A Guide to Modern Architecture: Reyner Banham. Architectural Press, 42/-.

Picture-books on architecture are generally meant for students of architecture or for maiden aunts, are either too expert or inexpert. Here is a guide which is explicitly directed at the intelligent lay public, written by an expert in the subject for experts in other subjects. This is something which needed doing, and Banham has tackled the project with his usual zest. The result is a personal selection of some 40 key examples of modern buildings, described and assessed with the aid of 93 photographs and 10 diagrams, and a short text. Some of the photographs are below par (pp. 55, 78, 109) and some are rather small; but although lusher volumes have been seen, this book makes a compact and informed handbook, which many architects will probably be sending to their clients instead of Christmas cards this year.

Every other expert will want to quarrel with the author in his choice of his 40 main examples. They are arranged in no chronological order, although there are occasional sequences of like buildings. They range from early to late and from the plain to the exotic, and there is a fair sprinkling of handy examples from the home front. Classics include the Penguin Pool, the Bauhaus, the Marseilles block—but also, less familiarly, the Schröder House. Exotics include the Zaanstraat flats, Amsterdam, by de Klerk, a fancy house in Illinois by Bruce Goff, the slick Girasole flats in Rome by Luigi Moretti, Kurashiki Town Hall by Kenzo Tange, and a secretive church at Imatra by Alvar Aalto. In every case the accompanying text goes beyond a merely factual description, but deals briefly, and sometimes feverishly, with historical context, style, function, construction and social relevance. Critics have complained that the book is a hotch-potch, and certainly the casual leafer-through will be puzzled by the jumps. Moreover the need to cover several aspects within the range of these brief notes has resulted in a good deal of telescoping and a gossipy tone which sometimes becomes too playmatey for a lay public, however intelligent . . .

What makes it all worth while, however, is that every one of these notes is informed by the explanatory framework which is set forward in the preamble. This introductory section, itself illustrated by a further 50 photographs and 5 diagrams, is the vital key to the book and to a new understanding of modern architecture. For those who bother to read and reflect on the relevance of the categories it selects, the free-ranging juxtaposition of familiar and exotic examples will provide a stimulus to the re-appraisal of the buildings and a new chance to seize them as things-in-themselves.

Those who demand chronology will be disappointed, but those who merely want to know what is “modern” will have their minds set at rest: the preamble begins with an authoritative historical résumé of the Modern Movement, starting from the Glasgow School of Art, by Mackintosh, and taking in Behrens, the Apostolic Succession (Gropius, Mies, Corbu all passed through Peter Behrens’ office around 1910 and imbibed the true gospel—the need for standardisation) and later the foundation of CIAM and the formation of the International Style—the white-walled, flat-roofed manner which many people today, even many architects, still identify as “modern”. Banham shows how this white uniform was a mere teen-age stage in the evolution of a true functional architecture. It has become a historical style and to that extent it has already entered into limbo, but the functional standards it created are only now beginning to be applied in a regenerative way.

This heartening argument is worked out in more detail under the four banners of Function, Form, Construction and Space. I believe that this is the kind of critical analysis which must be established as a preliminary to any kind of public understanding of what the modern architect is aiming at and how successful he has been in any particular case. These are fundamental categories, and when their role can be grasped in relation to a building, we should have arrived at a method of assessing it which is capable of penetrating beyond mere appearances.

Characteristically, having developed four categories, Banham proceeds to knock down two of them. Forms are expendable (if fascinating) and so too are structures: it is space and function which are the crucial factors, and the building which has made evident a consistent two-way relationship between these has passed the test for good architecture: that is, an architecture in which the radical solution of a functional problem is indissolubly wedded to an aesthetic conception that is the manipulation of an infinite, measured and mobile space.