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City of Angles

Understanding—and appreciating—Los Angeles by design.

Apr 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 30 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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The most important architectural history of Los Angeles—and its most important cultural history as well—is Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, published in 1971 but not at all out of date. The then- (and still-) prevalent perception of Los Angeles was that it’s essentially a formless, sprawling, infrastructural ectoplasm: “nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis,” as Aldous Huxley wrote. Banham was a Londoner, and he saw that Los Angeles was very much like London, which began as a series of villages along the Thames that, over time, agglomerated themselves into a large city. Banham viewed Los Angeles as a similar collection of populated nodes, some of them descending from Indian, and later Spanish, settlements, and only one of which was L.A.’s downtown. Each of the “four ecologies”—the foothills with their luxury real estate; the plenteous beaches (“Surfurbia” in Banham-speak); the vast flatlands that housed the working class; and the vaulting connector freeways—fostered its own architectural culture. Banham relished all of them. He understood, too, that Los Angeles architecture was fundamentally vernacular, catering to popular taste and desires, not architects’ sensibilities.

Los Angeles architecture was also an architecture of boundless optimism. Both my husband and I, growing up at opposite ends of Los Angeles County, were certain not just that we lived in a city that was constructing its future but that we ourselves were living in the future. My father would often take our family for Sunday drives along the Hollywood Freeway as it was being built, out to whatever exit happened to be its end at the time. We harbored a genial contempt for the cramped, shabby cities of the East Coast, with their freezing winters and summer humidity; who would want to live there? A 1950s photograph in the Building Museum exhibition showed a promotional display poster for the Department of Water and Power: “Be Thankful That You Are an American and Live in Los Angeles.” 

That was us.

As the Building Museum exhibition moved past the mid-1960s, it foundered. That was because Los Angeles architecture did as well, trading in its lowbrow homegrown exuberance for a range of dreadful but undoubtedly more sophisticated-seeming international styles and configurations. These included: concrete-block Brutalism (best exemplified by the Death Star-like campus of the University of California, Irvine, a Pereira folly of 1965); Lincoln Centeresque “total design” complexes, such as the Los Angeles County Music Center, located downtown; marble-faced poshlost (Edward Durell Stone’s grandiose Ahmanson Center on Wilshire Boulevard, built in 1970); and the skyscraper mania of the 1970s and ’80s that filled the skyline with towering but uninteresting office structures.

Los Angeles is now pretty much like every other city, with impassable freeway traffic and myriad urban problems. But, paradoxically, that may be all for the good. As auto travel between the numerous component parts of this vast urban entity becomes ever more difficult, it is gradually reverting to what Reyner Banham once recognized it as: a network of distinct neighborhoods and subcities, each with its own individualized features and cultures. In that sense, Los Angeles really is becoming more like London. 

Charlotte Allen is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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