Architecture on Film: Reyner Banham Double Bill + Discussion

Two pioneering works of radical television from the mind of the iconoclastic architecture critic: a journey from LA to Las Vegas, via the desert.


07:00pm, Tuesday, 17 May 2022


10:00pm, Tuesday, 17 May 2022


Cinema 1
Barbican Centre, Level -2
Silk St, London, EC2Y 8DS



AF Members:
£10.00 (Please contact AF for promotional discount code)


Young Barbican:

Tel (9am-8pm):
+44 (0)20 7638 8891

This is a past event

With thanks to the BFI National TV Archive

One of the rare architectural critics to achieve celebrity status, the writings and thinking of Reyner Banham (1922-1988) came to define and create architectural culture. As at home with modernism as pop culture, Banham's hugely inventive and engaging prose, perspectives and analyses of architecture, the city, culture and its artefacts continue to mark generations. A radical thinker with roles in the Independent Group and Pop Art, a dedication to collapsing high and low culture, and a fascination for technology, it was only natural that Banham would find a fitting home for his ideas on the domestic small screen.

In celebration of 100 year's since Banham's birth, and 50 since the landmark Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, we present an evening of films and discussion dedicated to his work.

“It remains a remarkable fact that the academic history of modern architecture was launched by someone who obsessed about the tail fins on automobiles, the fur lining of Jane Fonda’s spacecraft in Barbarella, the paintwork on ice-cream vans, and the plastic knobs on transistor radios. After decades of self-congratulatory writing by an army of promoters about the supposedly functional mode of building, Peter Reyner Banham rode in on a fold-up bicycle to demystify modern architecture."
– Mark Wigley, Artforum

The evening will be introduced by Richard J. Williams (author, Reyner Banham Revisited (Reaktion, 2021), Professor of Contemporary Visual Cultures, University of Edinburgh) who will chair a conversation following the screening with guests Adrian Forty (Emeritus Professor of the History of Architecture, The Bartlett School of Architecture), writer and journalist Owen Hatherley, and LA-based critic, editor and curator Mimi Zeiger.

Ahead of the event, architect Sir Peter Cook – a friend and associate of Banham’s, and co-founder of the radical Archigram, whose work the critic championed – offers a personal lecture reflecting on Banham’s work and legacy, his influences and influence, and the time the pair shared together.

Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

"One of the greatest of those great 1970s BBC programmes that you could never imagine getting made today.” 
- Owen Hatherley, Tribune

Banham’s adaptation of his influential 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, for the BBC series One Pair of Eyes, sees him drive the streets of ‘the supercity of the future’, aided by the ‘BAEDE-KAR Visitor Guidance System’ – his Alexa-like technological tour guide. With trademark formal and intellectual wit and invention, he presents a treatise to the city for which he learned to drive in order to ‘read it in the original’, revealing ‘a place that makes nonsense of history and breaks all the rules’.

Whether finding the Hollywood dream factory in the Spanish Colonial style or London’s Georgian Squares in LA’s town planning, observing the Watts neighbourhood in the aftermath of its 1965 race riots or surfers at Hermosa Beach, Banham takes us on an inventive and unusual guided tour, providing a celebratory critique of the City of Angels’ fabric, history and id. 

UK, 1972, Julian Cooper, 52 mins

Roads to El Dorado: A Journey with Reyner Banham

Swapping the BAEDE-KAR for a Jeep Wrangler, the fictional premise of a rainy weekend prompts Banham to depart LA for Las Vegas. But on his way to the ‘Versailles of vulgarity’, he finds his own personal jackpot in the desert landscapes on route.

Following the trails, train tracks and freeways that have sought to tame the ancient landscape, he journeys between ghost towns and Scotty’s Castle, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Nipton Troll. A commission for the BBC series The World About Us, Banham would eventually develop the thinking of this episode into his 1982 book Scenes from America Deserta.

UK, 1979, Julian Cooper, 52 mins

Programme Notes by Richard J Williams

Peter ‘Reyner’ Banham was an English architectural historian and critic – one of the rare ones whose work had popular impact, for he wrote prolifically for the mainstream media, and made radio and television programmes, as well as maintaining a university career. There are over fifteen books with his name on the cover, and he wrote anything up to 1000 articles (nobody is quite sure how many). His most academic work dealt with architectural modernism, but he was as happy writing about bicycles, or crash test dummies, or new flavours of potato crisp: he was seemingly interested in everything.

Born into a working-class family in Norwich in 1922, he trained first as an aircraft engineer, working for the duration of WWII at the Bristol Aeroplane Company. After the war, and encouraged by his wife Mary, he decided ‘to recycle himself as an art historian’. He entered the Courtauld Institute in 1948 as a mature student, studying art history as an undergraduate, before enrolling onto a PhD supervised by the prominent architectural historian and modernist Nikolaus Pevsner. He got an academic job at the Bartlett, University College London’s architecture school, in 1965, moved to the State University of New York, Buffalo, in 1976, and the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1980. He was about to take up a professorial chair at New York University in 1988 when he died of cancer, aged just 66.

But Banham was much more than an academic. He wrote extensively for newspapers and  magazines about anything he came across. And he artfully constructed a media presence, before it was fashionable, and did so with some care. ‘Peter’ to his friends, ‘Reyner’ was a distinctive pen-name he invented in the 1950s, and he adopted a distinct mode of dress, almost a uniform, at each stage of his career: Fond of top hats and tails in the 1950s, by 1965 he had developed a distinctive look involving a flat cap, bow tie, thick-rimmed spectacles and an enormous black beard, usually photographed teetering on a small-wheeled Moulton bicycle (the Banham we meet in Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles). His move to the United States saw him adopt full Western regalia, including bolo tie and Stetson hat (as in Roads to El Dorado).

Banham was a regular broadcaster for the BBC, where his earthy tones and pithy language made him a radio natural. He started to branch into television in the 1960s, writing and presenting A City Crowned With Green, a BBC film about London’s suburbs (1964), and popping up as a commentator in a transparent bubble-house in a 1967 edition of pop science show Tomorrow’s World. Then, in the 1970s, he made three important films for BBC television with the producer-director Julian Cooper: Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles (1972), Roads to Eldorado: A Journey with Reyner Banham (1979), and Fathers of Pop (1979). The first two explored Banham’s long standing preoccupation with the landscapes of the American West, whilst Fathers of Pop looked back at the Independent Group – an influential club of artists and designers which had met at the ICA in London in the 1950s, and which Banham had, for a time, chaired. Cooper, an Anglo-Argentine who made 39 films between 1965 and 1982 was in many ways as eclectic as Banham, and they shared interests in technology, popular culture, and the Americas. Cooper certainly ‘got’ Banham, and just let him do what he was best at – which was being himself.

Of the films, Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles is by far the best known. It elaborates, brilliantly, Banham’s book, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, which had been published the previous year to wide reviews and readership. But the film is also, and significantly, an equally brilliant elaboration of Banham himself. He’s centre stage from the very start of the film, loping out of LAX in search of his rental car before a series of entertaining vignettes, as he makes a decidedly unconventional tour of the city: he awkwardly navigates the freeways and the city’s unique driving culture, gamely plays tourist at the Watts Towers, eats ice-cream in the back of a convertible with the artist Ed Ruscha, interviews a homeless pianist on Venice Beach, and tries – and fails – to drive through a gated community in the Hollywood Hills.

Not all of the film has aged well. It is uneasy in its treatment of race, and the Watts Riots in particular, and some passages are gushing and uncritical – ‘conventioneer bullshit’ as one local critic had put it in a review of Banham’s book. But it makes sense out of a city that for British audiences was still largely incomprehensible, and that was much maligned by urban scholars of the time. And it shows just how capacious the category of architecture might be – expanding the definition of architecture for the discipline and public alike, is perhaps Banham’s most significant lasting influence. Here, in Banham’s eyes, there is artistry in the hamburger stand and the freeway overpass, in Disneyland and on the beach.

Banham’s LA film was the culmination of at least seven years’ work on the city, during which time his academic interests had shifted decisively from buildings to places, architecture to environments. His last film, Roads to Eldorado, took that further – literally further, out into the desert hinterlands beyond LA. By the time the film was made, 1979, Banham had moved from the UK to the USA, and become a self-confessed ‘desert freak', increasingly found in cowboy dress. He adored the desert as a natural spectacle, but, perhaps even more so, he adored it as a site of human endeavour. The desert of his film, and of the book that would follow on from it, Scenes in America Deserta (1982) is full of people – from Indians and colonists to cops and con-men. It’s never an empty space, but the site of innumerable journeys, and experiments and settlements, and a surprising amount of architecture. It’s the site of innumerable failures too, some of them heroic – like Zzyzx (pronounced Zye-zix), a modernist health resort on the shores of a dried-up lake bed. A ruin of a future that never was, and a deeply uncanny place, Zzyzx was probably Banham’s favourite place on Earth.    

Banham’s work was never consistent, and there’s a marked change in attitude between the two films. Los Angeles has the ironic detachment of an Englishman abroad, but is still palpably in thrall to its subjects: the freeway, the beach, the city of consumption. The El Dorado film is more melancholic, more preoccupied – as in fact was all of Banham’s later work – with failure and ruin. Banham was a man of his time, and his preoccupations are not always ours. But these films remain remarkable in the way that they expand the category of architecture, and make complex landscapes intelligible to the non-specialist. They were provocative too, challenging our understanding of what might be good, or tasteful, or merely worth describing. Those things, along with Banham’s acute sense of theatre, anticipate the best documentary film-making of subsequent decades. Both films, for those reasons, reward repeated viewing.