Book Review: "Theory and Design in the First Machine Age"

Reyner Banham's Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960) is an engaging overview of the important theoretical developments of the early 20th century leading up to the "International Style" of the 1930s-40s.  Banham does a fairly good job, in my opinion, of avoiding excessive editorializing, although he has a clear viewpoint on the Modern Movement and finishes with a strong conclusion.  In opposition to his teacher, Nikolaus Pevsner, whose own history of modernism came out in 1936, Banham dismantled the "form follows function" credo that became the stereotype of modernism, arguing instead that formalism (a preoccupation with style and aesthetics) was an important, if not overriding, concern of Modern architects.  Two sections of the book struck me in particular: his analysis of Le Corbusier's famous book Vers une architecture (Toward a [new] architecture) from 1923, and his Conclusion (chapter 22), where he breaks the link between functionalism and 1920s progressive architecture.

In the chapter on Vers une architecture, Banham argues that "[...] Vers une Architecture has no argument in any normal sense of the word.  It has, instead, a series of rhetorical or rhapsodical essays on a limited number of themes, assembled [...] in such a way as to give the impression that these themes have some necessary connection" (222).  Instead, "[I]t has at least a motto-theme, which may be summarised as follows: architecture is in disorder now, but its essential laws of Classical geometry remain.  Mechanisation does not threaten these laws but reinforces them [...]" (245).  Banham reads Le Corbusier as essentially a classicist interested in universal laws, types, and symbolic forms, and his book as reassuring its readers that the new has a necessary connection to the old: "In any case, it was precisely this rediscovery of the old in the new, this justification of the revolutionary by the familiar, that ensured the book its enormous readership, and an influence, inevitably superficial, beyond that of any other architectural work published in this century to date" (246).  Although Banham's conclusion, that Le Corbusier's writing is conservative in the sense that Corbu appeals to Platonic forms and academic rationalism to justify new designs, is one that I've heard before in architectural history classes, I've never heard the critique that Vers une architecture is actually bad architectural writing.  Perhaps professors are reluctant to criticize the quality of the texts that they assign us to read!  I have always struggled to read architectural manifestoes and writing because they are notoriously poorly written, and I think Vers une architecture is no exception.  I thank Banham for being willing to point it out.  This may be a small point, but I think that being clear about the quality of our architectural writing, as architects, is a first small step toward a higher standard for communication within the field.

In his Conclusion at the end of the book, Banham writes that 1920s architecture may have been preoccupied with technology, but that architects never bothered to investigate technology thoroughly, since they were really interested in creating a formal symbolism of technology that could be incorporated into architecture.  I have already heard the argument that Modern architecture was not truly "functional" despite our tendency to refer to it that way, in addition to its failure to live up to the truth-to-materials claims that some Modern architects made (free plans and free facades were still being built with load-bearing walls, eg).  Banham writes, "Functionalism, as a creed or programme, may have a certain austere nobility, but it is poverty-stricken symbolically.  The architecture of the Twenties [...] was heavily, and designedly, loaded with symbolic meanings that were discarded or ignored by its apologists in the Thirties" (320).  In other words, although we often think that the Modern movement that began before WWII and continued on afterward was one and the same, in reality the early movement was preoccupied with symbolic form and was not the inexpensive, mass-produced construction that later architects would pursue (although its early practitioners may have hoped for such a result).  Banham argues that the change from an aesthetics of technology to an interest in "functionalism" came with the start of the war: "Under these circumstances it was better to advocate or defend the new architecture on logical and economic grounds than on grounds of aesthetics or symbolisms that might stir nothing but hostility" (321).  He goes on to analyze the Barcelona Pavilion and the Villa Savoye (Les Heures Claires), stating, "[E]ven if it were profitable to apply strict standards of Rationalist efficiency or Functionalist formal determinism to such a structure, most of what makes it architecturally effective would go unnoted" (323).  These are analyses I've also heard before, although it's interesting to hear them from what I assume is the primary source.  What I really wonder is why I haven't had to read Banham in my classes before!

In Mark Wigley's lecture on Reyner Banham (part of his course on the History of Architectural Theory, Nov. 9, 2011, at GSAPP), he said that Banham's critique of the 1930s interpretation of the Modern movement was "devastating" - not only was the 1930s theory of functionalism wrong, according to Banham, but architects at the time were not even thinking of their work in that way.  Wigley also argued that Banham's writing was the beginning of "real" scholarship on the Modern movement, not written by the friends and colleagues of the architects, and with footnotes and sources.  Wigley said that the tone of the work, however, is "less about judgement" and "more about love," that Banham believed the arguments of the 1920s and believed in the search for a machine aesthetic.  I can agree with Wigley that Theory and Design seems like a tribute to the architects and movements that were searching for a new architectural expression at the turn of the 20th century.  I  recommend it for anyone who wants a thorough introduction to the important people, places, and ideas of Modernism, despite Wigley's warning not to read it because you will "become its victim" (!).


New Technologies and Swiss Trains

Lake Lugano
This August, I attended an international architecture workshop at the i2a (International Institute of Architecture) House in Vico Morcote, Switzerland.  A joint project of Columbia University, the Politecnico di Milano and the University of Shanghai, the workshop focused on how we can use digital technologies in tandem with existing infrastructure (in this case, a small commuter rail line) to enhance our experience of urban space.  My Italian partner, Giovanni Nardi, and I proposed a large-scale parcourse for the train line to provide commuters with an easy way to take their daily exercise and meet people.  Each station would have a different fitness activity, as well as showers, lockers, and amenities to facilitate exercise; the train itself would have an exercise car with stationary bikes, elliptical machines, and other equipment that could be used en-route.  To encourage commuters to meet up and form athletic teams, we proposed a smartphone application that would show what facilities are available, who's using what fields and when, and which groups need more players or are looking to start teams.  At the terminal station, Ponte Tresa, we proposed an outdoor gym on the station roof, including a glass-bottomed pool that would allow swimmers to watch the trains coming and going from the station.  The app could also help users plan their fitness routines, using the very reliable train system (a train every 15 minutes) as a way of structuring a workout.

The workshop was a lot of fun, although we had no reason to think any of our proposals would be implemented; we had lectures from a number of local architects who were also working on projects for the area, but not from the municipality.  This part of Switzerland is very beautiful and Morcote basically a resort town, but growth of the nearby city of Lugano, and the strength of the Swiss franc versus the euro in Italy, means that more and more Italian commuters are projected to come through this area to work in Switzerland.  Still, we enjoyed developing our somewhat fantastical proposal and thinking about rooftop pools and train station climbing walls.  You can see the results of our design work on my Tumblr page.

Heidi Weber Pavilion by Le Corbusier, Zurich
The i2a House, Vico Morcote
Working with a variety of international students was also a highlight of the trip - there were students from Italy, of course, but also international master's students from Brazil, Poland, Turkey, Bulgaria, and more.  Everyone seemed to have an easy time working together (the workshop was conducted in English), seeming to reflect a fairly consistent method of design instruction across these different countries.  I hope to post my thoughts about architecture school sometime soon - I have a lot of criticism - but it is fun to be able to work with students with such different backgrounds thanks to the similar training we have all received.

Further, I have to say that I appreciated attending an architecture studio that looked at transit and infrastructure as appropriate places for architectural intervention, and not just at your typical museum/library/public project.  As my professors keep telling me, and not just in history class, there are so few "designed" spaces in the US that if architects want to stay relevant, we should really be thinking about those places and not just prestige buildings.  Maybe what I'm learning is really dependent on my choice of professors, and I'm just choosing those I agree with, but it seems like what I learn in architecture school generally contradicts the predominant image/methodology of architecture practice.  I think architecture should be about the design of the built environment broadly, and that this is the way to increase the value and success of our built spaces.  So thanks, Fred Levrat and Oliviero Godi, for leading us in some really interesting discussions about the future of infrastructure and digital technology.


Television Review: "Doctor Who"

I'm officially obsessed with the BBC's Doctor Who, the world's longest-running sci-fi show with 784 episodes as of this writing.  To be honest, I didn't know live-action television could be that good!  All my previous shows have ended in disappointment.  Firefly was good but was too short-lived to keep my attention.  House had great dialogue and an interesting plot device (medical detective story ftw!) but devolved into senseless drama unsuitable to such a logical main character.  Young Indiana Jones is fun for the history, but the acting is only so-so; Macgyver is hilariously campy but that's about all it's got.  MST3K is really a series of movies, not a real show.  All the other shows of which I've willingly watched more than a couple of episodes have been animated.  Doctor Who is, like, awesome.  It combines all the things I want in my mindless entertainment: problem-solving, fantasy, sci-fi, speculative fiction, futurism, technobabble, plot continuity (hurrah story arcs!), and a stance against violence.  It's even free from swearing, drinking, drugs, and taking-actions-you-know-you'll-immediately-regret, which is my #1 pet peeve in most comedies.  Did I mention it was a comedy?  It's hilarious.  My only complaint is that sometimes the monsters are too scary.  (Yes, I'm a wuss.)

The theme or thread that runs through the show (at least since 2005) is the essential worth and value of human life.  The universe is an awesome and exciting place, and we have an important place in it.  According to the Doctor, humans are sometimes clever, sometimes stupid, but essentially good and progressive and kind, and our humanity is worth fighting for, not just in the sense of continuing the existence of the species but in the sense of "preserving" the qualities of our humanity.  In the episode The God Complex, every character who has a faith (of some kind or another) finds a room with their greatest fear inside.  The Doctor finds a room with the younger version of Amy Pond, whom he let down as a child.  Although it's never revealed explicitly in the episode, I think the Doctor's faith is in humanity - hence his fear of disappointing Amy.  What's not to like about a show starring an intelligent and funny alien adventurer who thinks we humans are the best thing going?  The show reminds us to believe in ourselves and hold on to our values, which is generally a trite and obvious point for a show to make, except that somehow coming from the Doctor, this seems like a really wonderful and encouraging sentiment.  The show's premise is that the Doctor knows something about everything, he's been everywhere and every-when, so his valuation of humanity is more authoritative than our own.  If he says we're brilliant and great, then we must be.  So I applaud the BBC for finding a way to make a TV show that encourages us all to be the best we can be, without insulting our intelligence or sugar-coating the message.  Humans screw up and make terrible mistakes in the series, and the Doctor can't always set them right, but he does give the other characters, and us, reason to hope that we'll turn out ok in the end; he's already been there and seen that.  In the meantime, we all need to muddle through as best we can.  Need I point out that this show is so very British?

The new (seventh) season of Doctor Who premieres in the US tonight at 9pm Eastern time on BBC America.