by Reyner Banham

Architectural Press Ltd., 45/-

mr. reyner banham’s carefully documented history of modern architecture, “Theory and Design in the First Machine Age”, differs from many previous studies in that it is not written by a partisan of the modern movement. Hitherto, most books on this subject have been written by people who have been directly engaged in the propaganda for the acceptance of modern architecture, in most cases practising architects; in fact, the only other book by an art-historian is “Space, Time and Architecture”, but Giedion was so involved with the campaign to popularise modern architecture in the Twenties as to be almost a participant.

A distinction of Mr. Banham’s book is in the selection of the period which he discusses. He limits himself to the first thirty years of this century, a period which he calls “The First Machine Age” and which he defines as the extension of the machine from collective application in industry to individual use, in the form of the motor car, telephone, radio and gadgets in the home. He argues that the average housewife now disposes of more horsepower than did an industrial worker at the beginning of the century. The distinction is a somewhat artificial one, and I suspect it is made at least partly to avoid covering yet again the ground of the Industrial Revolution and the engineering structures of the 19th century, whose influence on modern architecture Mr. Banham minimises. The book discusses the two major forces in modern architecture, the classical tradition and that of technical innovation. This latter gives rise to one of the most interesting and original parts of the book, the re-assessment of Futurism and in particular the Futurist architect, St. Elia.

Mr. Banham believes Futurism to be of crucial importance to the whole of the modern movement, and finds its influences in such unlikely places as the de Stijl group in Holland and the Bauhaus. Its chief characteristics, the glorification of the machine together with an element of chauvinism made it attractive to Fascism, and in fact the Futurists lent much support to that movement in its beginnings, although once it became a mass movement, Fascism found the tradition of Imperial Rome to be altogether more impressive than the sophistications of Marinetti. It is these connections with Fascism which have hitherto been considered an embarrassment and have resulted in the comparative neglect of the study of Futurism in this country.

Mr. Banham convincingly establishes the importance of the Futurists, but at the cost of neglecting more decisive influences on the modern movement. Much of the influence Mr. Banham attaches to Futurism could more properly be attributed to the Constructivists, and the omission of any study of Constructivist architecture in Russia, in the years following the revolution, is one of the chief faults of the book. The original Constructivist manifesto is not mentioned, let alone reproduced, nor are any of Tatlin’s buildings and the brothers Vezhnin are noted only in a different context. Lissitsky alone is discussed in any detail, and then only in connection with his work and influence after he had left Russia. It is not possible to attribute this serious omission to the small number of buildings actually produced by the Constructivists, for Mr. Banham admits elsewhere that the Futurists produced none at all. I believe that much of the influence which Mr. Banham attributes to Futurism in fact derives from the work of the Constructivists, who were seeking to master the machine while the Futurists were content with its mere glorification.

The Academic element in modern architecture Mr. Banham finds particularly strong in Le Corbusier, a view which is apparently still startling to the layman. He dissects Le Corbusier’s famous “Vers une Architecture”, and shows it, despite its rational pretentions, to be an emotional, irrational and largely eclectic book. He attributes its popularity and influence to the proof of the presence of so much of the old, i.e. traditional, in the new architecture, hence Le Corbusier’s insistent juxtaposition of photos of early motor cars and the Parthenon.