The passionate critic

Raxworthy, Julian (2004) The passionate critic. Architecture Australia, 93(3), p. 50.

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It's hard to be dispassionate about Reyner Banham. For me, and for the plethora of other people with strong opinions about Banham, his writing is compelling, and one’s connection to him as a figure quite personal. For me, frankly, he rocks. As a landscape architect, I gleaned most of my knowledge about Modern architecture from Banham. His Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, along with Rowe and Koetter’s Collage City and Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture were the most influential books in my library, by far. Later, as a budding “real scholar”, I was disappointed to find that, while these authors had serious credibility, the writings themselves were regarded as “polemical” – when in fact what I admired about them most was their ability and willingness to make rough groupings and gross generalizations, and to offer fickle opinions. It spoke to me of a real personal engagement and an active, participatory reading of the architectural culture they discussed. They were at their best in their witty, cutting, but generally pithy, creative prose, such as in Rowe’s extrapolation of the modern citizen as the latest “noble savage”, or Banham railing against conservative social advocates and their response to high density housing: “those who had just re-discovered ‘community’ in the slums would fear megastructure as much as any other kind of large-scale renewal program, and would see to it that the people were never ready.” Any reader of Banham will be able to find a gem that will relate, somehow, personally, to what they are doing right now. For Banham, it was all personal, and the gaps in his scholarship, rather, were the dispassionate places: “Such bias is essential – an unbiased historian is a pointless historian – because history is an essentially critical activity, a constant re-scrutiny and rearrangement of the profession.” Reyner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future, Nigel Whiteley’s recent “intellectual biography” (the MIT Press, 2002), allowed me to revisit Banham’s passionate mode of criticism and to consider what his legacy might be. The book examines Banham’s body of work, grouped according to his various primary fascinations, as well as his relationship to contemporaneous theoretical movements, such as postmodernism. His mode of practice, as a kind of creative critic, is also considered in some depth. While there are points where the book delves into Banham’s personal life, on the whole Whiteley is very rigorous in considering and theorizing the work itself: more than 750 articles and twelve books. In academic terms, this is good practice. However, considering the entirely personal nature of Banham’s writing itself, this separation seems artificial. Banham, as he himself noted, “didn’t mind a gossip”, and often when reading the book I was curious about what was happening to him at the time. Banham’s was an amazing type of intellectual practice, and one that academics (a term he hated) could do well to learn from. While Whiteley spends a lot of time arguing for his practice to be regarded as such, and makes strong points about both the role of the critic, and the importance of journalism, rather than scholarly publishing, I found myself wondering what his study looked like. What books he had in his library. Did he smoke when he wrote? What sort of teaching load did he have? He is an inspiration to design writers and thinkers, and I, personally, wanted to know how he did it.

Impact and interest:

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ID Code: 27739
Item Type: Journal Article
Refereed: No
Keywords: Landscape architecture, Reyner Banham
ISSN: 0003-8725
Subjects: Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > BUILT ENVIRONMENT AND DESIGN (120000) > ARCHITECTURE (120100) > Landscape Architecture (120107)
Divisions: Past > QUT Faculties & Divisions > Faculty of Built Environment and Engineering
Past > Schools > School of Design
Copyright Owner: Architecture Media Pty Ltd 2004
Deposited On: 04 Oct 2009 23:46
Last Modified: 09 Jun 2010 14:03

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