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Welcome to Banham's Los Angeles

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In the late 1960s, a tall and ungainly Englishman named Peter Reyner Banham brought his shaggy beard and wonky teeth to Los Angeles and declared that he loved the city with a passion. It helped that, as a visiting architecture professor (Banham was teaching at USC), he was given some pretty fancy digs: He stayed in Greene & Greene's Gamble house in Pasadena, one of the most beautiful and romantic houses in America. So Banham had a privileged base from which to explore. But what he went looking for, and the way he wrote about what he saw and felt, redefined the way the intellectual world -- and then the wider world -- perceived the city. Reyner's " Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies" -- first published in 1971 -- has now been reissued in a new edition with an excellent introduction by architect and scholar Joe Day (University of California Press: 296 pp., $22.95).

It is a landmark in the history of writing L.A.

Banham came from abroad, but he came, not to escape something, not to try to reinvent himself or to sneer at us. He came to celebrate, and, in 1971, this bucked a 40-year trend in which Los Angeles had been cast as a schlock dystopia. Banham declared (outrageously, many said at the time) that L.A. was a great city, praising not only the émigré modernist designs of its architect pioneers like Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra but also its busy vernacular: gas stations, surfboards, muscle cars and freeways.

"The Santa Monica / San Diego intersection is a work of art, both as a pattern on a map, as a monument against the sky, and as a kinetic experience as one sweeps through it," Banham wrote. "Kinetic" is the key here: For Banham, cities were about movement, whether by foot, as in London, or in the car. "So, 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."

Banham had never been behind the wheel of a car before he got here. But he was already alive to the strangeness that often smites those seeing the city for the first time, namely that they know they're not seeing it for the first time, because it has already featured as the backdrop to a lifetime's worth of viewing of films and TV shows. Being Reyner Banham, he expressed this feeling better than anybody else: "Visiting houses in Beverly Hills or Bel Air can be an hallucinating experience; an overwhelming sense of deja-vu mingles with an overwhelming desire to sidle along corridors with one's back to the wall and to kick doors wide open before passing through."

Banham stalked Los Angeles like a private eye, searching for clues to the nature of his excitement. Therefore, for him, a Bob's Big Boy offered the same possibilities as Frank Lloyd Wright. As Los Angeles was making nonsense of traditional theories of urban planning and development, so the city gave Banham his voice, raffish and laid-back yet elegant. Riding the freeways in a BBC documentary he made (the film was titled "Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles," just to nail the point, and was budgeted to include helicopter shots -- those were the days!), Banham remarked that he'd better be a bit careful, otherwise he might "prang some little old lady from Pasadena in her boss Mustang."

Banham's shtick and the classic status that his book rather quickly achieved changed the way people thought they could write about design; but he didn't quite invent that gorgeous mixed-style -- the baton had been passed to him by other English critics who made names for themselves as broadcasters, to some extent by John Betjeman, and, especially, by Ian Nairn, who was busy drinking himself to death in the 1960s but once wrote that an elephant on the Albert Memorial "has a backside just like a businessman scrambling under a restaurant table for his check book."

"Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies" was published almost 40 years ago, and parts of it read like history now. " Venice, intended to be the most stylish [beach city] of the lot, was overrun by oil drilling, and is now a long uncertain strip of frame houses of varying ages, vacant lots, oil pumps, and sad gravel scrub," Banham writes, and we see the ghost of Venice past. "Las Vegas has been as much a marginal gloss on Los Angeles as was the Brighton Pavilion on Regency London" is a pithy sentence that has long since ceased to ring true.

Other aphorisms retain their suggestive power: "Los Angeles does not get the attention it deserves -- it gets attention, but it's the attention that Sodom and Gomorrah have received, primarily a reflection of other people's bad consciences."

And we see, too, Banham making judgments that were not only spot-on but also predictive. He sings an ode to the Danziger studio house on Melrose: "wood frame with a rendered surface, though the stucco is heavily rough-cast to provide a surface that can absorb the dirt of a heavily used thoroughfare without becoming streaky." The architect of this structure, who Banham, in 1971, was already comparing to the great Schindler, was the then-little-known Frank Gehry.

There's little in the way of sociology here, nothing about the ways in which boosterism and civic corruption dictated the city's growth. Banham's typically quirky bibliography doesn't include Carey McWilliams' "Southern California: An Island on the Land," a book that would surely have darkened his vision had he allowed it. Most likely Banham didn't want to go there. The organization of his book -- the "ecologies" he writes about are beach, basin, foothills, freeways -- still provides a template with which to start thinking about what sort of space Los Angeles actually is. More important, Banham captured something, the sense of excitement, of change, of possibility, that was, and still is, a part of the city's DNA. "Los Angeles looked naturally to the sunset, which can be stunningly handsome, and named one if its great boulevards after that favorite evening view."

Banham wrote like a blissed-out lover, surrendering to his feelings of derangement and wonder while keeping his eyes wide-open.

Rayner's new book is "A Bright and Guilty Place -- Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming-of-Age." Paperback Writers appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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