The great divide: technology vs tradition


‘Throughout the present century architects have made fetishes of technological and scientific concepts out of context and have been disappointed by them when they developed according to the processes of technical development, not according to the hopes of architects. A generation ago, it was “The Machine” that let architects down − tomorrow or the day after it will be “The Computer”, or Cybernetics or Topology.’
Reyner Banham, The Architectural Review, March 1960

‘1960’ in architecture, Banham claimed, marked a ‘great divide’; following the expressionism of Ronchamp (which James Stirling had already characterised as the fundamental challenge to rationalism in the AR in 1956) and John Summerson’s dismissal of ‘New Brutalism’ in favour of the ‘programme’ a year later, a fundamental change in architectural taste seemed to have occurred. ‘Somewhere along the line,’ Banham concluded, ‘the Modern Movement’s private mythology of Form and Function has come apart.’ Torn between ‘tradition’ and ‘technology’, or as he phrased it, ‘science’ and ‘history’, the profession needed to re-define its limits in the midst of ‘these competing bids for intellectual domination’.

By ‘tradition’ Banham meant the stock of general ‘professional knowledge’; by ‘technology’, its opposite − the exploration of ‘potential’ through science. In a dramatic parallel presentation − tradition on the left column, technology on the right − Banham told two intersecting but ultimately separate stories. ‘Architecture’ defined in terms of its professional history versus ‘Architecture’ as ‘the provision of fit environments for human activities’. Banham was concerned at the reaction of the first against the second − the sense that sociology and technology had over-determined architectural form, and the ensuing move ‘back’ to architecture, led by the followers of Rudolf Wittkower’s analysis of Renaissance proportions, his student Colin Rowe’s investigation of ‘The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa’, and the flowering of history teaching by Rowe, Scully and Zevi that in turn had led to a wave of geometrically inspired designs. Added to this a new ‘stream of latent historicism’ had emerged with Neo-Liberty in Italy, Neo-Classicism in the US and Neo-Historicism of the Modern Movement in Britain too, all characterised with Neo-Palladianism as ‘Formalist’. Even Banham’s earlier espousal of New Brutalism came in for criticism here, although the Smithsons’ Hunstanton School and Stirling and Gowan’s Ham Common Flats were slightly redeemed by their honest use of materials.

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