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…

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