Reading America Through the Eyes of an Outsider

Gabrielle Esperdy tags along on the travels of Reyner Banham, the British historian and critic of modern architecture and design, connecting them to the great historical travel accounts of Europeans abroad in America.

In her essay for Places, Esperdy rides along with Banham as he makes his way to-and-fro across the country reveling in the sheer joy with which Banham observed even the most mundane places. "He takes unabashed pleasure in seemingly every experience; even the most mundane moments of travel are thought provoking, offering opportunities for the zealous, and only rarely mean-spirited, dissection of American and contemporary culture."

And as Esperdy describes, the specificity of each place experienced during his travels was an important ingredient in Banham's understanding of the country: "once he became a regular visitor to the U.S. after 1961, he realized that to comprehend American culture one had to grasp the specificity of place. And in a country 3,000 miles across this meant the specificity of places."

The relevant size and scale of America compared to European countries, and the efforts undertaken to traverse it, binds Banham's understanding of the country - inexorably linked to mobility - most strongly with his traveling brethren.

"His understanding of mobility as a native tongue and the automobile as the generator of autochthonous culture was key to Banham's analysis of American urbanism, architecture and design. It also established a direct link with his distinguished literary forbearers. Though de Tocqueville, Trollope and Dickens could make no claims for the American originality of the stagecoach, steamboat or railroad, they did observe a keen native interest in movement, distance and speed, in cutting canals and laying out roads - anything to establish communication between the country's vastly dispersed settlements."

Full Story: Banham's America

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