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Schlockology

Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies

by Reyner Banham
Harper & Row, 256 pp., $6.95

Reyner Banham’s book is a lighthearted and affectionate tribute to Los Angeles. That’s right, Los Angeles, everybody’s favorite horrible example, Mumford’s “anti-city,” Reaganland, the Ur-city of the plastic culture, of Kustom-Kars and movie stars, nutburgers and Mayor Yorty and The Monkees, the Dream Factory, fantasy land, Watts and the barrio, glass and stucco-built, neon-lit, chrome-plated, formica-topped Los Angeles, schlockhaus of the Western world, where the pursuit of pleasure has become a way of life, auto-ridden, freeway-scarred, smog-choked Los Angeles, fortress city on the desert from whence each weekend the denizens spill out in their great belching machines to pollute the countryside.

Banham, Professor of the History of Architecture at University College, London, discovered Los Angeles in the 1960s when it was already what it is today, a city of just under three million people occupying the central chunk of a sprawling county of over seven million. Let’s throw in Orange County, which flows unbroken out of the southeast side of Los Angeles County, with its million and a half people, and another million persons in the San Bernardino-Riverside desert area to the east, and we have an integral metropolitan area of some ten million people all knit together by the freeway system, the LA communications network and the common scourge of smoggy skies. Banham knows of the region’s evil reputation among intellectuals, novelists, and other custodians of moral and aesthetic values. He knows that by the canons of literary sensibility those ten million Southern Californians lead empty or bizarre or malign and hate-filled lives. But Banham sees none of that, or almost none of it.

What he sees instead is an airy metropolis, a city of light and space and motion. The lives of the people of Banham’s Los Angeles country are characterized by an unparalleled freedom of movement through both physical and social space. Banham sees not the burnt, lunar landscape of the fiction writers, but a benign littoral where sea, mountains, valleys, and plain form a natural environment that charms as well as challenges its inhabitants. To the historian of architecture it is the cityscape itself that is most fascinating, providing him with the materials of his strongest attack on the literary conventions about Los Angeles.

Nathaniel West, I suppose, gives us the best brief statement of the literary mode. As Tod Hackett walked up Pinyon Canyon to his apartment house in the Hollywood hills, he was repelled by the incredible motley of house styles.

When he noticed that they were all of plaster, lath and paper, he was charitable and blamed their shape on the materials used. Steel, stone and brick curb a builder’s fancy a little, forcing him to distribute his stresses and weights and to keep his corners plumb, but plaster and paper know no law, not even that of gravity.

Banham contradicts this. “Whatever historians have liked to believe,” he writes, “it remains difficult to understand how they could have failed to concede Los Angeles’ comparable rank with Paris, Berlin, and Chicago in the history of domestic architecture in the present century; the quality and quantity of first-rate modern houses in the Los Angeles area is impressive by anybody’s standards, and the fact that they are located in a city that departs from all the rules for ‘civilized living’ as they have been understood by the pundits of modernity makes their impact all the more powerful on the visitor.”

What was fake, gaudy, and shoddy to West appears to Banham as “eager guilelessness” and “technically resourceful innocence.” Innocence, in fact, is an important characteristic in Banham’s interpretation of Southern California culture. It is, for him, not to be confused with simplicity or ingenuousness:

Deeply imbued with standard myths of the Natural Man and the Noble Savage, as in other parts of the US [sic], this innocence grows and flourishes as an assumed right in the Southern California sun, an ingenious and technically proficient cult of private and harmless gratifications that is symbolized by the surfer’s secret smile of intense concentration and the immensely sophisticated and highly decorated plastic surf-board he needs to conduct his private communion with the sea.

Innocence, spontaneity, fantasy, mobility, and formlessness wedded to a presumably neutral technological prowess—the very values that underpin the “let’s split to the Coast” phenomenon among young people, the values that, taken together, probably come close to the definition of freedom in America—are invoked by Banham to explain and somehow to excuse most of what so many observers have found revolting in Southern California.

But he does not rest his case with that. A genuine grace for the reader of this book is the extended exploration of the noble architectural inheritance left to the contemporary Angelenos. The whole region, from La Jolla in the south to Santa Barbara in the north, is a kind of gallery for the work of the great architects: the brothers Greene, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the maverick Irving Gill of the older generation; the Europeans, Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, as well as Charles Eames for the period reaching into the 1950s; and such contemporaries as Ellwood, Koenig, and Soriano. The work of these men is a glory of Southern California culture. The photographs Banham uses in his exploration of their creative activity are a pleasure to look at. Banham is an engaging and informative guide, though, as he gracefully acknowledges, a visitor wishing to study the important regional architecture would do better with the superb earlier work of Gebhard and Winter1 in hand.

It is not at all lost on Banham that nearly all of the work of the great architects has been commissioned for private dwellings and that nearly all of these are to be found at the beaches or in the fancier mountain, foothill, or canyon settings. The great smoggy flatlands stretching eastward from the airport into Orange and San Bernardino counties have to distinguish them only Simon Rodia’s incredible Watts Towers, Disneyland, the freeways, pastel stucco boxes, and the proliferating varieties of restaurant architecture, which not even Banham himself can resist mocking. Banham is unconvincing in his efforts to link integrally the work of Gill or Neutra or Schindler to, for example, a Jack-in-the-Box drive-in burger stand.

Moreover, I do not think that Banham’s heart is in the effort to link them. He really seems to be saying that Jack-in-the-Box and stucco boxes and freeways are a price one pays for living in a place which also allows brilliant architects to design stunning private houses. Gill and Wright came out of the Sullivan office. Schindler’s first Los Angeles association was with the Wright group. Neutra started his Los Angeles career in the Schindler office, and was an influence on the younger architects who did the spare, elegant, glass and steel Case Study houses in Los Angeles between 1945 and 1962. Yet, as Banham acknowledges, there is hardly any continuity between the work of these architects and most of Los Angeles. There is no single Los Angeles style, no dominant school, no lasting movement associated with the great architects.

There is, as David Gebhard has noted, an almost authentic, indigenous architectural style, the Spanish Colonial Revival, which has given Southern California such stylistic consistency as it enjoys.2 The Hispanic influence is pervasive here and it accounts for most of what looks and feels right for the region. It is almost as though the people of this region, back in the early years of the century, when Los Angeles was still small enough, were fumbling toward their own distinctive building form. But the Spanish style, too, was only a borrowing and could not take root deeply enough to avoid being swept aside by all the other borrowings that crowded in. Only Gill of the major figures mentioned here actually worked in the Hispanic style and, as Gebhard and Winter say, Gill was one of the “least influential” of the important Southern California architects.

Banham is uneasy about the pervasiveness of the Hispanic legacy, for it is precisely his point that Los Angeles’s architectural distinction is a direct consequence of freedom from any institutionalized form or architectural convention, in the very way that the form of Los Angeles itself—a sprawling conglomeration of linked suburbs without an urban center—represents a break with conventional forms of cities. Despite his unease, however, Banham is essentially right. Spanish Colonial Revival has not confined the architectural imagination. No single style has. None could. Innocence, spontaneity, mobility, fantasy, and freedom have shaped Los Angeles. The city and its hinterland is, as Banham says, “the home of the most extravagant myths of private gratification and self-realization, institutionalized now in the doctrine of ‘doing your own thing.’ ” Pursuing the theme, Banham also says that:

For every pedestrian litterateur [Waugh?] who…stays only long enough to collect the material for a hate-novel…there will be half a dozen architects, artists or designers, photographers or musicians who decided to stay because it is still possible for them to do their own thing with the support of like-minded characters and the resources of a highly diversified body of skills and technologies.

Well, Los Angeles can be a pleasant place for an artist to live and work in. When I was growing up in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, living and working there were Brecht, Thomas Mann, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Rubenstein, Heifetz, Lion Feuchtwanger, and, of course, Fitzgerald. But their work and their presence meant little to the life of the place and it is questionable that such artists themselves drew any intellectual or aesthetic sustenance from their environment.

When I was young, my mother and indeed the parents of most of my friends were “in pictures,” as people said in those days, and I knew a lot about the movies. For a time my mother lived near the old Garden of Allah hotel. I used to pass it daily, my pubescent imagination aflame with fantasies of the delight to be known behind its cool walls and hedges. I could not know that within it was merely a circle of wits japing and snickering at the natives, at me with my fantasies of oriental concupiscence, and at my mother and all of her friends with their evergreen hopes for “some good bits in pictures,” and at all of those other lives, some foolish, some earnest, some desperate, being lived out there. The separation between the writers from New York and the place where they lived and worked could not have been more complete.

Of course, the Garden of Allah set were mainly visitors. Hundreds, thousands of artists have settled down here to pleasant working lives, though there is little relation between their work and the public life of the region. Artistic and intellectual life flourishes in the Southern California way. One speaks, rightly or wrongly, of the New York art world or of the New York literary community. Here we speak not of communities but of scenes. “How’s Shirley? Fine. She’s trying to make the art scene. What about Harry? He’s into the writing scene, working for an underground paper.” Such a way of putting things conveys perfectly the ephemerality that is intended; whereas to speak of worlds or communities is to speak of something that at least pretends to be lasting.

Long ago, Mumford spoke of architecture as the “essential commanding art” in an age of synthesis and construction, for “good building has always embodied, as an essential element in both design and operation, the understanding and expression of organic human purposes.” In Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss, for whom the city stands as “the human invention, par excellence,” writes that

…the great manifestations of Society have this in common with the work of art: that they originate at the level of unconscious existence—because they are collective, in the first case, and although they are individual, in the second; but the difference is not of real importance—is indeed no more than apparent—because the first is produced by, and the second for the public; and the public supplies them both with their common denominator and determines the conditions in which they shall be created.

Banham would agree. Freedom, mobility, spontaneity, doing one’s own thing, and private gratification for him are Mumford’s “organic human purposes,” Lévi-Strauss’s “common denominator” between art and society for the people of the Los Angeles region. If Banham is right, then an architecture devoted to privatism and gratification is integral to the society it serves.

Banham, like so many other observers, is sure that Los Angeles is the city of the future. Yet he clearly abhors planning. It is true that he is careful to speak always of “conventional” planning, or of planning as it is “normally understood in academic and professional circles.” But Banham opts for no better vision of planning. Instead he would

…leave planning of the area to the mechanisms that have already given the city its present character: the infrastructure to giant agencies like the Division of Highways and the Metropolitan Water District; the intermediate levels of management to the subdivision and zoning ordinances; the detail decisions to local and private initiatives; with ad hoc interventions by city, State, and pressure-groups formed to agitate over matters of clear and present need. These are the mechanisms which are seen and known to be effective by the man in the family station wagon….

Can that be the city of the future? Surely it sounds like the city of the past, like Mumford’s paleotechnic city. Here is Mumford on the nineteenth-century city. “Buildings outwardly without roots in their landscape or affiliations with their society appeared in the midst of the growing cities. Such buildings were the work of individual architects, responsible only for their individual building; producing work that was bound to be swallowed up in the disorderly urban mass produced by the speculative builder, the ground landlord, and the industrial corporation, operating solely under the principles of laissez-faire.” Thus we could argue that Los Angeles is really the last city of the American past, that we have not yet found our city of the future.

Where innocence, spontaneity, mobility, technological resourcefulness, and the free pursuit of private gratification are everything, there can be no important public architecture because there is no genuine public life to be led. Banham fully accepts this in Los Angeles and quite rightly deprecates, for example, efforts to resuscitate downtown LA and its civic center. He also understands that if there is any significant public architecture in Los Angeles it is the freeways, designed, it must be said, by a bureaucratic agency, the State Division of Highways. They are truly monumental in scale. They seem, to me at least, often to have a kind of austere beauty. Joan Didion, in Play It As It Lays, has told better than I ever could of their hypnotic, obsessive power.

Life on this vast landscape would be almost unimaginable without them (Let’s go to the beach. Let’s split to Tijuana. Let’s go to Palm Springs. Let’s split to Vegas. Okay, I’ll see you in twenty minutes. I’ve got this new job. It’s way out in Torrance but that’s only fifteen minutes on the Dago.) The monumental freeways are our common offering to our own “sterile gods of power,” to that symbol of what life here is all about, the private automobile.

But the automobiles are also the bearers of our greatest curse, the smog. Every person who lives in this basin knows that for twenty-five years he has been living through a disaster. We have all watched it happen, have participated in it with full knowledge just as men and women once went knowingly and willingly into the “dark Satanic mills.” The smog is the result of ten million individual pursuits of private gratification. But there is absolutely nothing that any individual can do to stop its spread. Each Angeleno is totally powerless to end what he hates. An individual act of renunciation of his own car is nearly impossible, and, in any case, would be meaningless unless everyone else did the same thing. But he has no way of getting everyone else to do it. He does not even have any way to talk about such a course. He does not know how or where he would do it or what language he would use.

The Angeleno can hope only that somehow “they” will come up with techniques to relieve the curse. If smog is to be overcome it will be through bureaucratic and technological means, not by political means, not by people’s own efforts to come together to decide as a public. The absence of even the memory of any community leaves them powerless, and the powerless can never be free.

Letters

Disarming LA August 31, 1972

  1. 1

    David Gebhard and Robert, Winter, A Guide to Architecture in Southern California (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1965).

  2. 2

    David Gebhard, “The Spanish Colonial Revival in Southern California (1895-1930),” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. XXVI (May 1967).

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