Banham, (Peter) Reyner (19221988), architectural critic and historian, was born on 2 March 1922 in Norwich, the elder son (there were no daughters) of Percy Banham, gas engineer, and his wife, Violet Frances Maud Reyner. Reyner Banham (known to only his close friends as Peter) had a typical Norfolk upbringing in the nonconformist and Labour tradition, in which education was highly valued. His father's family had been Primitive Methodists, and an influential maternal uncle was Edwin George Gooch, a Labour MP. His parents were not well off, and he had a scholarship at the local public school, King Edward VI School in Norwich, whose teachers subsequently wanted him to go to Cambridge to read French. But Banham, whose interest in technology had been formed early, won a national scholarship to train as an engineer with the Bristol Aeroplane Company, with which he spent much of the war (193945). Back in Norwich he became involved with the Maddermarket Theatre, lecturing on art and writing arts reviews in the local Norwich paper. On 16 August 1946 he married Mary, a teacher at the local art school and daughter of John Mullett, a park-keeper in south London. They had a son and a daughter.
In 1949 Banham enrolled at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Having graduated BA in 1952 and begun a PhD, he joined the staff of the Architectural Review, where his doctoral supervisor, Nikolaus Pevsner, was an editor. Already Banham and his wife had instigated weekly open houses to discuss contemporary art and design, and he soon became a prominent member of the Independent Group of the Institute of Contemporary Art, whose fellow members were the leading figures of the post-war revolt against modernism in art and architecture. Its major outcomes were the new brutalism in architecture and pop artof which Banham was the leading proselytizer and chronicler. His incisive writing in the influential Architectural Review established him as a major commentator on contemporary architecture and design. His reputation was confirmed by the publication of his doctoral thesis, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960). This dazzling, densely argued, and meticulously researched work became the seminal reassessment of the history of the modern movement in architecture.
In 1964 Banham became a senior lecturer at the Bartlett school of architecture, University College, London. He became a reader in 1967 and in 1969 was given a personal chair in the history of architecture at the Bartlett. Meanwhile he had published The New Brutalism (1966), a history of the movement which he had espoused from the late 1950s onwards and which he felt had run its natural course. After The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (1969), about architecture as determined by its mechanical services, he published three books, the most successful of which, especially among the locals, was Los Angeles: the Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971).
In 1976, tired of the post-1968 gloom which had settled on British architectural academic life, Banham took up the post of chairman of the department of design studies at the University of New York at Buffalo. This turned out to be a disappointment, and in 1980 he moved to a chair in art history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where his wife became director of the Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery. A powerful figure in her own right, she was an essential part of Banham's life and career. They lived happily in a house overlooking the ocean at Santa Cruz, and Banham cycled up to the university, where he taught art history as well as architectural history. While at Santa Cruz he travelled widely, and in 1982 he published the lyrical Scenes in America Deserta about the great American deserts in whose thrall he had been since the early 1960s. He became honorary FRIBA in 1983 and was awarded an honorary DLitt by the University of East Anglia in 1986.
In 1987 he was appointed to the Sheldon H. Solow chair at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. Before he could take up this prestigious post it was found he had cancer. He returned to London for his final months and wrote the six essays which form the text of a book about his old friend and Archigram member, Ron Herron. Banham died on 19 March 1988 in University College Hospital, London, with this and the inaugural lecture, which he knew he could never deliver in person, just completed.
Banham was the towering architecture and design critic and polemicist of the post-war era. Tall, well built, a prodigious conversationalist, and, from the early 1960s onwards, patriarchally bearded, he had a penchant for string ties, silver belt-buckles, unexpected headgear, and the small-wheeled Moulton bicycle. His great gift was in looking at major issues from vantage points which nobody else had thought of occupying. Last in the line of the school of German art history which placed primary valuation on meticulousness in dealing with source material, Banham's point of departure from this tradition was only in the subjects to which he applied it. His position was that the design of a new refrigerator, automobile, or the latest film could and should be analysed with the same rigour and methodology as a painting by Piero della Francesca.
Sutherland Lyall, rev.
WWW · personal knowledge (1996) · private information (1996, 2004) [Mary Banham, widow] · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1988)
Architectural Association slide collection, Rayner Banham collection
Architectural Association slide collection, Denis Crompton collection
Getty Foundation, art and architecture collection
photograph, priv. coll.
Wealth at death
£32,879: probate, 12 Oct 1988, CGPLA Eng. & Wales