Skip to Main Content

Todd Gannon: Rayner Banham and the paradoxes of High Tech (March 14, 2018)01:13:11

Hernan Diaz Alonso introduces Todd Gannon, recently SCI-Arc’s History + Theory coordinator, currently head of the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University.

Gannon discusses the trajectory of Reyner Banham’s career, from the 1950s through the 1980s, drawing from his recent book, Reyner Banham and the Paradoxes of High Tech (Getty Research Institute, 2017). Gannon argues that focusing on Banham’s idea of otherness - “un architecture autre” and “the other tradition” of modern architecture – reveals a Banham who is paradoxical, and engaged with other historians of modernism: Nikolaus Pevsner, Sigfried Gideon, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, and Philip Johnson.

Gannon characterizes the conception of Brutalism Banham explored in his 1955 article, “The New Brutalism” and the 1966 book of the same title as a rejection of the nostalgia, sentimentality and nationalism of orthodox modernism in Post-World War II Britain, especially the revival of the picturesque. He championed the works of Alison and Peter Smithson, such as the Hunstanton Secondary Modern School (1954), Sugden house (1956), and Sheffield University Extension (1953).

However Gannon demonstrates that the language with which Banham championed Brutalism, calling for architecture to disappear except for a structure to support equipment and environmental controls, did not fit any buildings being built. Banham’s 1965 essay “A Clip-on architecture” identifies the work of Cedric Price and Archigram as more relevant to this vision of dematerialized architecture. Gannon points out that when structures that seemed to fit Banham’s description began to be built – Farrell and Grimshaw’s Service tower for student housing (1968), Team 4’s Extention to Design Research Unit (1971) – the otherwise prolific Banham published nothing about them. The exception was James Stirling’s Olivetti Training Center (1974) which Banham dismissed as gimmicky, except for the interior renovation by Edward Cullinan.

Gannon describes the extreme form of architecture’s dematerialization promoted in Banham’s essay “A home is not a house” (1965), subsequently expanded into Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (1969). Banham went on to reinterpret Philip Johnson’s Glass house (1949) as architecture distilled into interior design and landscape.

Banham’s subsequent books – Los Angeles: architecture of four ecologies (1971) and Scenes in America Deserta (1982) seemed to suggest Banham has abandoned architecture, but in fact he was writing against historicizing postmodernism and promoting a revived modernism of exposed structure, exposed services, and bold colors: High Tech, as seen in Piano and Roger’s Pompidou center (1977). Gannon sees this as an attempt to displace Pevsner’s Stylistic Modernism (Victorian engineering, Arts & Crafts, plus Art nouveau) with an updated version of Gideon’s Tectonic Modernism (Steel, Glass Reinforced concrete). Banham stressed carefully elaborated details that hold in tension architecture and technology.

Gannon explains how Banham never completed his proposed book on High Tech, but his last publications propose yet another alternative: Ethical Modernism, valuing Clarity, Honesty, Unity and Wit. Stressing architecture as method; not what but how.

Gannon concludes by proposing that if he had been able to continue his trajectory, Banham might have seen a synthesis of his various positions in Norman Foster’s Willis Faber & Dumas headquarters (1975), including not only High Tech, but Corbusier’s Five Points, but also Gordon Cullen’s neo-picturesque Townscape ideas, plus the Aesthetic, Stylistic and Tectonic traditions of modernism, suggesting updated criteria of Complexity/Density, Fiction, Diversity/Promiscuity, and Wit.

From the Media ArchiveMedia archive link