Reading L.A.: Richard Meltzer tracks down the ugly

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After our encounter last week with Reyner Banham, consider the latest entry in Reading L.A. an antidote (to excessive optimism) and a palate cleanser at the same time. It’s “Richard Meltzer’s Guide to the Ugliest Buildings of Los Angeles.” Yes, his name is officially part of the title.

Meltzer remains known for having been a pioneering rock critic in the 1960s and ‘70s. But he was always interested in architecture too -- or at least in the visual extremes of the physical landscape -- and for the Los Angeles Reader, an alternative weekly, he contributed a series of columns calling out some of the city’s worst architectural offenders. Each of the columns, here collected in a 40-page, pamphlet-sized book bound by Illuminati Press the way PTAs used to bind their recipe books, is a barbed meditation on what it takes to qualify not just as a mediocre piece of architecture but as a genuine eyesore.


About the Park Glen apartments in West Los Angeles, he writes: “In beige or tan this institutional misery box would be hard to single out from the rest of its ilk (hard but not impossible). But with 80 percent of its metal plates screaming, ‘Look at us, we’re firehouse (barnyard) red!’ there’s no denying this ‘stately condominium’ its garish uniqueness.”

There’s a seen-it-all informality to the writing, and an impatient, galloping pace -- Meltzer’s gift for inventing new contractions is impressive -- but his task here is, well, nothing short of monumental: To take on the whole massive cityscape of Los Angeles, with its “displays of florid vanity” and its long boulevards stuffed with misguided attempts at one kind of period revival or another. One of the best entries here, on an office building in the Miracle Mile, has a first sentence that could stand alone on the page: “And then there’s neo-Tudor.”

What Meltzer does as well as anybody, or at least anybody since Louis Adamic or Morrow Mayo, is simply to stop and point out the obvious about how Los Angeles looks and has been put together. Yes, the city is home to some of the great landmarks of 20th century architecture. But virtually all of those buildings, mostly houses, are hidden from view. And while it is certainly possible to find a sort of inspiration in the endless anonymous banality of it all, much of what we lay our eyes on as we move through the city every day can be remarkably, even punishingly unattractive.

Each of the essays is memorably offended in its own way, but the real heart of the book comes at the end, in what Meltzer labels a “Grimly Serious Afterword.” There he delves into L.A.’s strange architectural split personality, the fact that its anything-goes commercial strips run through many neighborhoods where any change you want to make to your house has to be approved by a many-headed, self-appointed, righteously powerful design-review committee. Meltzer refers to that divide as “Calvinism meets the forces of Babylon.’ As he puts it, ‘staggering decades of incessant push-pull between abstemiousness and ostentation have left virtually no one with a clear fix anymore on either extreme, or a non-neurotic feel for the myriad (self-necessitated) parameters of any so-called ‘balance.’ We all walk a tightrope just to get through the visual encounters of a single sunlit day.”

He also comes to a conclusion that seems surprising at first but will be familiar to readers of this series: that architectural ugliness, even the most unrepentant sort, is tough to define in precise terms, and in the end qualifies as another example of L.A.’s eternally slippery identity. He explores various explanations for L.A.’s ugliness -- Hollywood, capitalism, the cult of the individual, etc. -- but in the end throws up his hands and declares the city “an opaque mystery.”

In his energetic willingness to call an eyesore an eyesore, Meltzer was both out of step and ahead of his time. Thirty years ago, just as he was compiling his list of architectural losers, there was an emerging group of architects –-- Frank Gehry and Eric Owen Moss prominently among them -- coming to a very different conclusion about Los Angeles and traditional notions of beauty. These architects began to take the ugliness of the L.A. cityscape -- its chain link, its ad-hoc eclecticism, its hulking freeway overpasses -- as inspiration. For them a new piece of architecture wasn’t really serious -- or contemporary -- unless it was tough-looking enough to approach real ugliness.

As I’ve written before, the tide has turned from that point of view. Some of the very same architects now produce buildings (shimmering Walt Disney Concert Hall, anyone?) that many find genuinely beautiful. And numerous demographic shifts in Los Angeles since the 1980s mean that the ugly-chic cityscape that Gehry, Thom Mayne, Ed Ruscha and others celebrated as containing the seeds of a new aesthetic is now seen in much more straightforward terms: as a series of streets and boulevards where people actually live, rather than corridors to speed through with a camera or sketchbook in hand. The website Curbed L.A. has an unabashedly judgmental and very popular feature called “That’s Rather Hideous,” and four years ago it organized a competition, for which I was one of the judges, to find the ugliest buildings in Los Angeles.

Meltzer’s ‘Guide,’ in other words, seems altogether less dated today than you might guess, not to mention a perfect rejoinder to the unshakable sunniness of Banham’s ‘Four Ecologies.’ For those and other reasons this efficiently raucous and tough-to-find book deserves to be a whole lot better known.


Reading L.A.

Reading L.A.: A Reyner Banham classic turns 40

--Christopher Hawthorne