LA Forum spoke with Todd Gannon about his new book, Reyner Banham and the Paradoxes of High Tech. Gannon was recently appointed Section Head of Architecture at the Knowlton School at Ohio State University. He is a former LA Forum Board Member, and taught at SCI-Arc, Otis College of Art and Design and at UCLA, where he also received his Ph.D.
Congratulations on your new book, Reyner Banham and the Paradoxes of High Tech. Give us a rundown of your approach to the material and to Reyner Banham’s writing.
Reyner Banham, who died just over thirty years ago, was one of the most important voices in architecture culture in the second half of the twentieth century. His books (more than a dozen of them) and essays (over 700!!) on architecture and design are still widely read and discussed, yet, given his tremendous output scholars have just begun to scratch the surface of all he had to say.
Most studies on Banham, like Nigel Whiteley’s 2002 critical biography and Tony Vidler’s excellent chapter in Histories of the Immediate Present (2008), tend to focus on Banham’s earlier writings – particularly on his famous books Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960), The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (1969), and Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971). By contrast, his later writings from the ’70s and ’80s have received relatively little attention. My book takes on these writings, particularly those related to Banham’s late-career writing on High Tech architecture. High Tech has also been understudied recently, though that is beginning to change.
At the time of his death in 1988, Banham was at work on a book on High Tech, which he titled Making Architecture: The Paradoxes of High Tech. His notes and correspondence, as well as a draft of his introduction, are kept in the Banham Papers which are held at the Getty Research Institute. These papers spurred my own research on Banham, and we were very lucky that Banham’s estate allowed us to include Banham’s draft intro in my book.
Why is a reconsideration of Banham’s works so important to where our profession is right now? How do you see Banham’s work reinvigorating or impacting the critical approach to technology in architecture’s propositions today?
An important aspect of Banham’s writing throughout his career is his tendency to work in terms of stark contrasts: tradition versus technology, style versus performance, aesthetics versus ethics, etc. If you concentrate on his early writings, it appears that he has a strong bias for the latter terms in each pair.
Today, we see a lot of architectural debates structured in terms of binary scenarios like the ones Banham worked with. On one hand, we see architects rallying around often arcane formal and aesthetic interests. On the other, we see architects committed to social justice and political change. (The LA Forum even supported its own version of this kind of debate, with its historical oscillation between the camps of “experimental architecture” and “everyday urbanism.”) Typically, these debates imply a winner-take-all situation – if you’re aesthetically driven you’re automatically seen as socially irresponsible; if you’re socially responsible, you’re automatically typecast as aesthetically reprehensible.
This is a really stupid way to have a debate. Broad-brush depictions like these get both sides wrong, and they make it very difficult to see any common ground. Banham’s late writing on High Tech, in which we worked very hard to sort out how architects like Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, and others were able to be both socially responsible and aesthetically progressive without compromising either position is very instructive in this regard. He shows that one need not rely on partisan, winner-take-all logic or on synthetic compromises, which, in my experience, tend to be unsatisfying. Instead, Banham shows us how paradox can hold contradictory ideas in productive tension.
Architects today could learn quite a lot from Banham’s sophisticated paradoxes. Rather than latching on to one thing and saying “no” to everything else, Banham gives us a way to say “yes” to many things at the same time. His positive stance stands in stark contrast to the sort of negative critical theory that was in vogue when he was writing (and remains popular in many circles today), and points – finally! – to a way out of some of the more debilitating critical logjams clogging up not just architectural discourse, but most social and political commentary today.
Having been a faculty member at SCI-Arc for nine years, a LA Forum Board Member and long-time L.A. scholar and resident, we have to ask, now that you’ve moved to Ohio to head the architecture section at The Ohio State University’s Knowlton School, what do you miss most about L.A.?
Cover photo by Ken Kirkwood. Design by Catherine Lorenz.