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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Reconsidering Reyner Banham

The architect who proposes to run with technology knows now that he will be in fast company, and that, in order to keep up, he may have to emulate the Futurists and discard his whole cultural load, including the professional garments by which he is recognized as an architect. If, on the other hand, he decides not to do this, he may find that a technological culture has decided to go on without him. [Reyner Banham1960]

I’ve just finished reading Banham’s masterly introduction to early modern architecture, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, and was struck in particular by the above quotation. It seems to encapsulate the central problematic of not only that heady age, but our own.

 The choice, as Banham frames it, is between Futurism and Academicism, between a framework emptied of history and one overflowing with it. Banham takes for granted (his later work notwithstanding) a mythical future age in which technology and architecture are in symbiosis, one in which Buckminster Fuller has been declared prophet and messiah, and the Futurist dream of disposable buildings has been realized. But it seems this future would also require the dissolving of disciplinary boundaries.

Intervening years have found architecture unwilling to submit, instead refocusing on the discipline’s “interiority” through several iterations of postmodernism. In the end, Banham’s was interpreted as just one more piece of what Manfredo Tafuri would come to call “operative criticism,” a motivated and subjective history meant to direct rather than document. But this Structuralist hyperbole has long since become untenable, and perhaps it’s time to reconsider Banham’s polemic. 

Though it’s quite clear architecture and technology have maintained their delicate balance since Banham wrote these words, change has come in recent years to representation, not just realization. As many have observed, the modern movement was brought on by a critical mass of advancements to construction, but the technology of representation remained the same throughout it’s period of dominance. Like construction technologies, the digitization of drawing cannot help but have a revolutionary effect on architecture. 

A more apt temporal model for the transformation currently underway might be the Renaissance, when technologies advanced to a degree that drawings could be reproduced in print. Mario Carpo has written that because of this shift, “the architectural forms being built throughout Europe changed in a sudden and radical way–but without any corresponding change in either materials or construction procedures.” (Architecture in the Age of Printing, 5) 

That being said, what has Banham’s analysis to teach us? In short, to quit being so stubborn and acquiesce. Resistance to the onset of new methods is not only futile but untenable. 

Banham faults the moderns for inadequately transforming architecture and ultimately returning to old modes of thought and composition. Change in construction methods was inadequate to transform modes so deeply ingrained. The modern movement fell short of transforming architecture at a structural level, maintaining the conventions of pictorial representation and of line, plane and volume as compositional elements. It’s revolution was both social and aesthetic, but failed to change the way we conceive and describe our buildings. 

One might say technologies of digital representation have already allowed some to conceive of an architecture of points, an architecture no longer based on two dimensional drawings but on descriptions as complex as the buildings themselves. Greg Lynn says that this is the age of calculus, and perhaps he’s right. But we can’t fall into the same trap as the moderns, whose machine-mania was based on only a base understanding of the machines they championed; they jumped to conclusions, and ultimately only represented rather than transformed.

But there comes a certain amount of amateurism whenever architects proclaim an interest in anything but buildings; we are ultimately laypersons at everything else. Perhaps the expectation that architecture be transformed is based on a less-than-complete understanding of architecture itself.

In his last completed essay “A Black Box: The Secret Profession of Architecture,” Banham posits that architecture, as he understood it, is a mode of designing, one “recognized in its output but unknown in its contents.” (A Critic Writes, 293) Architecture, by his definition, isn’t building design, nor even “good” building design, but a mysterious modum architectum in which some makers of buildings act. He states that architecture, after all, isn’t defined by what is done, but how it’s done; Architecture, with a capital A, is only “the making of drawings for buildings in the manner practiced in Europe since the Renaissance,” and nothing more. (298) A transformation of this mode of doing architecture, then, would mean the end of architecture itself. 

Now we know what’s at stake. We can either play the Futurist and discard the weighty cultural burden we carry, or keep our “professional garments” and ultimately be left behind. Neither seems terribly attractive.