Classic Book Review: Reyner Banham’s “A Concrete Atlantis”

This is an extremely remarkable little book that has reoriented my perception of the humble (and not so humble) industrial buildings that surround me. Conversational and highly personal, it explores an overlooked influence on early Modernism, a set of photographs published by Walter Gropius in 1913. Banham traces the typological developments that led to the distillation of two American building types Gropius selected – concrete grain elevators and “daylight” factories – and points out their unbelievably rapid obsolescence. These types lived on in the factory aesthetic of European Modernism, and Banham’s third chapter outlines how.

Part of what makes this book remarkable is Banham’s hybrid memoir/historical formatting, which exposes the methodology of his research. He prioritized close reading not in abstract, academic terms, but first hand visitation of buildings, a rite of passage that builds credibility for any historian of our built heritage, and is a phase of research I often find myself forgoing in the internet age. Unfortunately, many of the buildings Banham visited have since been demolished, and in exploring their history he illustrates how invaluable our industrial heritage can be ¬†and the low esteem in which we hold its monuments. It’s also unfortunate that this book, published over 25 years ago, hasn’t caused a change in perception with regard to these irreplaceable buildings. They continue to decay and be demolished at an alarming rate. They might be gone before we know it.

The MIT Press, April 1989

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Book Review: Utopia’s Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again

In Reinhold Martin’s second book on postwar architecture, he vividly reconsiders what is called postmodernism from many angles and on many levels. The eponymous “ghost” of utopia, Martin argues, continues to haunt the fractured, juxtaposed narratives of postmodern architecture, despite the architects’ best intentions.

Martin is at his best when making use of architecture as a ground, and unfortunately the first half of his book contains precious few buildings. That changes with a chapter on materiality. Dealing mostly with mirrored glass in the work of Philip Johnson, Martin argues that we mustn’t look into the mirrors, but at them, within which he finds only capital. These mirrors construct a feedback loop, reflecting and refracting themselves in a mise-en-abyme that Martin diagnoses as one of the central ciphers of postmodernism.

Martin continues to build steam until the book concludes with a chapter almost overflowing with buildings and projects (unsurprisingly titled “Architecture”), by and through which Martin riffs on his themes of global capital, feedback, and the specter of utopian thinking. The projects in this final chapter are some of the canonical works of postmodernism (Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie, Rossi’s San Cataldo Cemetery, Ungers’ Architecture Museum) and Martin’s climactic use of them is a dramatic and erudite¬†jouissance.

Like all great theory, Martin’s book will cause considerable reconfiguration of one’s preconceptions. In my case, this book transformed my understanding of the ways modernism (the construction of grand, utopian narratives) lived on in that which symbolized its death. Perhaps more importantly, this book lays bare architecture’s (in)escapable complicity in global capital. The only escape, Martin argues, is to dive ever deeper.

University of Minnesota Press, 2010