Reading L.A.: Introducing a yearlong project


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Los Angeles, with its car-dominated landscape and unusually dense brand of sprawl, can be a slippery place to get a handle on. As the architect Charles Moore put it in the introduction to ‘The City Observed: Los Angeles,’ the 1984 guidebook he wrote with Peter Becker and Regula Campbell, L.A. requires ‘an altogether different plan of attack’ -- on the part of architects, historians and critics alike -- than more traditionally organized cities do.

L.A.’s champions, critics and chroniclers have come up with a remarkably diverse collection of such plans of attack over the decades, some building atop the ones that came before and others wholly, even radically new. Making sense of them is among the major goals of Reading L.A., a yearlong project I’ll be kicking off this month and that will appear throughout 2011 on Culture Monster. I’ll be reading through 25 of the most significant books on Southern California architecture and urbanism, moving chronologically and posting a series of brief essays as I go.


In large part, I see the project as a way to take a new and detailed look at the major works in the L.A. canon -- books by Carey McWilliams, Reyner Banham, Mike Davis and others that, paradoxically enough, have become so well-established that some of their original ambition and power have faded. (A book’s influence can be blinding, as I learned recently when I reread the Jane Jacobs classic ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ and discovered a book very different from the one both her champions and critics seem to remember.) But I’ll also take detours to include lesser-known books by authors such as Richard Meltzer, David Brodsly and William Alexander McClung.

The schedule is straightforward: I’ll be reading two books per month over the course of the year, plus one extra thrown in along the way, for a total of 25. We’ll begin, this month, with a pair of classics: Louis Adamic’s ‘The Truth About Los Angeles,’ published in 1927, and the efficiently titled ‘Los Angeles,’ by Morrow Mayo, from 1933. The full list follows at the end of this post.

In an effort to keep the project from sprawling from 25 books to 40 or even 50, I reluctantly decided not to include fiction or any of the many anthologies on L.A.’s urban and architectural character. (One exception is the volume Elizabeth A.T. Smith put together on the history and legacy of the Case Study program; with a list of contributors including historians Thomas Hines and Kevin Starr and the critic Esther McCoy, it was impossible to pass up.) I do plan to pause along the way for posts considering how essayists, novelists, poets, screenwriters and playwrights have treated the built landscape of Los Angeles.

By the end of the year, I hope to have a better handle on how L.A. architecture and urbanism have been explored by the critics and writers who preceded me here. But the idea is not just to look back but also forward, since the suburban L.A. that many of the writers on my list took as their essential subject, with its wide-open freeways and neighborhoods anchored by the single-family house, is gone or at least dying a slow and difficult death. I’ll be sifting through insights in an effort to discover new ways to think and write about the city as the urban landscape grows more crowded and our definitions of community, mobility and architectural innovation continue to shift.

Another goal is simply to fix a spotlight on the city and keep it there for a full 12 months. Compared with other American cities, Los Angeles has never been particularly interested in examining or talking about itself. To an extent, this has been part of its appeal to newcomers, since the city -- compared with London, say, or Boston -- can seem free from the weight of history and the watchful or judgmental gaze of community expectation. But as L.A. lurches toward a denser future, one where complete anonymity will perhaps be tougher to find, it faces a number of fundamental decisions about what kind of place it wants to be. In that context, its determined refusal to look closely at itself can be a major liability.

Reading L.A. is not organized as a formal book club -- a few of the titles, after all, are not just out of print but also nearly impossible to find. (Many are available at the L.A. public library.) But I encourage readers who are interested to join me in all or part of it. I should also stress that the list of 25 is hardly set in stone: If you’re surprised to see that I’ve left out one of your favorite books on the city and its architecture, or you think one or more titles I’ve included seems out of place, by all means let me know in the Culture Monster comments or by e-mailing

All the blog posts on the project will appear under the heading Reading L.A., and I’ll mark all discussion of it on my Twitter feed ( with the hash-tag #readingLA. I look forward to your suggestions, complaints and ideas as the project moves forward. See you on the blog.


Here is the full list of books by month:

January: ‘The Truth About Los Angeles,’ by Louis Adamic (1927) and ‘Los Angeles,’ by Morrow Mayo (1933).

February: ‘Southern California: An Island on the Land,’ by Carey McWilliams (1946) and ‘Five California Architects,’ by Esther McCoy (1960).

March: ‘Eden in Jeopardy: Man’s Prodigal Meddling With the Environment,’ by Richard Lillard (1966) and ‘The Fragmented Metropolis: Los Angeles 1850-1930,’ by Robert M. Fogelson (1967).

April: ‘Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies,’ by Reyner Banham (1971) and ‘Guide to the Ugliest Buildings of Los Angeles,’ by Richard Meltzer (1980).

May: ‘L.A Freeway: An Appreciative Essay,’ by David Brodsly (1981) and ‘Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture,’ by Thomas Hines (1982).

June: ‘Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water,’ by Marc Reisner (1986) and ‘City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles,’ by Mike Davis (1990).


July: ‘Heteropolis: Los Angeles, the Riots and the Strange Beauty of Hetero-Architecture,’ by Charles Jencks (1993); ‘Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir,’ by D.J. Waldie (1996); and ‘The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory,’ by Norman M. Klein (1997).

August: ‘Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses,’ edited by Elizabeth A.T. Smith (1999) and ‘Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth-Century Metropolis,’ by Greg Hise (1999).

September: ‘Eden by Design: The 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan for the Los Angeles Region,’ edited by Hise and William Deverell (2000) and ‘The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-41,’ by Richard Longstreth (2000). [For the record: An earlier version of this post misstated the title of the Longstreth book.]

October: ‘Glitter Stucco and Dumpster Diving: Reflections on Building Production in the Vernacular City,’ by John Chase (2000) and ‘Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles,’ by William Alexander McClung (2000).

November: ‘Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles,’ by William Fulton (2001) and ‘Form Follows Libido: Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture,’ by Sylvia Lavin (2005).

December: ‘Making Time: Essays on the Nature of Los Angeles,’ by William Fox (2006) and ‘Reinventing Los Angeles: Nature and Community in the Global City,’ by Robert Gottlieb (2007).

--Christopher Hawthorne