(Architectural Press)

PREFACE TO THE REVIEW (The Institute of Contemporary Art in London and its Independent Group)

THE history of the formation of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts makes for interesting reading, but I do not intend to pursue it here. It was created soon after the Second World War by a few affluent and idealistic members of the British art world whose aesthetic loyalties never-the-less seemed retardataire to younger artists, critics and architects, many of whom had fought in that war. These latter therefore formed their own quite small and very exclusive group within the Institute which, after some concern, accepted their existence officially. For readers who would like to know more of this important group, information can be found in the massive catalogue of an exhibition published by MIT and organized by three American Museums in 1990 under the significant title, The Independent Group: Post War Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty. Here it must suffice to say that, prior to its official acceptance by the ICA’s directors in 1952, the group had already organized a showing of illustrations torn at random from popular American consumer periodicals by the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi while, after its acceptance, later the same year, Reyner Banham, the author of the first of the books reviewed here, called its first official meeting.

The Group, in short, regarded popular art as worthy of serious attention long before “Pop” art was born in the USA. Indeed, it is usual to attribute the first use of the word “Pop” to a member of the Group, Lawrence Alloway, who preceded me as editor of Athene and became Assistant Director of the ICA in 1955. Such a descent into the vulgar world was anathema to the founders of the Institute, including its president Sir Herbert Read, in spite of their tolerance of the group. It was also inimical to most members of The Society for Education Through Art whose Presidency Read also held. However, in 1956 the Group created a manifesto exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery called “This is Tomorrow”. Mounted in 12 sections by different teams of artists, critics and architects, it featured everything from communication theory to “Robby the Robot” (1) from the movie “Forbidden Planet,” and contained a poetic credo written by Banham, as well as the now famous collage in which Richard Hamilton displayed the word “POP” front and centre. Alloway, who wrote the introduction to this show, was “let go” by the ICA in 1960 and in 1961 moved to New York with his wife, the painter Sylvia Sleigh, to become Senior Curator of the Guggenheim Museum — a position he had earned by having alone educated the London scene on the importance of the New York school.

This is not the place to discuss the Independent Group further, or to discuss the complex aesthetic position of Herbert Read, except to say that Read spoke of changing the world through a rather paradoxical association of anarchism with an elitist faith in art and Jungian psychology, and that this brought him largely to ignore the post-war generation in both Europe and America in favour of a cohort of European artists of the inter-war years. The Group, in contrast, promoted the post-war art-world in terms that would have suited the Futurists’ delight in electric trams, motor cycles, billboards and the transient nature of such things: art and architecture might be for an age, but they were not to be for “all time.”

Reyner Banham’s book of 1960, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, like his essays and lectures around which much of the Group’s thinking was centred, was sympathetic to the insights of Futurism and praised the designs of the Futurist architect Antonio Sant’Elia while criticizing the better known names of the Modern Movement. His book was the result of a doctoral dissertation prepared for the Courtauld Institute during the previous decade and working on it had produced several influential lectures, helped by his role as an assistant editor of Architectural Review. In short, Theory and Design… may be said to have “deconstructed” the aesthetic of the “International Style” long before Banham’s student, Charles Jencks, published his more famous book, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, in 1977, in which he announced the death of modern architecture with a photo of the demolition in 1972 of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing estate in St. Louis.

Banham’s book is therefore at a considerable remove from the others on my list. It analyses the prevailing architectural world and its changing rationale, whereas the remaining books scarcely enter that world. Instead, they discuss painting by children, by the great apes and by artists in tribal societies, a theory of art college elites, and the frustrations of not being able to paint, as well as scientific investigation as an art form – what might be called “primal” matters, born of the human impulse to sing, dance, decorate and make music or images in whatever culture. Banham’s book looks at the semiotics of this impulse as it is socialized within our sophisticated Western culture and applied to architecture and urban planning.

1. “Robby” was used on the 1956 poster for the movie. However, in the catalogue of the original exhibition the robot is neither named nor referred to—which perhaps explains an error in the book on the Independent Group, compiled by the American Museums noted above, where it is referred to as “Robbie.”




THIS book relates to the author’s usual theme and working on it over the past years has obviously supplied fuel for his journalistic sorties, by both press and radio, with which readers will be familiar.

Much of that journalism has been an attempt to reduce the status of the so-called “Platonic aesthetic” and to force it, so to speak, to stand side by side with, rather than superior to, other theories. Dr. Banham’s claim has been that shapes, proportions and rhythms do not have aptness sui generis but only in relation to a number of symbolically satisfiable needs. Roger Fry pointed out, in 1912, that we appropriate art to our instinctual and social needs, but sadly excluded all consideration of this from his aesthetic. Banham reverses this: the Emperor has no clothes at all before those we throw to him. Banham’s is an aesthetic of the market place, where no-one is more equal than the rest. Sophistication, in short, exists in all directions and is not a one-way street marked “up.”

Banham has been unequivocal and tough-minded about this. The designer of a motorcycle, the “stylist,” is not working for the sensibility that might appreciate the Parthenon. The shape of a motorcycle, he claims, is based on values that are not eternal but transient; the shape symbolizes speed and potency in a way which, because of the continual progress of technology, may be obsolete in a year’s time. Appearance is less the result of function than the promise of it and the final type, the norm, can never crystalize out as purists like Le Corbusier, with his objet type, had hoped.

Such, as I understand it, has been Banham’s argument. Now comes this book, with bibliography and copious quotations. In it the author exposes from all sides the purist/formalist elements of modern architecture as based mostly on nineteenth century academicism and incapable of meeting the needs of a technological century. This is done principally by unraveling the tangle that has ensued because abstract art happened to be born at the same time as the awareness that a “machine age” was with us. A tangle that you can see beginning, for instance, in Malevich’s The Non-Objective World, a book which Banham does not mention but which, with its romantic enthusiasm for airplanes yet its rejection of “useless practical things which become ridiculous in no time at all,” exemplifies nicely the muddle he here exposes [my italics].

Banham is massively informed, wearing his learning on his sleeve in an even tiresome manner, and he is obsessively thorough. No major figure escapes appraisal and few survive unscathed. Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier are credited with enigmatic masterpieces, for instance, though not on the terms they themselves have most loudly offered.

But to assess the Banham-rating of each individual would mean writing the book again, since nowhere does the author attempt to sum up individuals in a phrase. It must suffice to say that whole-hearted approval is kept for those who (like the motorcycle stylist) “derive their authority from the present condition of culture, not from history,” and since this is what children do, and what teachers must allow for, it is not difficult for us to find ourselves at this watershed with the author.

The quotation is, of course, almost a paraphrase of the Futurists’ aims, and it is to the Futurists with their concept of caducità (the idea that works of art should be perishable) that our attention is finally drawn. Indeed, the author elects a new pantheon, having dismissed the old, and to the principle places he appoints the Italian Antonio Sant’Elia and the American Buckminster Fuller.

He quotes Fuller in summing up the idea that the forms of most of the architecture of the modern movement have been contrived rather than arrived at organically: “The International Bauhaus never went back of the wall-surface to look at the plumbing—it looked only at the problems of the modification of the surface of end-products, which end-products were inherently sub-functions of a technically obsolete world.”

Fuller’s remarkable Dymaxion House of 1927 still looks like science fiction beside the most avant garde work, even today, and it is a pity that since the author approves of it he does not spend some time analyzing it to demonstrate how his aesthetic might work with such architecture.

But it is here that he fails us. After his brilliant historical demolition we hear murmurings and portents that are supposed to adumbrate a truly viable aesthetic. A new type of architect is hinted at who, without recourse to Phileban geometry or to Functionalism, must conjure his shapes and spaces out of a technological matrix.

It is significant that the author chooses to disregard the phenomenon of empathy, the losing of self through “feeling into” the work of art. His aesthetic seems instead to be geared to heightening the sense of self to the level of vertigo, like that of the Futurists. He prefers those theorists, like Moholy-Nagy, for whom the mechanics of sense perception supply the whole of aesthetic experience. The new style spectator/user, it seems, with no need for empathy, will exist in a continuous state of romantic fugue. This is very like the institutionalizing of anxiety. But the author hurriedly states that he is not concerned with ethics and the book ends with this chapter which should really be the beginning of another thesis.