…the Great Atlantis (that you call America)

Through a process of simultaneous events, mystified into the idea of ‘coincidence’, this arrived earlier – A Concrete Atlantis: US Industrial Building and European Modern Architecture by Reyner Banham.

It is not really ‘about’ the working class of the USA. But without that class none of the grain elevators, car factories, print works and other industrial buildings in the book would have been built. That American working class, like the working class the world over, is too often overlooked or ignored. Some people even find it difficult to ‘see’ workers and imagine that this class has ‘ended’.

The workers of America and their class interests are strangely absent from most of today’s ‘news’.

Reyner Banham argues that the clear relationships between form and function of the industrial building in the USA around the turn of the twentieth century was fundamental in the development of the International Style in architecture. But this relationship should not be applied in a mechanical and deterministic way. There is scope for allegory, symbolism and even, despite the hard headed materialism of concrete structures, myth.

“if Louis Sullivan’s preposition that ‘form follows function’ had been pursued objectively and resolutely, there would be no way in which a design school could look like a factory or an apartment block in Paris could resemble an automobile plant in the Detroit suburbs…”

The book has a gorgeous sensuous quality. Books printed by North American unionised labour often do. And consider the luxury of the layout with the white spacing used to highlight the text. It encourages browsing, endless turning of the pages to select a paragraph or two, seemingly at random. Banham’s writing is dense and each sentence can be read and re-read and then read again in the context of the surrounding paragraphs. One emerges with a headful of ideas with each encounter.

And in the opening pages it has this sparky paragraph to conclude the acknowledgements and thanks to…

“…. all the janitors, security guards, engineers, receptionists, neighbours and others who arranged (above board, or below) for me to enter and study many more buildings than are mentioned in the text”.

There is no doubt about the potential organized power of the American working class. The question is where next?

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