Reading L.A.: A Reyner Banham classic turns 40
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This month Reading L.A. arrives at a major milestone: ‘Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies,’ written by the British architectural historian and critic Reyner Banham and published in 1971. As it turns 40 this year, the book remains -- with Carey McWilliams’ 1946 ‘Southern California: As Island on the Land’ and Mike Davis’ 1990 ‘City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles’ -- among the few volumes to grasp the city in all its urban and architectural complexity. Davis called it ‘the textbook on Los Angeles.’
Compared to McWilliams and Davis, however -- especially to the dystopian, myth-busting Davis -- Banham was an unalloyed admirer of Los Angeles. The documentary that the BBC produced in 1972 about the his travels around the city, now easy to track down on the Internet, is fittingly called ‘Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles.’
But Banham’s optimistic take on the city is not what makes the book worth revisiting. It’s the fact that its tone and especially its structure seem uncannily to reflect the spirit of Los Angeles itself. (Among books that focus on the urbanism of a single city, perhaps only Rem Koolhaas’ ‘Delirious New York’ finds a more inventive fit between literary strategy and civic personality.) In alternating chapters, Banham mixes traditional architectural history with impressionistic reports on what it was like, in those days, to drift carelessly from one highway interchange to another or to explore the ‘four ecologies’ of the book’s subtitle: the flatlands (which Banham labeled the ‘Plains of Id’), the beach cities (‘Surfurbia’), the freeways (‘Autopia’) and the foothills. The point was to suggest the multi-centered character of Los Angeles, its easy mobility and its essential informality. ‘Simply to go from the oldest monument to the newest could well prove a short, boring and uninstructive journey,’ Banham wrote in the opening chapter, ‘because the point about this giant city, which has grown almost simultaneously all over, is that all its parts are equal and equally accessible from all other parts at once.’
Banham also wanted to make room in the book for roadside architecture and the high points of civil engineering -- notably the freeway system itself, which he called ‘one of the greater works of Man.’ (He singled out the interchange linking the 10 and 405 freeways -- ‘a work of art’ -- for special praise.) Still, he made a point of crediting the early Pacific Electric rail lines for setting out the basic development patterns in Los Angeles -- patterns the highways would later follow to a large degree and fix in monumental concrete form. ‘The automobile and the architecture alike,’ he wrote, ‘are the products of the Pacific Electric Railroad as a way of life.’
In the mid-1960s, when Banham began traveling here from London, Southern California, to the degree that it had an international architectural reputation at all, was known mostly as an endless, smog-filled example of car-centric urbanism. The headline on Roger Jellinek’s New York Times review of ‘Four Ecologies’ said it all: ‘In Praise (!) of Los Angeles.’
But Banham, who was in his early 40s on those initial trips to California, saw two kinds of promise in Los Angeles: first as a new sort of 20th century city, in his view liberated rather than thrown into chaos by its lack of planning, and second, just as important, as the vehicle for a fresh approach to writing architectural history.
A champion of Pop Art and pop culture, Banham had already shown his impatience with traditional notions of beauty, architectural scholarship and city-making in his work of the 1950s and early 1960s. His membership with the architects Alison and Peter Smithson, the photographer Nigel Henderson and others in the so-called Independent Group in London put him at the center of early debates in Britain about how to demolish those old critical and historical standards for good.
In Los Angeles he found his ideal subject: a globally important but under-scrutinized city he could explore in relative anonymity, diving deeply into a place typically written off as superficial. ‘Los Angeles does not get the attention it deserves,’ he wrote in ‘Four Ecologies.’ ‘It gets attention, but it’s like the attention that Sodom and Gomorrah have received, primarily a reflection of other people’s bad consciences.’
The locals were not universally pleased with their new admirer. Esther McCoy, whom we have met in Reading L.A. already, reviewed the book for Progressive Architecture magazine and praised Banham’s ‘eye and his scholarship and his wit’ as well as ‘the cinematic form of ‘Los Angeles,’ those quick cuts between ecologies … and architectural essays.’ All in all, she said, it was ‘an impish and valuable book.’ But she complained that some of Banham’s central conclusions were ‘off course,’ reminding readers that Los Angeles was hardly unique among American cities in showing a deep fascination with mobility. (I’ll share more details from McCoy’s review in a forthcoming post.)
Peter Plagens, meanwhile, a young artist and journalist who would go on to become the art critic for Newsweek, wrote an entertainingly outraged review of the book for Artforum in which he labeled Banham a new sort of cultural interloper in the American West: the ‘chic debunker of current anti-L.A. mythology ... who finds that L.A. is really a groovy place in spite of its evils and often because of them, if you know how to look at it right.’
Plagens concluded that the biggest problem with Banham’s praise for L.A. was that it might ‘have a trickle-down effect (i.e., the hacks who do shopping centers, Hawaiian restaurants, and savings-and-loans, the dried-up civil servants in the division of highways, and the legions of show-biz fringies will sleep a little easier and work a little harder now that their enterprises have been authenticated). In a more humane society where Banham’s doctrines would be measured against the subdividers’ rape of the land and the lead particles in little kids’ lungs, the author might be stood up against a wall and shot.’
In a recent email exchange, Plagens recalled that his editors at Artforum initially asked him to write a straightforward and relatively brief review. But ‘I went nuts and it turned out to be a frothing-at-the-mouth essay against Banham and the book.
‘From what I gather on Google,’ Plagens went on, ‘the years have made me the bad guy: a young, provincial, anti-intellectual, offended local nipping at the feet of the big-time, world-traveler architecture critic. I still think I was right that a) Banham was another of those sun-loving Brits, found in droves in the movie business, who had an appreciation of Southern California that was only a half-step up from midwestern tourists at Disneyland, and b) the root of the matter in the early 1970s was, as the last line of my piece said, ‘The fashionable son-of-a-bitch doesn’t have to live here.’ Meaning, he didn’t have to suffer, primarily, the air, which was toxic to a degree younger people don’t remember. Everything Banham liked about L.A. -- Googie architecture, wide freeways, going everywhere in a car, pop culture almost the only culture -- I thought was part of the problem.’
Banham unquestionably got certain things right. He grasped Frank Gehry’s talent after seeing a single early and unassuming project, the 1964 Danziger Studio on Melrose. (‘Although the forms look commonly boxy, the planning and organization are not.’) His analysis of the early pioneers of L.A. modernism -- particularly the way he spliced the subtle differences between Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra -- holds up surprisingly well, as does his take on the post-war Case Study Houses.
What seems most dated about the book at 40 is how effortlessly it equates literal, automotive mobility in Los Angeles with the economic, class-based kind -- a transposition that surely had something to do with Banham’s Englishness. His Los Angeles was a city where the beaches and foothills were wide open not only as places to explore by car but also as places to buy a house and make a life. In the line that seems most ancient of all, Banham calls the modern houses perched in the winding roads of L.A.'s hills ‘epitomes of the great middle-class suburban dream.’ (I actually scribbled ‘Ha!’ in the margin next to that sentence.) Meanwhile, the flatlands, which Banham acknowledged could be rather ugly -- ‘the only parts of Los Angeles flat enough and boring enough to compare with the cities of the Middle West’ -- were in his mind not really neighborhoods at all as much as ‘a great service area feeding and supplying the foothills and beaches.’
Whether all of that was true in 1971 is debatable; it certainly isn’t any longer. There aren’t many middle-class families who can afford a modern house in the hills or anywhere near the beach. As far as the plains are concerned, rising residential density means the long snaking boulevards of the L.A. basin are hardly just the skeleton for a ‘great service area,’ nor are they mere corridors to carry cars; more and more they are places to live (in apartment buildings rather than single-family houses), go to school or walk to the corner store.
The plains, for a huge and growing percentage of the population, are Los Angeles, and vice versa.
An even bigger change since Banham’s day is that we no longer think of mobility in Los Angeles as something that has to do exclusively with the automobile. Banham was a dedicated cyclist, but when he got to L.A. he ditched his beloved Bickerton for a car: ‘Like earlier generations of English intellectuals who taught themselves Italian in order to read Dante in the original,’ he writes in one of the book’s signature lines, ‘I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original.’
Today’s Los Angeles, by contrast, is in the midst of a great and difficult reassessment of what mobility means -- and might mean for future generations. We are finally (if slowly, and expensively) building a comprehensive transit system, and cyclists and pedestrians alike are happily getting more attention from city planners and architects.
To be sure, we remain in the very, very early stages of the effort to wean ourselves from the automobile, from the convenience of what Banham called a ‘door-to-door’ means of navigating the city. But there is a growing understanding that reading contemporary Los Angeles requires not getting into the car but climbing out of it -- at least from time to time.
Photo (top): Reyner Banham in 1974. Credit: International Portrait Gallery
Photo (second from top): The interchange linking the 10 and 405 freeways, completed in 1964. Credit: Los Angeles Times
Photo (third from top): Reyner Banham in 1984, in front of a mural at John Muir School in Santa Monica. Credit: Los Angeles Times
Photo (bottom): Banham on his Bickerton bicycle in the Mojave Desert, 1981. Credit: Tim Street-Porter