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Reyner Banham: Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies

The Livejournalist formerly known as Cobalt999 came to visit Los Angeles last week, and before he arrived, I thought I’d link him up to a few items on the web to prepare him for the city. Combing through my bookmarks got me thinking about what I’d include in a more general internet-based Los Angeles primer. Food critic Jonathan Gold’s personal history of Koreatown (“the fire escapes now were blanketed with cabbage leaves in the fall, clotheslines (like mine) bristled with drying fish, the silence of dawn punctuated with the steady, rhythmic pounding of garlic in wooden mortars”) delivers a brief and eloquent introduction to my particular neighborhood. Public transit blogger Jarrett Walker’s post “Los Angeles: The Next Great Transit Metropolis?” describes what I’d like to believe are the coming decade’s great changes, and showcases transit as one organizing principle — and the one I most often use — for thinking about cities as wholes. Los Angeles Magazine’s recent profile of economist/urban planner/”parking guru” Donald Shoup, who diagnoses many local ills as caused less by cars, per se, than by mandated parking infrastructure, asks, “What if the free and abundant parking drivers crave is about the worst thing for the life of cities?”

These writings will all get you thinking about the workings (or non-workings) of southern California’s metropolis, but even if you read none of them, make sure to watch the 1972 television documentary Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles. It may strike you as dated, even goofy, and I grant you that, but I find it as irresistible as Banham found this city. A British architectural critic who broke from his profession’s proud and long-standing tradition of actively deriding Los Angeles at best and totally ignoring it at worst, Banham eschewed the old European or New Yorker’s approach of arriving, gawping aghast at a few unusual architectural features (including but not limited to giant donuts), and then sequestering themselves back in their hotels to commence vituperation. Not only did Banham commit the heresy of learning to drive — “like earlier generations of English intellectuals who taught themselves Italian in order to read Dante in the original, I learned to drive to read Los Angeles in the original” — he had the temerity to write an enduringly popular book about the place, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.

Soon after checking out Four Ecologies, I knew I’d buy the book — and I rarely buy books — for permanent addition to my Los Angeles-as-subject shelf. And though graduate school no doubt had him too busy to do much research before his arrival, Chris picked up and read my library copy during much of the downtime during his stay. The book came out in 1971, so either Banham must have written with great prescience, or Los Angeles must not have changed much in forty years, right? Yet neither strike me as true. Banham often seems to describe a city I’ve never experienced and predict a future I can’t say I inhabit. Without a car, I rarely enter his freeway realm of “Autopia,” let alone take it as “a complete way of life.” Prices in certain communities of his “Surfurbia” have long since inflated out of the reach of beach bums. I live in part of his “Plains of Id,” which Jonathan Gold now describes as “a nightlife zone almost as dense as Tokyo’s Roppongi District, a 24-hour neighborhood of neon and giant video screens.” When Banham does get dismissive, he does so with a “note” on downtown — “because that is all downtown Los Angeles deserves” — which describes something very different than the bustling quarter of loft-dwellers that even some Manhattanites have paid the ultimate compliment (to their minds) of calling “Manhattan-like.”

Still, as with all the best old books, the outdated bits serve as a history lesson and the non-outdated bits come not just as truth, but as time-tested truth. Much of the magnificent kitsch architecture at which Banham marveled still stands, albeit not quite as much as I’d like. I had struggled to define a certain common type of building before reading Banham employ the term “Los Angeles dingbat”: “a two storey walk-up apartment-block developed back over the full depth of the site, built of wood and stuccoed over,” with “standardized neat backs and sides,” but with façades ranging from “Tacoburger Aztec to Wavy-line Moderne, from Cod Cape Cod to unsupported Jaoul vaults, from Gourmet Mansardic to Polynesian Gabled.” I live one block off Wilshire Boulevard, the closest thing the entirety of Los Angeles has to a main street, and even today it holds as much interest for me as a pioneering “linear downtown,” its high commercial towers immediately giving way at the back to low-rise housing, as it did for Banham. Had he lived a decade longer, he would have seen Los Angeles become the only city in America (I suspect, anyway) where you can, in fewer than ten minutes, walk from your detached house to a subway station.

What I wouldn’t give for the chance to take Reyner Banham on the same tour of Los Angeles I did with Chris: from Koreatown to Westlake to Watts to Little Tokyo to Boyle Heights to downtown — all by rail. (With more aggressive ambition, I’d have even wedged in Chinatown and some Amoeba Music shopping in Hollywood.) What would Banham, who mentions neither Koreans nor nor Japanese nor Central Americans, who on television walked solemnly along the then-disused Pacific Electric Railway/Metro Blue Line tracks, who ventures that much of the area we explored could vanish without the average Angeleno even noticing, make of it? Would he approve? Despite never once using the freeways, getting anywhere near the ocean, or so much as glancing at the striking midcentury modern residences up in the hills, I like to think Chris and I traveled in a Banhamian spirit by honoring Los Angeles’ robust multi-centeredness. And I wouldn’t for a moment have considered ignoring Watts Towers, the hand-built monument to Los Angeles’ public eclecticism by way of private individualism that he anachronistically but reverently includes on all the book’s maps going back to the mid-19th century. We just got there a different way. But I wonder: did we do so in a different mindset?

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