Book Review: "Theory and Design in the First Machine Age"

September 7, 2012

Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960) is an engaging overview of the important theoretical developments of the early 20th century leading up to the “International Style” of the 1930s-40s. Banham does a fairly good job, in my opinion, of avoiding excessive editorializing, although he has a clear viewpoint on the Modern Movement and finishes with a strong conclusion. In opposition to his teacher, Nikolaus Pevsner, whose own history of modernism came out in 1936, Banham dismantled the “form follows function” credo that became the stereotype of modernism, arguing instead that formalism (a preoccupation with style and aesthetics) was an important, if not overriding, concern of Modern architects. Two sections of the book struck me in particular: his analysis of Le Corbusier’s famous book Vers une architecture (Toward a [new] architecture) from 1923, and his Conclusion (chapter 22), where he breaks the link between functionalism and 1920s progressive architecture.

In the chapter on Vers une architecture, Banham argues that “[…] Vers une Architecture has no argument in any normal sense of the word. It has, instead, a series of rhetorical or rhapsodical essays on a limited number of themes, assembled […] in such a way as to give the impression that these themes have some necessary connection” (222). Instead, “[I]t has at least a motto-theme, which may be summarised as follows: architecture is in disorder now, but its essential laws of Classical geometry remain. Mechanisation does not threaten these laws but reinforces them […]” (245). Banham reads Le Corbusier as essentially a classicist interested in universal laws, types, and symbolic forms, and his book as reassuring its readers that the new has a necessary connection to the old: “In any case, it was precisely this rediscovery of the old in the new, this justification of the revolutionary by the familiar, that ensured the book its enormous readership, and an influence, inevitably superficial, beyond that of any other architectural work published in this century to date” (246). Although Banham’s conclusion, that Le Corbusier’s writing is conservative in the sense that Corbu appeals to Platonic forms and academic rationalism to justify new designs, is one that I’ve heard before in architectural history classes, I’ve never heard the critique that Vers une architecture is actually bad architectural writing. Perhaps professors are reluctant to criticize the quality of the texts that they assign us to read! I have always struggled to read architectural manifestoes and writing because they are notoriously poorly written, and I think Vers une architecture is no exception. I thank Banham for being willing to point it out. This may be a small point, but I think that being clear about the quality of our architectural writing, as architects, is a first small step toward a higher standard for communication within the field.

In his Conclusion at the end of the book, Banham writes that 1920s architecture may have been preoccupied with technology, but that architects never bothered to investigate technology thoroughly, since they were really interested in creating a formal symbolism of technology that could be incorporated into architecture. I have already heard the argument that Modern architecture was not truly “functional” despite our tendency to refer to it that way, in addition to its failure to live up to the truth-to-materials claims that some Modern architects made (free plans and free facades were still being built with load-bearing walls, eg). Banham writes, “Functionalism, as a creed or programme, may have a certain austere nobility, but it is poverty-stricken symbolically. The architecture of the Twenties […] was heavily, and designedly, loaded with symbolic meanings that were discarded or ignored by its apologists in the Thirties” (320). In other words, although we often think that the Modern movement that began before WWII and continued on afterward was one and the same, in reality the early movement was preoccupied with symbolic form and was not the inexpensive, mass-produced construction that later architects would pursue (although its early practitioners may have hoped for such a result). Banham argues that the change from an aesthetics of technology to an interest in “functionalism” came with the start of the war: “Under these circumstances it was better to advocate or defend the new architecture on logical and economic grounds than on grounds of aesthetics or symbolisms that might stir nothing but hostility” (321). He goes on to analyze the Barcelona Pavilion and the Villa Savoye (Les Heures Claires), stating, “[E]ven if it were profitable to apply strict standards of Rationalist efficiency or Functionalist formal determinism to such a structure, most of what makes it architecturally effective would go unnoted” (323). These are analyses I’ve also heard before, although it’s interesting to hear them from what I assume is the primary source. What I really wonder is why I haven’t had to read Banham in my classes before!

In Mark Wigley’s lecture on Reyner Banham (part of his course on the History of Architectural Theory, Nov. 9, 2011, at GSAPP), he said that Banham’s critique of the 1930s interpretation of the Modern movement was “devastating” - not only was the 1930s theory of functionalism wrong, according to Banham, but architects at the time were not even thinking of their work in that way. Wigley also argued that Banham’s writing was the beginning of “real” scholarship on the Modern movement, not written by the friends and colleagues of the architects, and with footnotes and sources. Wigley said that the tone of the work, however, is “less about judgement” and “more about love,” that Banham believed the arguments of the 1920s and believed in the search for a machine aesthetic. I can agree with Wigley that Theory and Design seems like a tribute to the architects and movements that were searching for a new architectural expression at the turn of the 20th century. I recommend it for anyone who wants a thorough introduction to the important people, places, and ideas of Modernism, despite Wigley’s warning not to read it because you will “become its victim” (!).