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Why Reyner Banham Was Right

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The brilliant scholar and critic Reyner Banham was best known for his treatises on architecture, where he would compare ice cream vans with mediaeval cathedrals and explain the importance of bike sheds. However, he was originally trained as an aero engineer and it was this background of actually making stuff that he drew on when in 1973 he delivered a lecture entitled Sparks from a Plastic Anvil: The Craftsman in Technology.

In this wonderful, wide-ranging talk he praised the writing of David Pye, pointed an accusing finger at Ruskin, Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement (a brave thing to do one imagines bearing in mind is locale, the V&A), lauded the qualities of plastic and, perhaps most importantly of all, made a vivid case for the importance of craft in mass production.

In Banham's mind traditional crafts weren't in danger of dying out at all, they were merely being transplanted and put to different use in industry. Echoes of the village blacksmith - "who stands under the spreading chestnut tree doing all those groovy things with his muscles" (his words not mine) - could, for instance, be seen at the end of the Mini production line in Longbridge where a worker held a tool resembling a large clothes peg. As Banham explains his job was to take a look at each car as it came off the line, open the door and if it didn't shut properly 'apply the large clothes peg and a foot to the door, and lever it until it would close properly'.

While he was happy to admit that the task lacked some of the creativity associated with craft making, he pointed out that "this man was performing a function relying heavily on coordination of hand and eye, knowledge of material, and accumulated years of what can only be called craft skill. Door-springers of that type do not exactly grow on trees and it takes a long time to produce such an expert."

It was just one example he used to prove his point that 'the craftsman, as is normally understood, has far from disappeared. He has found a number of very important niches within the structure of manufacturing industry. We do not get his products directly, but nevertheless we do get his products.'

He may have been embedded in the machine age but the point Banham was making nearly four decades ago still holds true today. Yes, craft is still very much concerned with the beautifully produced ceramics, glass, textiles and furniture of the studio movement but as Power of Making - the exhibition we organised in partnership with the V&A last year - suggested, it is also important that we recognise skilled making comes in other forms and can be found in areas as diverse as fine art, fashion, industry, medicine or the latest technology. Craft is required to make space suits and six-necked guitars alike (or, as this issue ably proves, shotguns and engineering components).

It's in this spirit that we've put together an intriguing line-up for our major one-day conference Assemble. Held at RIBA on 20 September during the London Design Festival, speakers include such cutting-edge makers as Rhian Solomon, whose sKINship project investigates the relationship between plastic surgery and pattern-cutting, combined with academics and scientists like Marie O'Mahony, Professor of Advanced Textiles, OCAD University, Toronto and Professor Roger L. Kneebone, Professor of Surgical Education, Imperial College, London. It promises to be a day where relationships are forged, ideas swapped and a new role for makers emerges.

In the years since Banham stood up at the V&A, British industry has changed dramatically - the last Mini rolled off the line in Longbridge in October 2000, and the factory, a shadow of its former self, is currently owned by a Chinese company. Like it or not, it is almost certain that mass manufacture will continue to be transferred to other parts of the globe - China today, perhaps countries like Vietnam in the future. Which is why we should concentrate our energies on specialist, cutting-edge making requiring a skilled and very possibly artisanal workforce. In this new age of synthetic biology and solar sintering, craft will be required to adapt once again. My feeling is this could be a golden opportunity.

For more information on Assemble, visit www.assemble.org.uk. And if you want to read the whole of Reyner Banham's lecture it is reprinted in Vol.I Issue I of the 'Journal of Modern Craft', originally published in March 2008.

This blog post also appears in the September/October 2012 issue of Crafts Magazine