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Scenes in America Deserta

Does the Mojave define anything more than a set of human attitudes to a particular piece of territory that we have agreed (or not disagreed) to call deserta?

In “Scenes in America Deserta”(1), Reyner Banham confronts himself with the desert for the first time, while crossing the Mojave travelling from L.A. to Las Vegas. Banham describes himself as “culturally naked and ill-prepared” in front of this landscape, and searches for answers in order to understand this new physical reality. The book is, above all, a visual description of the desert, rooted in the earlier volumes, The Desert (2) and Travels in Arabia Deserta (3). Describing the desert, Bahnam ponders on its aesthetic perception as well as on its very essence, leading him to expand the idea of desert beyond its primary physical condition, to its conceptual definition as a man-made cultural creation.

“The Mojave is my baseline desert, my desert of first instance and last resort. (…)
(…) It is the best-known, most visited, and most studied of American deserts; but it is also, in an important historical sense, the most reliably typical of American deserts, the national standard.
It is, for a start, the living relic of the most important mythical desert in North america, the “Great Basin” that figures so largelly in all early maps. It was the most feared barrier to the ultimate westward expansion of the United States, something which had to be broached to reach the Pacific Ocean, and the older the map one consults, the larger the basin figures. Its shrinkage represents the labors of American explorers in early nineteenth century and the amalgamation of their findings with those of the many Hispanic explorers who had traversed or penetrated the same territory (…). Between them they reduced the Great Basin to fragments which began to be subsumed into other geographical concepts, and the irreductible remnant that could be subsumed into no other concept at all was the Mojave, the hard heart of the Basin.”

“THE GREAT BASIN: diameter 11° of latitude, 10° of longitude: elevation above the sea between 4 and 5000 feet: surrounded by lofty mountains: co( )nts almost unknow, but believed to be filled with rivers and lakes which have no communcation with the sea, desert and oases which have never been explored, and savages tribes, which no travellers has seen or described.  See Frémont’s report pages 275-6.” (4)

“Ultimately, deserts are man-made in what may be a culturally important sense. The Mojave may be my desert of definition, but all deserts are deserts by definition. Not definition by statistics and norms – there are areas drier and less populated than many reputed deserts that no one ever speaks of in those terms. (…) This is more a question of reputation; the very word desert is a human value judgement.

I say “value judgment” deliberately: we dub territories “desert” almost regardless of their ecological performance. (…) I notice that we seem to need continually to remind ourselves that deserts are not sand, and that “deserts are really teeming with life”. The Mojave may be seen as a desert only because it is the last identificable remnant of the deaded legendary Great Basin. If it had been somewhere else, it might – just – have fallen under some different classification.

Ultimately, desert is a concept of, and about, people. The word originally meant “unpopulated”; that is the primary sense given by the Oxford dictionary and many others. That is why the world’s most prestigious desert was labelled on old maps Arabia Desert, and why Doughty is such a valuable corrective to ingrained misconceptions – for his Travels are crowded with all kinds of human beings, settlements, and tribes. The other common root meaning of desert as a verb should also be keep in mind: “to leave”. Arabia was “deserted”, even if the Latin deserta is not necessarily a past participle in the normal sense. The people had abandoned that classic desert, just as they were to abandon the North African coast lands. The ultimate definition of a true desert may yet prove to be concerned with the number and type of people present, and what they think they are doing there.

I try to think of days when I have been out in the “hard” Mojave away from the Interstate and many dusty miles from any blacktopped roads – and have seen nobody at all. I am not talking about inanimate signs of former human presence; I am talking about human beings alive and moving about in the landscape. And I can recall no such days. (…)

Does the Mojave, as a desert of definition, define anything more than a set of human attitudes to a particular piece of territory that we have agreed (or not disagreed) to call deserta, abandoned?”

The Wilderness Years of Frank Lloyd Wright
Reyner Banham, 1982

In “The Wilderness Years of Frank Lloyd Wright”, Reyner Banham describes a very special, short-lived scene from America Deserta which “deserves to be recognized as one of the classic personal statements of 20th century architecture, ranking with the Glasgow Art School, the Barcelona Pavilion, or Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp.”(5)

On a station on the way towards the Usonian House and the Broadacre City, the Ocatillo Desert Camp was designed and built by Wright and his staff as the temporary living quarters and the site office in Chandler near Phoenix Arizona in 1928-29. A compound was loosely formed around a small natural rising in the desert floor, to keep the rattle-snakes out, with a group of barrack-tents made of wooden frames covered with textile and set around the camp fire in a seemingly irregular arrangement in fact formed with two grids, one shifted at thirty- to sixty- degrees to the other(6). The camp was named after the erroneously spelled name of the desert flame-flower ocotillo (fouquieria splendens) which was abundant on the site. Wright used to compare it to a “fleet of sails”, a “group of giant butterflies uprising from the desert floor”, structures growing “up out of the desert by way of desert materials”, describing thus the desert as a horizontal sea and his desert camp as a group of papillons; would be pavilions in a more cultivated setting, deeply rooted in the soil of this particular wilderness: “Out there in the great spaces obvious symmetry claims too much, I find, wearies the eye too soon and stultifies the imagination. Obvious symmetry usually closes the episode before it begins: so for me I felt there could be no obvious symmetry in any building in this great desert, none especially in this new camp.“(7)

Wright constructed the camp to observe the construction of the San Marcos of the Desert hotel project, which was stopped because of the Wall Street crash of 1929. The camp was abandoned, and the following winter, the desert nomads, Indians looted the camp “for their own structural purposes.” Preserved black-and-white photographs display typical desert architecture themes: the horizontal of the protective compound against the vertical of the saguaro cactus, the view from the fragile interior into the rugged nature, the draftsmen working under the textile canopy, and the architect playing piano in his textile room furnished with textile foldable chairs and Navajo rugs with typical nomadic patterns. On the other hand, the photograph of the mockup of the hotel project made with “textile blocs” right next to the genuinely modern textile architecture bespeaks the Semperian, Central-European affiliations of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Reyner Banham’s highest appreciation of this light temporary structure bespeaks the origins of his own radical ideas about humans gathering around the camp fire (8) to form “a home” which is ultimately “not a house.”(9)


Cover image: Reyner Banham cycling on Silurian Dry Lake by permission Tim Street-Porter. © Tim Street-Porter 1981-2014. All rights reserved.
All quotes by Banham, Reyner, Scenes in America Deserta (Original edition: Penegrine Smith Books, 1982. Second edition: MIT Press, 1990) pp: 191-192, 204-206.


Van Dyke, John C., The Desert: Further Studies in Natural Appearances (New York City: C. Scribner’s Sons. 1918) [1901]


Doughty, Charles Montagu, Travels in Arabia Deserta (London P.L.Warner, 1921)


Frémont, John Charles, A Report of an Exploration of the Country Lying between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains on the Line of the Kansas and Great Platte Rivers, March 1, 1843 (pp: 275-276)


Banham, Reyner, The Wilderness Years of Frank Lloyd Wright (originally published in RIBA Journal 76, December 1969, pp512-518) here quoted according to Banham, Mary (ed.), A Critic Writes (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996) pp137-151.


Laseau, Paul & Tice, James, Frank Lloyd Wright, Between Principles and Form (London: Wiley, 1991), p158; Zevi, Bruno, Frank Lloyd Wright (Basel: Birkhäuser, 1998), pp134-135


Wright, Frank Lloyd, Autobiography (New York, 1943), quoted in Banham, Reyner, The Wilderness Years of Frank Lloyd Wright


Banham, Reyner, The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment (London: The Architectural Press; Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969), p20


Banham, Reyner & Dallegret, François, A Home is Not a House, in Art in America Vol.2, 1965, pp70-79

09.Feb.2016 5908 views
Reyner Banham

Reyner Banham (Norwich,1922 – London, 1988) was one of the most influential architectural critics and historians from the mid-1950s, best known for his theoretical treatise  Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960) and for his book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971). He received his doctorate from the Courtauld Institute of Art, supervided by Nikolaus Pevsner. He formed the Independent Group at the ICA together with Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi among others, and was Executive Director of The Architectural Review, until 1965. Banham taught at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London and the State University of New York, and through the 1980s at the University of California.

Reyner Banham’s portrait by Bud Jacobs © Collection National Portrait Gallery, London

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