depth the ways that such judgements are always socially and economically interested ones, an insight that might have served Banham well as he navigated the entrenched and and self-interested landscape of art history. As Banham found the field, the Modern largely stood in for the Classical, in a discipline that had needed to appear to move with the times, but had not wanted to discard the aesthetic absolutism with which it marked its territory. He deployed the then little-known Italian Futurists to destabilise prevailing views of Modernism as something proceeding from the minds of great aesthetes like Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos. But Banham was not armed with the intellectual toolkit that is available to modern scholars (or dilettante non-scholars, like me), and needed to forge his own armoury of counterexamples and benchmarks of value. Partly these came from his pragmatic, engineering background, which took pleasure in the systems and services that buildings house, and partly they were the repurposed instruments of aesthetic distinction that he plundered in his raids on the academy (as he might like to have seen it, perpetual insider-outsider that he was). Williams outlines this process, and Banham’s changing orientation to the subjects of architectural-historical enquiry (and his changing orientation to the question of what those subjects even were), with lucidity, erudition, and a commitment to his claims that stays the right side of biographical hubris.

Rather than simply finding a lack of rigour in Banham’s changing positions, Williams identifies the irrational as a positive element in his approaches to architecture. This is probably the most insightful and novel of his observations, and offers a useful way of understanding Banham’s relations to his discipline, and to the various communities of practice which he traversed. The most obviously available version of Banham, his myth if you like, is the pragmatic, engineering-minded, structure-focussed, working-class rationalist duking it out with airy-fairy aestheticists who touch up photos of industrial structures to make them fit their theories, and who think architecture is good or bad depending on the presence or absence of magic beauty juice in its visual geometries. Williams makes it clear that such a black-and-white picture is untenable. He identifies this irrational element in Banham’s early interest in the Futurists, who embraced the violence and disruption of modernity and technology with an amoralistic enthusiasm that valued anything novel or destructive. While Banham didn’t buy into the whole shebang, and the Futurists left relatively little material residue in the world, he forced his field to acknowledge something other than, and very different to, the benign prescriptions and dispensations of a great and moderate elite in the origins of modern architecture—something visceral and atavistic and brutal. It is hard (and gratifying) to envisage the impact that this upstart revision of Modernist mythology must have had on the art-historical establishment of the time—except, perhaps, by comparison to the ‘bruising’ experience that Banham had at Aspen in 1970. I have always been drawn to that line which divides the rational from the irrational, the knowable from the gnostic, the real from the irreal, and it is very gratifying to discover that such a boundary can be found playing its part in my grandfather’s work. There was something in him of the punk I would become (in a provisional, multimembership sort of a way) shortly before his death.

So what Reyner Banham Revisited will mean for those with a direct professional interest in my grandfather I can only guess: I hope it will be a useful summary and interpretation of his work. To me, it is a wonderful opportunity to get to know him as an intellectual figure, one who had previously only been visible to me in fragmentary glimpses. The Banham that Williams has introduced me to is still one of relatively separate facets, but as I’ve made clear, I don’t buy into the neatly explanatory characters and narratives to be found in the kinds of biographies that we display with novels in lending libraries and bookshops. This is a work of scholarship, and from his researches Williams has identified a number of relations between Banham’s facets, some concrete—such as the continuities between his desert freak book, Scenes In America Deserta, and his more obviously art-historical work—and some more speculative. Among the latter, he juxtaposes Banham’s experiences at the Bristol Aircraft Company during WWII to his later interest in the Futurists, with their irrationalist fetish for technological destruction. Virtually everyone Banham worked with in Bristol was killed in a direct hit on the factory bomb shelter during an air raid, a fate he presumably escaped only because he was an air raid warden, and was out and about on his bicycle telling people to get in the shelter. His time at Bristol ended with a breakdown, and his close relatives have certainly wondered what impact these events had on other aspects of his life—he didn’t talk about it. There is no crude reflectionism in Williams’s treatment of this experience: he simply notes that Banham was necessarily familiar with the destructive capacities of technology, and that this must have been implicated in some way in what was widely seen as his techno-boosterism. And that, for me, is a real gift: this book, for the first time, puts things next to one another that are indisputably aspects of my grandfather—his various hats, if you will—and gives its readers the opportunity to consider them.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s