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Disarming LA

In response to:

Schlockology from the June 1, 1972 issue

To the Editors:

Much as I appreciate the cool and informed skepticism of Francis Carney’s review of my book on Los Angeles [NYR, June 1], there are two points of correction I would like to make.

Firstly, I do not feel it is proper to make such a direct antithesis between my views and those of Nathanael West. The phrase “eager guilelessness” which I use is an almost direct quotation from West himself, as would have been clear if Carney had pursued the quotation for another couple of paragraphs, and my reason for drawing attention to it is that, like myself, Nathanael West was ultimately disarmed by the sheer dottiness of the architecture.

Secondly, I have never maintained that Los Angeles is the city of the future; in the book I say that I regard it as unrepeatable and that I do not share the optimism of those who regard it as a model for future cities. I admit that the phrase “Welcome to Los Angeles, city of the future” does appear in the script of my film about LA, but it is attributed satirically to an electronic guide which speaks pure Chamber of Commerce prose throughout!

Reyner Banham

School of Environmental Studies

University College, London, England

Francis Carney replies:

Nathanael West was certainly not “ultimately disarmed by the sheer dottiness of the architecture.” He did permit himself a small, weaned expression of compassion for the people whose need for beauty and romance produced the fantasy cityscape of Los Angeles. He sympathized with the need but detested the result. The novel is a satire in the surrealist mode and writers do not produce savage surreal satires of subjects toward which they feel “ultimately disarmed.”

The passage I quoted in my review is the same one from which Professor Banham drew his phrase “eager guilelessness,” as well as his conviction that West was disarmed by the architecture. The passage concludes the opening chapter of the novel in which West sets down the foundation of all of his subsequent descriptions. He opens with the account of the “army” marching on the studio lot, moves to Vine Street where Tod Hackett encounters both the pleasure seekers and the others with “eyes filled with hatred” who would be the torch carriers of his canvas on the burning of Los Angeles, and then has Tod move up Pinyon Canyon and give us those reflections on the architecture to which both Professor Banham and I have turned.

Hackett observes “a miniature Rhine Castle with tarpaper turrets pierced for archers” and “a highly colored shack with domes and minarets out of the Arabian Nights.” Hackett finds the houses comic but doesn’t laugh because their “desire to startle was so eager and guileless.” There follow the closing lines of that foundation-laying chapter. “It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous” (italics mine).

Even the natural landscape seems artificial to West—“The same violet piping, like a Neon tube, outlined the tops of the ugly hump-backed hills….” The totally artificial environment is the stage across which West directs his cast of grotesque, destructive innocents. He is saying that in such an environment organic life is not possible, and in the absence of even the possibility of organic life only destructiveness can result from innocence, freedom, mobility, fantasy, and the rooted hunger for beauty and romance. Such a vision is, I think, antithetical to Professor Banham’s view of Los Angeles, the important dimensions of which I believe I set down accurately in my review of his excellent book.

I understand and sympathize with Professor Banham’s second point of correction. He certainly does repeatedly express his dissent from all those clichés to the effect that some day all cities will look like Los Angeles, just as he dissents from so many other equally mindless conventions about Los Angeles. I wish that I had mentioned such dissent when I placed him among those who conceive of Los Angeles as the city of the future. My reasons for so placing Banham come generally from his view that the free and open Los Angeles lifestyle as well as the city form that both reflects and sustains it represent an aspiration of other peoples. Specifically, I was influenced by Professor Banham’s own statement on page 238 of his book. There he quoted another writer who had suggested that burgeoning foreign cities are likely to look more and more like Los Angeles and that the resemblance is caused by the automobile as a way of life.

Professor Banham rightly dismisses that view as a “mechanistic misconception,” and goes on to say: “But all such explanations miss the point because they miss out the human content. The houses and the automobiles are equal figments of a great dream, the dream of the urban homestead, the dream of a good life outside the squalors of the European type of city, and thus a dream that runs back not only into the Victorian railway suburbs of earlier cities, but also to the country-house culture of the fathers of the US Constitution, or the whig squirearchs whose spiritual heirs they sometimes were, and beyond them to the villegiatura of Palladio’s patrons, or the Medicis’ Poggio a Caiano. Los Angeles cradles and embodies the most potent current vision of the great bourgeois vision of the good life in a tamed countryside, and that, more than anything else I can perceive, is why the bourgeois apartment houses of Damascus and the villas of Beirut begin to look the way they do.”

May I offer partial atonement for the “cool and informed skepticism” of my review? Professor Banham’s book was both intellectually provocative and a pleasure to read. I especially welcome it because I am a teacher of urban politics and problems who often struggles without success to draw his student’s attention to the connections among architecture, city form, and general culture. Professor Banham makes those connections with skill and sensitivity. I had thought that all that was made clear in my review.

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