Reyner Banham's Unwarranted Apology


Architectural historian Reyner Banham has been a major influence on my work.  In particular, I consider his 1969 book The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment to be a monumental contribution to the discipline of architectural history.

Banham titled the introductory section of his book an "Unwarranted Apology." 

For what did he need to apologize?  The effects of the disciplinary divide between architecture and engineering—Sigfried Giedion's "schism."   Banham wrote:

"In a world more humanely disposed, and more conscious of where the prime human responsibilities of architects lie, the chapters that follow would need no apology, and probably would never need to be written.  It would have been apparent long ago that the art and business of creating buildings is not divisible into two intellectually separate parts—structures, on the one hand, and on the other mechanical services.  Even if industrial habit and contract law appear to impose such a division, it remains false."

The book then explored the immensely interesting story of how the development of architecture was shaped by mechanical systems of heating, ventilation, cooling, and lighting.  Although Banham had some grudging appreciation for pre-modern passive strategies, such as the shading of the Gamble house, the book is mainly a celebration of Victorian engineering and the evolution of modern environmental control. 

One of Banham's great contributions in The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, is how he began to establish an aesthetic theory for the next paradigm (what we now call Green Building, I suppose).  Speaking of Zanuso’s Olivetti Factory, with its hollow concrete beams serving as air ducts, and its clip-on air-conditioners, Banham raved:

"The building is serviced, and manifestly seen to be serviced."

Banham borrowed this insight and its distinctive phrasing from himself.  Earlier, in describing the Glasgow School of Art and the Gamble house by Greene & Greene, he wrote:

"About the way the structure works, there is a … frankness, but it is made demonstrative: as with many modernists after him, so with Mackintosh, structure must not only be done, it must manifestly be seen to be done."*

For the time, this was a powerful idea, that a building's mechanical services ought to be exposed and coordinated with the overall aesthetic expression, perhaps even celebrated.  This was, of course, before the Centre Pompidou and Lloyd's of London.

Finally, and most importantly to me, Banham criticized fellow architectural historians for focusing on appearance and style, rather than the technical aspects of the building process.  He complained:

"However obvious it may appear, on the slightest reflection, that the history of architecture should cover the whole of the technological art of creating habitable environments, the fact remains that [it] still deals almost exclusively with the external forms of habitable volumes as revealed by the structures that enclose them."

For the most part, Banham's challenge has fallen on deaf ears.  (There are a few indications of change, which I'll plan to discuss on this blog in the future.)  And sadly, The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment is out of print and hard to find.  It should be required reading for architecture and engineering students.

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*Banham, Guide to Modern Architecture (1962).  Banham borrowed the construction from the popular British saying: "Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done," which was written in law in 1923.

See also: Reyner Banham on Solar Heating