Banham’s America

Reyner Banham falls in the lively tradition of European travelers whose observations tell us Americans “something important about ourselves.”

Reyner Banham’s Facebook page, March 2012. 

Reyner Banham may have died in 1988, but he is active on Facebook, with a fan group, an author page, and, at last count, 1,048 friends. This is far fewer than the average teenager, to say nothing of Lady Gaga, and there are certainly more sober ways to gauge the influence of the British historian and critic of modern architecture and design: two collections of his writings, a hefty intellectual biography, and a volume of essays by distinguished scholars inspired by his work. In addition, a number of his books remain in print decades after their original publication, including Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960) and Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971). Most recently, Ice Cube’s video for Pacific Standard Time is as reverent an homage to Banham’s style of casual but informed analysis as one might imagine. Clearly, Banham still matters in all the ways that count for a traditional intellectual — but Banham still matters in ways that count for an intellectual in the age of social media, too. And the man whose work happily vacillated between the academic and the popular would have appreciated the giddy enthusiasm that’s prompted hundreds of people, from dozens of countries, to like and friend him posthumously.

Banham had plenty of giddy enthusiasm himself, especially for the United States — its culture and technology, its cars and its buildings. After years of observing America from afar in movies and magazines, Banham visited for the first time in 1961. Taken at the age of 39, this trip was, according to his wife, “the realisation of a longheld dream.” 1 He returned to the U.S. regularly thereafter, notably to Los Angeles on a Graham Foundation Travel Grant in 1965, before moving to Buffalo in 1976 to teach at the State University of New York. (This was after having taught at the University College London for over a decade.) Four years later, he settled in Santa Cruz to teach at the University of California. At the time of his death, Banham was about to move across the country again, having accepted a professorship at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.

In addition to teaching, Banham produced a dozen scholarly books and a steady stream of criticism in publications ranging from Architectural Review and Design Book Review to the Times Literary Supplement and New Society, as well as a handful of radio and television broadcasts for the BBC (Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, available on YouTube, is the best known). As a critic, Banham is sometimes seen as a more learned (though less glib) practitioner of Tom Wolfe’s pop New Journalism; as a scholar, he is viewed as a less staid (though more snarky) heir to Nikolaus Pevsner’s partisan history of architecture’s recent past. These assessments are on the mark: they usefully characterize Banham’s approach to the full spectrum of design in his immediate present. Yet they overlook the relationship of Banham’s work to another body of literature that elucidates not only his methodology but also his enduring value and relevance today: travel accounts of Europeans abroad in America.

Top: Route of Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1831 journey in the United States. [Image via] Middle: Route of Charles Dickens’s 1842 tour of the United States. [Image via] Bottom: Frontispiece of Fanny Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans, published in 1832.

Starting in the 19th century, the new United States was a popular destination for European tourists, who wanted to observe firsthand what the young nation was about. By some estimates, several hundred of these visitors published their observations for eager audiences back home, especially in Great Britain, where Fanny Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans and Charles Dickens’s American Notes for General Circulation became bestsellers. By turns humorous and philosophical, scabrous and polemical, these evocations of American people, places and institutions provided a detailed portrait of a country that was too busy building itself up to pay much attention to writing it all down, and too committed to exceptionalism to have time for generalizations. In the 20th century, Europeans continued to visit the U.S., now to see what the mature nation had become, and, increasingly, to compare the image it projected to realities on the ground. While the genre of travel literature changed along with the rise of mass media, Alistair Cooke’s long-running radio broadcast, Letter from America (1946-2004), and his 13-part television program, Alistair Cooke’s America: A Personal History of the United States (1972–1973), prove that the country itself had lost none of its allure for foreigners. As recently as 2008, the British actor Stephen Fry visited all 50 states for a BBC television series — six episodes of comedic misadventures called Stephen Fry in America. 

If any of these accounts have had enduring impact here in the United States it is because, as historian Daniel Boorstin observed of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, they do more than describe a particular historical moment. They transcend the specificity of time to tell us something important about ourselves. 2 Part of what gives them currency is that they remain absolutely tied to the genius loci of America — which is something Reyner Banham understood completely.

More particularly, Banham came to understand this: once he became a regular visitor to the U.S. after 1961, he realized that to comprehend American culture one had to grasp the specificity of place. And in a country 3,000 miles across this meant the specificity of places. For the historian who made it acceptable to embrace a plurality of modernisms beyond the International Style (which was the topic of the Architectural League debate that brought him to the U.S. for the very first time), this probably wasn’t a stretch. Still, Banham’s awareness of the multiplicity of American places reveals itself only gradually in his writings, as over the years he becomes more attuned to diverse surroundings and particular locales, to familiar topographies and brand new typologies. Unlike Dickens, for example, who formed the impressions published in American Notes during “hasty travels” that lasted a mere six months, Banham had the luxury of time. 3 Beginning with extended research trips in the 1960s, his passing acquaintance with the country deepened into intimate knowledge.

Top: Scene from Alistair Cooke’s America, ca. 1972. Bottom: Promotion for Stephen Fry in America, 2009.

This knowledge was gained from direct experience of American buildings and landscapes, and Banham, every inch the “observational” historian equipped with stenography notepads and plenty of Ektachrome, was an indefatigable traveler in these years. 4 Even after he took up permanent residence in the U.S., he seemed to relish his role as an “archetypical British tourist armed with credit card and rented car.” That mode of transport is significant: it was in the United States that, famously, Banham learned to drive “in order to read Los Angeles in the original.” 5 His understanding of mobility as a native tongue and the automobile as the generator of autochthonous culture was key to Banham’s analysis of American urbanism, architecture and design. It also established a direct link with his distinguished literary forbearers. Though de Tocqueville, Trollope and Dickens could make no claims for the American originality of the stagecoach, steamboat or railroad, they did observe a keen native interest in movement, distance and speed, in cutting canals and laying out roads — anything to establish communication between the country’s vastly dispersed settlements. By Banham’s day connections between them had, of course, become a basic fact of life in the U.S., though the existence of good roads did nothing to mitigate the “boring, sweaty, interminable miles” stretching between the coasts. Then again, Banham didn’t necessarily want to alleviate the boredom since, at the opposite extreme, those same miles also represented “the lure of sheer distance” that, for him, was equally characteristic of the nation. 6

Once Banham got a driver’s license, the pull of those miles was irresistible, and he spent plenty of time behind the wheel: up and down the California coast, into the deserts and canyons of the Southwest and Texas, across the rust belt and the Midwest, and over and through the northeast megalopolis. There were countless stops in between and along the way, all fully documented in field notebooks, maps, postcards and 35mm slides. Banham visited architectural monuments and natural landmarks, evincing equal interest in the Seagram Building and the Cima Dome. He was attracted to everyday landscapes and out-of-the-way obscurities, supermarkets and motel chains having nearly the same allure as one-off wilderness resorts. He explored thriving commercial centers and abandoned industrial wastelands (and vice versa), lavishing the same attention on a Ponderosa Steak House as on a General Mills grain elevator.

From the Tennessee Valley to Silicon Valley, no building or landscape was unworthy — or safe — from Banham’s formal analysis, socio-cultural critique or outspoken opinionating. He thought the TVA dams with their “overwhelming physical grandeur” were better in real life than in the iconographic New Deal photographs where he had first encountered them, and while he may have sneered at the “Redneck Macholand” in which they were located, he reserved his true scorn for the “eco-radicalist” supporters of the Endangered Species Act who, in the 1970s, prevented the closing of the Tellico Dam sluices in order to preserve the snail darter minnow. The construction of the dam may have looked more arrogant, but Banham wondered if it really was.

The “Fertile Crescent of Electronics” presented no such moral quandaries when Banham visited the sylvan corporate landscapes of IBM, Hewlett-Packard and other now obsolete tech-companies in 1981. Concerns about the environmental impact of all those microchips were still about a decade away and, given his long-standing technophilia, Banham would probably have minimized their significance with the same greater-good rationale he applied to the TVA. While 1981 was early enough in the digital revolution that Space Invaders was cutting edge, it was late enough that Silicon Valley had already produced a “better-than-respectable body of architecture.” The buildings, in Banham’s view, were as sleek, silver and modern as the gadgets designed in the research labs within, an alignment of high-tech imagery and confident industrial consciousness — exemplified by MBT Associate’s IBM’s Santa Teresa campus in San Jose — that Banham considered a cause for celebration. Only the most “crass and unobservant” among the “modern-architecture knockers” and “California-mockers” could possibly disagree. 7

Top: Billboard in Los Angeles. [Photo via Gabrielle Esperdy, American Road Trip] Bottom left: Reyner Banham, late 1960s. Bottom right: Cover of early edition of Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, 1971. [Image via KCET]

It should be obvious that Banham’s must-see destinations in the 20th century were somewhat different than those that attracted Trollope, et al, in the 19th. How could it be otherwise, given the country’s spectacular growth in the intervening years: Chicago had replaced Cincinnati as the great midwestern metropolis; Las Vegas was more fascinating than Niagara Falls as a wonder of the new world — though Banham went there, too, but mainly to report on the unhappy balance of commerce and nature he found on the American side of the falls. (In Las Vegas, where the glare of neon and other forms of “environmental technology” made the nature disappear, Banham didn’t encounter the same problem. 8)

New York harbor remained an attraction, though it had changed dramatically since Mrs. Trollope found it so beautiful that not even Turner could do it justice. Where Trollope would have seen a scattered agricultural settlement on the jutting peninsula between Newark Bay and the Hudson River, Banham encountered “a scruffy, low-profile industrial landscape of scattered farms, single story factories, diners in trailers, pipe runs and utility poles.” Far from depressing him, however, Banham’s “spirits rose” upon entering Bayonne, New Jersey, because there, in the ruins of the peninsula of industry, he hoped to find a significant, but overlooked, concrete-framed factory. 9 His discovery of Ernest Ransome’s East Coast Borax Company Building was part of the larger project that eventually resulted in A Concrete Atlantis. This study placed American daylight factories and grain elevators in relation to European modernism, taking as its deliberate starting point the Europeans’ distinct perspective on U.S. industrial buildings at the start of the 20th century — notably their lack of direct experience with them.

Throughout his travels in the U.S., whether pursuing a major interest or indulging a minor whim, conducting historical research for a book or engaging in contemporary criticism for a magazine, Banham exploited his own self-conscious point of view as a European. By looking at America as an outsider, Banham was able to question cultural assumptions and challenge social prejudices (though rarely acknowledging his own). In one of his best-known essays, “The Great Gizmo” (1965), Banham uses this privileged position to lambast “Manhattan-based Jeremiahs” for bemoaning the disappearance of open space, claiming that from the perspective of Europeans — “who really know about intensive occupation of land” — there were still plenty of “empty acres beyond the filling stations and hamburger stands along the freeway.” 10 He may or may not have meant to sound like an apologist for sprawl, but for Banham, context was key.

Certainly this concern for context was evident when he took Alistair Cooke to task precisely because he felt that the European perspective caused the BBC commentator to misunderstand the nature of the American suburb. Already in the early ’60s, Banham could discern that, unlike in Europe, the suburb in the U.S. “was an independent urban unit with a character of its own. ” It wasn’t subordinate to anything and, “at its best,” represented “one of the major successes of the American Way of Life.” 11 While the boosterism of this statement may reflect the afterglow of Banham’s first trip to States, it is equally possible that his hyperbole, if he saw it as such, served a polemical purpose. In a review of the British edition of Tom Wolfe’s Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Banham described how members of the Independent Group (with whom he was closely associated) approached American popular culture. On the one hand they had critical distance, made possible by the 2,000 miles of ocean separating the U.S. and the U.K.; on the other hand, they had first-hand knowledge because American movies, magazines and cars had been the “accessible culture” of their youth. As grown-up critics and historians, they examined America with “very particular loyalties and sensitivities, as well as distinctive insights.” In characterizing this “polarising effect,” Banham may as well have been describing his own rapturous, yet gimlet-eyed view of America. 12

Scenes from Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, 1972. [via YouTube]

But no degree of critical detachment could dampen Banham’s clear love of touring. His work is suffused with a traveler’s sense of discovery and exploration, and it betrays a passionate commitment to the romance of travel itself — by air and especially by car. Whether he’s driving El Camino Real, Route 66, I-40 or the New Jersey Turnpike, Banham celebrates the romance of the road. He takes unabashed pleasure in seemingly every experience; even the most mundane moments of travel are thought provoking, offering opportunities for the zealous, and only rarely mean-spirited, dissection of American and contemporary culture. Catching a plane at Dulles (and waiting in a Saarinen-designed lounge) sparks a prediction of the demise of jet age adventuring; car trouble in Remsens Corner, Ohio, prompts a reverie about the faded urbanism of small town America; traffic congestion on a Los Angeles freeway stimulates a consideration of the tensions between public and private spheres in affluent societies; a closed motel coffee shop in Williams, Arizona, occasions a reflection on mythologies of self-reliance and wilderness. 13

Only occasionally did Banham engage in what would pass as conventional travel writing. It is in Scenes from America Deserta that his work most closely resembles the travelogue mode of Dickens and Trollope, though he preferred to cite such precedents as Charles Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta (of 1888, much loved by T.E. Lawrence). Banham’s book recounts his numerous journeys through the Mojave, Sonoran, Sagebrush, and Chihuahuan deserts, trips memorably captured in Tim Street-Porter’s photographs of the author in cowboy hat and boots riding a folding bicycle around the dry bed of Silurian Lake near Death Valley. Over the course of the book, Banham visits the requisite natural wonders like the Grand Canyon and the Dumont Dunes and archeological sites like Mesa Verde and the Coronado Monument. While these documented the desert’s early human occupation, not surprisingly Banham is more interested in the traces of recent humans — from the Franciscan missionaries at San Xavier del Bac to Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship at the Ocatillo Camp, both in Arizona. And while he scrutinizes the presence of so much high style in such remote places, Banham, characteristically, gives thoughtful consideration to the quality of quotidian work as well.

Far from dismissing the Union Pacific Depot at Kelso, California, for its “Hispanic stylistic fiction,” Banham contextualizes the Spanish Colonial forms as typical of the railroad’s consummate architectural professionalism in the 1920s. For Banham, the presence of its red-tiled roof and white-washed arcades would have offered workers and passengers on the Las Vegas-San Bernardino line in the prewar era the same reassurance of civilization — of food, water and facilities — as the star-topped pylon and boomerang arrow of a typical Holiday Inn in his own day. This explicit connecting of present and past, of using the contemporary to explicate the historical, was an essential part of Banham’s methodology and a persistent trope in his writing. It worked equally well in reverse, as when he unpacks the “architecturally ludicrous effect” of colonial cupolas (symbol of hospitality) and giant penguins (symbol of Admiral Byrd) at Holding’s Little America truck stop in Wyoming. 14 The penguins, like the arcades of Kelso, are still extant, and Little America remains the thriving Interstate oasis it was when Banham encountered it in the late 1970s. The Kelso Depot, moldering close to abandonment back then, is now a designated landmark and a National Park Service visitor center. Banham might have questioned the tidiness of the place, post-preservation, but he’d have appreciated the fact that the lunchroom is open, because it still offers the only services for 76 miles on the Kelbaker Road. 15

Route of Reyner Banham’s trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, 1979. [Image from “Desert Lover,” Times of London Sunday Magazine, June 1979]

No matter how personal Banham’s musings become in Scenes in America Deserta — and he spends a fair number of pages examining his “desert freak” proclivities — he never loses sight of a larger goal: to explore the interconnectedness of building and land, of human activity and land-use. This, as he described it, was his ultimate raison d’être an architectural historian and all-purpose interpreter of the world around him. 16 Nowhere is this clearer than when he is serving as a tour guide, not only in spirit, but in letter. Banham authored one guidebook to modern architecture and provided the introduction to another dealing with the architecture of Buffalo. “We drove by Buffalo on the Thruway, but decided not to stop there because there’s nothing there to look at — is there?” The Buffalo guide, he argued, would make sure this never happened again. 17 For Banham it was essential that his readers experience “the physical presence of the buildings themselves,” and his success as a guide in The Age of the Masters could only be measured by the degree to which his descriptions — of modern buildings in Europe, North and South America, and Asia — “drive the reader out to look at these works in the original.”

Many of his descriptions are more respectful than compelling: Banham describes Kenzo Tange’s work in Japan in sonorous tones, with references that alternate between Corbusier and the Shogonate; he reverently places Mies in Berlin in the company of Goethe, Beethoven and Bach. But when Banham turns his attention to U.S. buildings, particularly those outside of major centers, he punches up the language. Bruce Goff becomes a poster boy for a “Mr. Fixit of the nitty-gritty, not to say grass-roots tradition,” and his Ford House in Aurora, Illinois, is the exemplar of “a pure American vision,” one that Banham describes as “belong[ing] like beer belongs, looks at home in Marlboro’ country, and is as simultaneously familiar and astonishing as a Howard Johnson.” 18 This kind of pop-inflected, slangy riff validates Banham’s hipster credentials; it also makes you want to pull off the highway.

Reyner Banham in the Mojave Desert, 1979. [Image from “Desert Lover,” Times of London Sunday Magazine, June 1979] 

But sometimes Banham intends you to keep on driving, all the better to experience how a building belongs to the land, and how the building and land belong to the environment, and how the environment serves the needs of humans and their activities, which brings us back to the building. In driving mode, Banham was less interested in individual monuments (major, minor, or neither), styles and typologies than in their totality as a continuum of experience — as an ecology. And if you drove far enough, from Maine to Georgia, from the Midwest to Southern California, or simply from one end of Los Angeles to the other, you would start to notice that there were different ecologies, and that some were geographical and some were cultural, but that they intersected and collaged to form a vast, sprawling, layered network whose patterns were discernible only if you took the long view and just kept driving.

And that’s why his L.A. book eschewed a conventional chronological narrative (except for the chapters on the evolution of modern architecture), and could be read in any order. Beaches, foothills, flatlands, freeways — as far as Banham was concerned, they could be “visited at the reader’s choice or fancy with that freedom of movement that is the prime symbolic attribute of the Angel City,” the same way you would experience them driving around on your own. 19 Not long ago, the geographer Michael Dear noted that he still uses Banham’s four ecologies to orient newcomers to Los Angeles, and one wonders if he’s rigged up a GPS or smart phone app to simulate Banham’s simulated “Baedekar Visitor Guidance System.” 20 This “joke tribute” to Karl Baedeker, computer-age letters taped over a dash-mounted AM radio, turns up in the first scene of the 1972 documentary Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles. It’s a goofy gimmick, but Banham is serious about its purpose. “Devising a guide,” he says in the voice-over narration, “is a useful way to explain a city.”

It’s a useful way to explain a country, too, and though Banham never wrote a comprehensive guide to the United States, in the books and articles written in the nearly three decades spanning his first visit in 1961 and his death in 1988, he came awfully close. Whether you prefer the word or the wheel, wandering in Reyner Banham’s America is still worth the trip.

  1. Mary Banham, “The 1960s,” A Critic Writes: Essays by Reyner Banham (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 47.
  2. Daniel Boorstin, “Introduction to Vintage Classic Edition,” Democracy in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), vii.
  3. Charles Dickens, American Notes: For General Circulation (1842; rpt. London/New York: Penguin Classics, 2000), 275.
  4. Reyner Banham, “Actual Monuments” (1988), reprinted in A Critic Writes, 283. Banham is describing Pevsner, but he applies the characterization to himself as well.
  5. Reyner Banham, Scenes in America Deserta (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Book/Gibbs M. Smith, Inc., 1981), 3. Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (London: Penguin Books, 1971), 23.
  6. Banham, “The Haunted Highway,” New Society 52 (19 June 1980), 299.
  7. Reyner Banham, “Silicon Style,” Architectural Review 169 (May 1981), 284. The article had appeared earlier in New West, a short-loved west coast of sibling of New York, the magazine that helped established New Journalism.
  8. Reyner Banham, “Goat Island Story,” New Society (13 January 1977), 72-73. See also Reyner Banham, The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, 2nd Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 272.
  9. Reyner Banham Papers, Getty Research Institute, Box 10, Folder 4 — Ransome at Bayonne. See Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (London: Whittaker & Treacher, 1832), 267-68. Trollope does not identify Bayonne; the name was not adopted until 1861.
  10. Reyner Banham, “The Great Gizmo” (1965), reprinted in Penny Sparke, ed. Design by Choice (London: Academy Editions, 1981), 108, 110.
  11. Reyner Banham, “Urbanism: USA,” Architectural Review 130 (November 1961), 304.
  12. Reyner Banham, “Towards a Million-Volt Light and Sound Culture,” Architectural Review 141 (May 1967), 332.
  13. See Reyner Banham, Age of the Masters (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 125. “The Haunted Highway,” 298. Los Angeles, 216. Scenes in America Deserta, 15.
  14. Scenes in America Deserta, 24-26, 38-39.
  15. See Mojave: Kelso Depot, accessed December 2011. See also Kelso Depot, Restaurant and Employees Hotel, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, accessed December 2011.
  16. Reyner Banham, “The Historian on the Pier” (1971), reprinted in A Critic Writes, 161-65.
  17. Reyner Banham, “Introduction,” Buffalo Architecture: A Guide (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981), 1.
  18. The Age of the Masters, 65, 82, 166, 79.
  19. Los Angeles, 36.
  20. See Michael Dear, Rediscovering Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles, LA School of Urbanism.
Gabrielle Esperdy, “Banham’s America,” Places Journal, March 2012. Accessed 29 Sep 2023.

Comments are closed. If you would like to share your thoughts about this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.