SAH Blog


Banham's America by Gabrielle Esperdy

Mar 27, 2012
Reyner Banham may have died in 1988, but he is active on Facebook, with a fan group, an author page, and, at last count, 1,048 friends. This is far fewer than the average teenager, to say nothing of Lady Gaga, and there are certainly more sober ways to gauge the influence of the British historian and critic of modern architecture and design: two collections of his writings, a hefty intellectual biography, and a volume of essays by distinguished scholars inspired by his work. In addition, a number of his books remain in print decades after their original publication, including Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960) and Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971). Most recently, Ice Cube's video for Pacific Standard Time is as reverent an homage to Banham's style of casual but informed analysis as one might imagine. Clearly, Banham still matters in all the ways that count for a traditional intellectual - but Banham still matters in ways that count for an intellectual in the age of social media, too. And the man whose work happily vacillated between the academic and the popular would have appreciated the giddy enthusiasm that's prompted hundreds of people, from dozens of countries, to like and friend him posthumously.

Banham had plenty of giddy enthusiasm himself, especially for the United States - its culture and technology, its cars and its buildings. After years of observing America from afar in movies and magazines, Banham visited for the first time in 1961. Taken at the age of 39, this trip was, according to his wife, "the realisation of a longheld dream." [1] He returned to the U.S. regularly thereafter, notably to Los Angeles on a Graham Foundation Travel Grant in 1965, before moving to Buffalo in 1976 to teach at the State University of New York. (This was after having taught at the University College London for over a decade.) Four years later, he settled in Santa Cruz to teach at the University of California. At the time of his death, Banham was about to move across the country again, having accepted a professorship at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts.

In addition to teaching, Banham produced a dozen scholarly books and a steady stream of criticism in publications ranging from Architectural Review and Design Book Review to the Times Literary Supplement and New Society, as well as a handful of radio and television broadcasts for the BBC (Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, available on YouTube, is the best known). As a critic, Banham is sometimes seen as a more learned (though less glib) practitioner of Tom Wolfe's pop New Journalism; as a scholar, he is viewed as a less staid (though more snarky) heir to Nikolaus Pevsner's partisan history of architecture's recent past. These assessments are on the mark: they usefully characterize Banham's approach to the full spectrum of design in his immediate present. Yet they overlook the relationship of Banham's work to another body of literature that elucidates not only his methodology but also his enduring value and relevance today: travel accounts of Europeans abroad in America.

Read the rest of the article as it appears on Places - The Design Observer


Gabrielle Esperdy is associate professor of architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Esperdy focuses on the intersection of architecture, consumerism and modernism in the urban and suburban landscape, especially in the U.S. in the 20th and 21st centuries. She is particularly interested in minor or everyday buildings and how social, economic and political issues shape the built environment. Her books include Modernizing Main Street, published in 2008, and the forthcoming Architecture's American Road Trip, which examines how architectural discourse absorbed the ideals and concerns of commercial sphere after World War II.

Esperdy's work has appeared in the Journal of Architectural Education, the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Perspecta, Architectural Design, and Design Observer, among others. She is an associate editor of multi-volume series The Buildings of the United States, and the editor of the SAH Archipedia, an online resource scheduled to go live in 2012. She is a board member of DesignInquiry and a regular contributor to the DesignInquiry Journal.

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