i was most disappointed with Max Neufeld’s review in NLR 6 of Reyner Banham’s new book. It amazes me that in a humanist journal an architect can accept with only a few minor reservations a profoundly mechanistic interpretation of our environment.
Banham’s title, Theory And Design In The First Machine Age; is not just an example of his deplorable use of jargon; it begs at least four large questions. Was the period 1900–1930 the most significant “age” in modern architecture? Was it a “machine age” different in kind from previous decades of the Industrial Revolution? Was it the “first” machine age? Above all, can one write an adequate history of modern architecture, as Neufeld seems to agree, which only starts in 1900, with Gropius, Le Corbusier and Lloyd Wright?
Nineteen hundred is apparently taken as a climactic date, as well as being a nice round number, because it was then “that the extension of the machine from collective application in industry to individual use” took place. The argument is that machines brought about a new way of living, and that this in turn produced a modern architecture. It is this mechanistic determinism which seems to me quite wrong historically.
Surely it was the new type of society which created the machines, rather than vice versa. My own work among the architectural disciples of William Morris is convincing me that the spatial conceptions of modern architecture preceded reinforced concrete and the motor car. Voyzey pioneered the “open-plan” house fifteen years before Lloyd Wright used concrete to bring it to fruition. Norman Shaw created the first garden suburb at Bedford Park (1874), a whole generation before Ebenezer Howard. G. J. Sedding’s church at Clerkenwell (1887) used the central liturgical plan, 36 years before Perret used bare concrete at Le Raincy. This sort of evidence shows that Reyner Banham vastly exaggerates the influence of post-1900 materials and machines. The “machine aesthetic” was only ancillary to new views of society and new conceptions of living space, which were already formulated. The central position of William Morris both in early socialism and early modern architecture was no coincidence.
It would be just as misguided to begin a history of socialism with the foundation of the Labour Party in 1900.