Over the course of his thirty-six-year career, Reyner Banham wrote 750 articles.
Seven hundred and fifty. Possibly more; the number is not exact. 1 All the while, Banham was producing major scholarly books, from the reputation-making Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, of 1960, to A Concrete Atlantis, of 1986, as well as a host of minor ones, from the edited Aspen Papers, of 1974, to Contemporary Architecture of Japan, of 1985. In fact, when he was a doctoral student at the Courtauld Institute of Art, where he studied under Nikolaus Pevsner, writing was his main source of income; in those years Banham was an editor at Architectural Review and freelanced for numerous journals. But even when he took a full-time position at University College London — he was on the Bartlett School of Architecture faculty from 1964 until 1976, when he took up various academic posts in America — Banham maintained a degree of productivity that can only be described as epic.
In thinking about the brief for this series — to select and discuss a work of criticism produced in the print era that deserves greater digital presence — I gravitated immediately to Banham; there is no historian I enjoy reading more, no one whose work so deftly balances polemic, humor, and erudition. That he was not always right or consistent in no way lessens his appeal. Here is Pevsner assessing his former doctoral student: “He is of course an extremely intelligent man and a first-class journalist. But as soon as he is outside his scholarship strictly speaking, he tends to write too well.” 2 This lofty remark nicely — and accurately — captures the perception, widely shared in the ’60s and ’70s, of Banham as gadfly-in-chief of the modern movement: he was viewed as non-doctrinaire, non-deferential, and so smart that his criticism, even when off-point, still stung. And so Pevsner, torn between exasperation and admiration for his prolific protégé, could settle only for the accusation of writing too well. It’s the kind of censure that would mark a high point in the careers of most academics and journalists. Years after Banham’s death, the urban planner and historian Peter Hall would remember his contemporary in similarly wondering terms.
To the end, all his writing had the immediacy, the vitality, the concreteness of the best journalism. It causes one to ponder: if other academics had come to research and teaching that way, would not academic writing be immeasurably better than it is, on average, and would not the academy be an infinitely richer and more interesting place? But perhaps not; the world produces very few Banhams. 3
The salient point is that Banham’s prodigious output would be meaningless were not his writing so consistently good, his thinking so razor-sharp. And yet despite this extraordinary combination — dazzling prose, high productivity — relatively few of Banham’s hundreds of articles have ever been republished; at a rough guess, between five and ten percent. And while some are digitally available — though usually behind a paywall — many are not. Clearly there remains much to discover, even for Banhamites.
To make my own archival search manageable, I focused on Banham’s freelance writings for the magazine New Society. (Though manageable is up for grabs; over two decades, Banham published 235 pieces in the British weekly. 4) I was inspired partly by the fact that few of these are now in any circulation, and partly by a recent lecture in which historian Adrian Forty cited New Society and Banham as among his early inspirations. 5 In particular, Forty remembered an article from 1970, “The Crisp at the Crossroads,” as encapsulating Banham’s remarkable ability to subject the most humble of things — here, the potato chip — to the most precise design critique. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine another architectural historian writing this sentence: “In the history of rising genteelism, the potato crisp is a key piece of technology that enabled a woman to go into a pub and still emerge a lady.” 6 Forty dwelt also on the history and impact of New Society. Launched in 1962, and ostensibly dedicated to social work — dozens of advertisements for care workers could be found in the back of most issues — the magazine made the assumption, radical at the time, that the arts, including design, urban planning, and architecture, were all within its remit. Especially under the editorship of sociologist Paul Barker, from 1968 on, New Society held that anything to do with the environments in which humans lived, worked, and interacted was fair game for scrutiny.
The focus on New Society made me realize that I’d never really paid much attention to where Banham was publishing. And however much I’ve enjoyed the various collections of his criticism — notably Design by Choice and A Critic Writes — these anthologies inevitably neutralize the context in which the essays first appeared. 7 They assemble pieces from diverse sources and different times, usually with little acknowledgement of the original layout, images, design, and editorial sensibility. But as Banham himself pointed out, his writing style varied with the journal and the audience. 8 Which raises the question: How did he write for New Society? Or to put it another way: What did writing for New Society inspire and enable?
I set to work in the reading room of the Senate House Library, in London, one of the few with a full run of New Society. I spent several days there, hefting volumes off the trolley, reading Banham and also inspecting the covers and back matter, the other articles and contributors. And what a journey it was. As I leafed chronologically through the various volumes, I saw the magazine become heftier and visually distinctive. From 1965 on, Banham’s own presence grew larger, more regular and substantial. Most of his early pieces were book reviews (one highlight was a brilliantly cutting and witty take-down of Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture without Architects), but he soon became a regular contributor to the weekly “Arts in Society” column. 9 And quickly it became clear: to be a columnist in New Society really meant something. The tables of contents read like a Who’s Who of British intellectual life, with such authors as John Berger, Angela Carter, Stuart Hall, Eric Hobsbawm, Richard Hoggart, Laurie Taylor, E.P. Thompson, Mary Warnock, Raymond Williams, and Michael Wood.
Though the magazine was non-partisan, many of New Society’s regular writers were on the left of the political spectrum. But even in a journalscape suffused with Marxism, structuralism, feminism, social theory, and cultural studies, Banham occupied a distinct zone. His columns typically covered topics that no one else took on, except, occasionally, Peter Hall and architect Cedric Price (with whom he collaborated, most famously on the 1969 issue “Non-plan: an experiment in freedom” 10). The sheer range of Banham’s purview is astounding: he focused on cars, buses, bicycles, pedestrian zones, highways, transport planning, urban planning, industrial architecture, commercial buildings, university campuses, and social housing. He wrote straightforward architectural criticism (on Archigram, Stirling, Lasdun, the Smithsons, Foster, Mies, Corb). He explored industrial design and pop cultural products (signage, the yellow pages, Polaroid cameras), as well as sub-cultural stuff (drag racing, surfboards, other Californiana). He knowledgeably assessed historical figures, from Thomas Cubitt to John Soane, and meditated on subjects like art collecting and conservation. Although London and California were the places referenced most often, other English cities and projects from Argentina to Sweden were in the mix as well. 11
Banham was viewed as non-doctrinaire, non-deferential, and so smart that his criticism, even when off-point, still stung.
With a few exceptions (notably, “Non-plan”), Banham’s pieces were less overtly political than those of the social theorists, psychologists, and sociologists who in New Society tackled the banner issues of the day: urban poverty, deprivation, gentrification, inequality, education, etc. Even during the wave of rebellions of 1968 — during which Bartlett students revolted against deep-cutting changes to the school’s curriculum — Banham remained quiet on the subjects of protest. 12 (He tended to keep a firewall between his journalistic persona and his academic one — also evident in the way he deployed distinct voices in his history and his criticism.) Still, politics weren’t entirely absent from his work; as Forty points out, Banham’s keen sensitivity to class underlay his unwavering aversion to anything that smacked of bourgeois control over the arts, and also his rejection of “good taste” and embrace of the popular. 13 As Banham put it: “The concept of good design as a form of aesthetic charity done on the laboring poor from a great height is incompatible with democracy as I see it.” 14
Banham’s conviction that even mundane stuff — like the potato crisp — merited critical attention meant that to some degree he was in tune with his New Society cultural studies confreres, like Raymond Williams, who had influentially declared “Culture is ordinary.” 15 But unlike them he did not see mass culture as inauthentic in comparison with working-class culture. That New Society welcomed a range of positions says much about why Banham remained devoted to it. (In 1988, the same year Banham died, the magazine was absorbed into the New Statesman). For a writer who was a born iconoclast, it was a natural home. Barker and Banham were united in unorthodoxy — Barker affectionately characterized Banham as a “paid-up member of the Awkward Squad.” 16 Barker’s belief that the arts needed to be read “socially,” as part of the larger environment, resonated with Banham’s efforts to situate architecture and design not only within the profession’s narrowly prescribed aesthetic boundaries but more broadly within a pop cultural landscape. 17 The column was, after all, called Arts in Society; and Banham strongly believed that architects and designers needed to think less about arts and more about society.
In this sense, “Prevento Mori,” written in 1972, reads very much like a statement of Banham’s ideals about design. The essay is a paean to M50/71, a crash-test dummy, designed by the Motor Industry Research Association in collaboration with David Ogle Limited, whose articulated steel-and-phosphor-bronze ossuary represented a giant leap in crash-testing and road safety. Banham evidently sees the life-like dummy as having achieved a kind of designed perfection. His praise reads like a mission statement for what he believes design should be — “humane, moral, British, functional and beautiful”; and he is also clear about what design should do — that is, satisfy “a real human need.” All of which underscores his longstanding insistence that “functionality” was not related to any formal qualities but rather to the effectiveness of an object in use.
Banham’s tone is by turns bracing, joyful, commonsensical, hectoring, and teasing. He is conspicuously having fun. He throws in references to Mannerism, Isaac Asimov, and contemporary art, comparing M50/71 to contemporary works by the artists Richard Hamilton and Jacob Epstein (the latter comes off worse in the encounter). He details M50/71’s innovations in anatomical engineering and explains, vividly, why these matter (the dummy is more reliable than human cadavers). Underlying the ghoulish details, one discerns a sense of jubilation. For in finding a product so unambiguously right, so unobjectionably good, Banham sees a way of defending the design profession, then under fierce attack, on the grounds not of “taste” but of ethics. For in the late ’60s, designers stood accused of cozying up to corporations and being in thrall to market researchers, which then resulted in shoddy designs that were dangerous if not deadly. Leading the charge were consumer rights advocates, especially Ralph Nader, who so effectively exposed car stylists’ reckless lack of care for users’ “body rights.” Close on their heels were the environmentalists, who charged designers with fueling wanton consumerism and waste. Under this sustained assault, design was even characterized as “an almost criminal exercise in greed, negligence and willful destruction.” 18
With his love of cars, plastics, and popular design, Banham did not find himself on the right or, perhaps, the righteous side of these rows. And by this point the arguments were not gentlemanly disagreements carried out in the pages of journals; critics had become more strident, more ideological, more oppositional, and protests were playing out in the streets, on the ground. Banham himself experienced a stormy encounter with protesters at the 1970 International Design Conference at Aspen, where a mix of environmental activists from Berkeley and radical French intellectuals (including Jean Baudrillard) confronted an older generation of speakers and organizers. 19 Accustomed to being the reigning bad boy of the design scene, Banham felt alienated by the anti-corporate, anti-design turn of the times; at the 1973 Aspen conference he would even confess, “I was somewhat a stranger,” one of the redundant “men of the sixties.” 20
But it would be a mistake to think that Banham was abandoning the fight. That he had not put down his cudgels or abandoned his old beliefs is apparent in his delight with M50/71: the carefully crafted crash-test dummy was the ultimate riposte to those who would deny the integrity of all designers or the social value of professional work. Ogle’s firm saw a human need and tried to meet it through a rigorous, scientific design process carried out with no government grants or any certainty that it would pay off business-wise: in Banham’s words, the firm did “the humanity-responsibility, act-of-faith bit and went ahead.” That the dummy did end up making money simply proved that socially responsible design was not necessarily antithetical to profit; ergo, the system was not inherently corrupt. That the design promised to improve car safety was the icing on the cake.
But Banham fully conceded that professionals could do better; in fact, the charge that designers, with their rarefied sensibilities, were only to blame for their own redundancy was one of his favorite hobbyhorses. In “Prevento Mori,” then, designers are chided for being too reliant on government handouts, too unambitious and chicken-hearted (the British Council of Industrial Design is singled out for an especially scornful ticking-off). 21 M50/71 serves Banham at once as model, reproach, and challenge. In celebrating the corporate design team’s social conscience, rational approach, and functional results, Banham is not only trying to counter the critics: he is also trying to shake designers out of complacency and self-satisfaction. Beyond the tough-love posturing and badgering, “Prevento Mori” is evidence that Banham continued to believe in the social role of commercial design, and that in pursuit of this besieged ideal, he was prepared to keep on swinging.
by Reyner Banham
It’s not horrible, this metal skeleton: its beauty is already a legend. The fact that we have made skeletons our prime symbol of death shows how truly, childishly squeamish about mortality we have been. The bone structure is the part of the human being that is least altered by death, survives longest. It is the literal mortality of soft flesh that is offensive; but the only periods of western culture that have had the guts to face up to the maggot and the worm, putrefying muscle and splitting skin, have been those, like Mannerism, that we loftily dismiss as sick or morbid.
So we, the so-called sane and healthy, have miscast the skull and the skeleton as our classic memento mori, being totally out of our tiny Judaeo-Christian minds. Perhaps what is reassuring about this particular ossature of steel and phosphor-bronze is that although its subject-matter is death by terminal deceleration in automobiles, it exists to ward off mortality, a good ju-ju of technology, a modern prevento mori. But that’s just an intellectual perhaps-clause. The observable fact of the matter is that it can do such neat and human things that it can only be read as friendly. Its movements and articulations have a deftness you don’t commonly find in engineering products.
Its articulation is part of its legend. The word, spread with bated breath on the designers’ gossip-vine, has always been, “It can shrug its shoulders!” So what? So this … when a live human being wearing a diagonal safety-belt is in a car crash, the shoulder folds forward under its own momentum, and traps the belt against the neck. Whereas, when a traditionally-jointed lay-figure undergoes the same impact, its non-shrugging shoulder can’t fold forward, so it slips out from under the strap and smashes its stupid plastic face on the dashboard — and thus contributes little to the study of human behavior in fatal-type smashes.
If a dummy is to be any real use in this kind of testing, it must have the weight of the human body distributed the same way (this one comes in at 165 pounds, with “muscles” and skin fitted) and must bend in the same places and in exactly the same way. Testing-dummies have been getting better over the last few years, but very slowly. Suddenly to have proper shoulder motions, and an accurately sized and articulated pelvic assembly, is a long and dramatic step forward.
The metal legs that have made this long stride belong to M50/71 (male, fiftieth percentile, 1971), developed by the Motor Industry Research Association and David Ogle Limited, who have spent a couple of years now very carefully unpicking what-a-piece-of-work-is-man, finding the Lord’s handiwork good, and going off to do their likewise, to wit: a mechanical skeleton that can fold its arms, sit in a chair with its legs crossed or in the lotus position on the ground, be stiff-necked as an Ulster Prod or relaxed as a sleeping babe, and generally move like a man — like not something like.
The design process started with MIRA’s dissatisfaction with the U.S.-built dummies then available, and it began to introduce its own modifications and improvements. When Ogle’s joined in, it set up its own development program and the outcome is an anthropometric crash-test device of such authority that it is likely to form the basis of new international safety-testing standards, and already commands a ready world-wide sale at £2,250, basic.
In many ways, the most interesting part of the whole operation is the involvement of Ogle’s, a design firm whose name may not ring any Common Reader’s bell, but is something to conjure with among professionals. Founded some ten years ago, in order to continue the work of David Ogle after his death, the present company, under the direction of Tom Karen, has built up into something very like the ideal picture of an industrial design office: a free-ranging combination of inventiveness, craftsmanship and vision that can turn its hand to anything.
Statistically, I guess, the Ogle output has been largely concerned with the usual designer’s bread-and-butter lines, like radio cabinets. But it is in vehicle design that it has really made its mark, with such golden shots as the Reliant GTE sports-wagon (as affected by Royals), the Bond Bug runabout and Raleigh Chopper cycle.
Which is all very nice (and got Karen the job of heading the automotive design course at the Royal College of Art), but is not where an industrial designer’s peak ambition necessarily lies. Within the ideal of omnicompetence lies the dream of inventing some product outside the competence of any of the established professions, but which satisfies a real human need. So, if anybody was going to design a perfectly articulated life-sized model of a human skeleton … right? Really, there is no kind of regular business that is equipped to do the job; and this, in the ideal world of design, should be the designer’s go-signal to identify a human need, and produce a device that satisfies it.
In this particular case, the designers joined a bit late, but their subsequent commitment to the project has been close to the ideal. While established manufacturers of crash-test dummies were havering around and dropping loud hints that perfected articulation was going to cost some government a real bunch, Ogle did the human-responsibility, act-of-faith bit and went ahead. Using MIRA’s research capacity, Ogle’s own engineering facilities (development work has been headed by Peter Warner, a proper apprenticeship-plus-night-school engineer, none of your college-trained fairies), Ogle’s great corporate flair and (gulp!) its own money, Ogle did it. And I suspect that part of the firm’s satisfaction now is the embarrassment of the rest of the crash-dummy business, caught dragging its feet on a matter of life and death.
Other people’s dummies are now being modified up to similar standards, but Ogle-MIRA’s lead is probably decisive, better-mousetrap-wise. They have made one of the most convincing British artefacts for a long time (since the Mini, for instance), a design which packs the authority of being obviously right. Significantly, this seems to be the first such dummy that needs no nickname. This will never be Dead Fred or Comfort Charlie. It needs no pet name to humanize it, since it is as human as any artefact short of Isaac Asimov’s Positronic Robot can ever be. To see it, say, sitting cross-legged on the floor, is to see another person in the room.
The only thing comparable I can recall that was quite as strikingly People, would be George Segal sculptures; or, before them, some of Marino Marini’s tubby, domestic nudes. Now, those were — and were meant to be — works of art, and this raises an obvious and slightly unsettling question: is M50/71 a work of art? Could it be that Ogle-MIRA have gone the whole functionalist route and, by producing something exquisitely adapted to its function, have satisfied one of the Platonic canons of beauty?
Certainly, the design seems to have acquired qualities over and above the obvious service of necessity. But then the necessities it has to serve do demand that — like a nude or portrait — it should be some sort of simulacrum of a human anatomy. The only way to simulate the physical behaviour of a human thorax under disaster conditions is to build a cage of steel ribs that sweep up to their points of attachment like natural-grown ones; and the only way to simulate the relationship of the pelvic assembly to a seat belt is to build (in phosphor-bronze for correct weight) a virtual replica of a natural pelvis, complete with its iliac crests. In real life, these catch in the seat-belt and stop you sliding under the dashboard, which is what more primitive dummies tended to do.
But a straightforward emulation of the Great Designer in the Sky can only get you so far. When you get to something like the articulation of femur to pelvis, which is one of Nature’s all-time masterpieces, you have to go a different route if you hope to get the right freedoms of movement within the dimensional envelope of Fiftieth Percentile Man. Sheer engineering savvy has to take over; and the Ogle solutions are so convincing that it is difficult not to feel that they represent genuine alternatives that the process of vertebrate evolution could only have abandoned with regret.
I know that’s pitching it high, but it must be obvious that I am impressed. The combination of different kinds of simulation is so neat, everything is so much of a piece in character, that it is difficult not to look round for comparisons from the world of art, such as Richard Hamilton’s combinations of different representational conventions in a single picture. Conversely, there are some works of art which it mocks hollow. The most obvious comparison would be Epstein’s Rock drill, with its metallic rib-cage and bag-like internal organs; visually similar, but exposed as just cheap rhetoric by M50/71’s working personification of homo habilis, the man of capabilities. Epstein, it is reported, had great difficulty in making his figure hold the rock drill convincingly. M50/71, even with its rudimentary hands, could show it how.
Perhaps the best comparison would be with Ed Ihnatowicz’s responsive machines with their beautiful articulations and sensitive reactions — SAM in the ICA’s Cybernetic Serendipity show in 1968 — or the still unpublished Senster for Philips at Eindhoven. (If Ihnatowicz and Ogle could get together, Positronic Robots would be only just round the corner.)
However, the point at issue is not whether the Tate will get one before the Museum of Modern Art (either would get better value than for most other £2,250s they could spend currently), but what the Council of Industrial Design will do about it. The council’s silly unwritten rule that private cars don’t get Design Awards has already deprived Ogle of the public recognition that it ought to have had long ago, as one of the two or three best design offices in the country. M50/71 offers the COID a chance to get off the hook. It is humane, moral, British, functional and beautiful. If the council doesn’t belaurel its bland cranium with some extraordinary honour next year … well, it could shrug its shoulders and forget the insult, but I doubt if the council’s credibility could ever recover.
For this will undoubtedly be one of the memorable designs of the seventies, however much Ogle or anybody else manages to improve on it. The memorability lies in a quality that one or two other classic industrial designs also possess — the power to change the problem by answering it properly. After M50/ 71, it can only seem ridiculous that anyone could ever have even supposed that they could go crash-testing with dummies that were not correctly articulated and weighted, that did not have variable-stiffness necks and proper iliac crests. That famous shrug is not a refinement for its own sake; it marks the point at which the problem ceases to be “What sort of dummy can we get away with?” and becomes instead “How near to an actual human body can we get?”
After all, it’s the only usable alternative to actual human bodies. The stories you hear about car-manufacturers using real cadavers are true. But they would rather they didn’t have to, because they are unreliable. “You don’t know,” as Peter Warner puts it bluntly, “whether you are getting a nice fresh one that’s only six hours dead, or one that’s been in cold storage for a couple of years.” Nevertheless, every dummy, however beautiful its ossature, has to be calibrated against real bodies to make sure it produces usable results. My last word from Ogle was that the firm has just heard that M50/71 tallies almost exactly with the latest cadaver performance figures from America. Could you ask more of your friendly neighborhood prevento mori?