The elision of geography

At the age of fourteen I was lucky enough to spend a few hours, one afternoon in Los Angeles, with the two writers who were then probably the best known skalds of that city’s architecture – Esther McCoy and my grandfather, Reyner Banham. It was not an edifying afternoon, as I was not at the time sufficiently interested in architecture to glean any insights from those two ripe ears of knowledge, and the only memory I have of the conversation in McCoy’s deep, lush back garden was her casual racism, directed at a black plumber who had recently worked in her house. For many years I wondered whether to raise McCoy’s remark with my grandmother, who was also present, but I imagined she would be offended at the implied stain on her friend’s character, and it’s too late now. It is a reminder, with hindsight, that America is very much a different country to Britain, where a left-leaning intellectual of McCoy’s generation would certainly have known that such conventional racism would be shocking to members of the succeeding cohort. I also recall the uncomfortable ‘ah…’ Banham gave in response, but nothing else of their conversation.

That mute ‘ah…’ is perhaps emblematic of Banham’s relationship with the United States. He was a European socialist intellectual, who lived through the privations of the Depression, the Second World War, and the following years of austerity. Politically, he was not at all aligned to the values that informed the American way of life, or its material culture, but he loved the place, and especially the experiences afforded by its disposable consumerism. He is known for giving positive valuations as works of design to many manifestations of America’s car-centred mass culture, such as freeways, automobiles themselves, roadside diners and so on, and it’s hard to dispute the implicit observation that these were the work of a particular culture’s designers, producing the exemplary aesthetic of their cultural and historical circumstances. But of the steep gradients of inequality that made the American Dream accessible to some, he has very little to say. I certainly wouldn’t suggest that the social deprivation suffered in large parts of urban America invalidate the point that Banham reiterated throughout his career: so-called ‘low culture’, which is the only culture known to the majority of Americans, should be understood and valued on its own terms. But clearly Banham either couldn’t find the language to acknowledge both sides of that coin, or felt that it was not his job to do so.

In his very well-known book, Los Angeles: the Architecture of Four Ecologies, he makes some reference to ‘problem areas’ such as Watts, discussing the flat, valley-bottom street grids that he refers to as ‘the great plains of Id’ as a ‘service area supplying the foothills and beaches’. He examines the role that unscrupulous property developers played in shaping the area, and even mentions the Watts riots of 1965, but nowhere does he seem to acknowledge race or class as structural factors in the composition or dynamics of Los Angeles. I know very little about that city, but I do know that where society is organised around large economic inequalities and coercive social hierarchies, those factors always play a part, perhaps not in the formal composition of any particular building, but certainly in the form and meaning of anything so all-encompassing as a metropolis. Their elision in this work appears to be paralleled in the ways that Banham’s Angelenos experience their city.

I’m not that familiar with the general response to the book, but I am aware that it’s been criticised for this lack of emphasis on socio-economic inequalities; other than this observation though, I’m barely capable of reading it critically. Not only does it embody the voice of a man I love and miss (and Banham’s informal spoken voice can always be heard in his prose, by those who knew him), but I don’t know nearly enough about LA or architectural history. In his Los Angeles Times review of the 2009 edition, Richard Rayner notes Banham’s avoidance of sources that took a darker view of Southern California than he, and concludes that ‘most likely Banham didn’t want to go there. […] Banham wrote like a blissed-out lover, surrendering to his feelings of derangement and wonder while keeping his eyes wide-open.’

That’s a phrase that puts me in mind of writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, whose New Journalism techniques I know Banham admired, and which I think can be seen at work in Los Angeles. In Banham’s decision to ‘learn to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original’ there is a parallel to the immersion practiced in New Journalism, as in Wolfe’s cross-country trip with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; in a similar manner to Wolfe, Banham chose to spend time living among Angelenos, as an Angeleno, in order to decipher the most exciting and culturally distant urban text he had yet encountered. His book was also a deliberate attempt to upset the conventions and assumptions of architectural history writing, formally and methodologically: although it is (as far as I can tell) a rigorous piece of scholarship, there is also a sense of New Journalism’s subjectivism, and its emphasis on truth over facts. It is the experience of Los Angeles that Banham identifies as its meaning, rather than the static formal qualities of its great buildings or its street plan.

I read this monograph, with its hip, humorous, and harmonious prose, as much as a piece of creative writing as a work of historical research, and although I certainly felt informed about the Los Angeles of fifty years ago, I was equally entertained, and edified in whatever mysterious ways we are by the linguistic game called literature. Formally, the book zig-zags through its subject matter, alternating thematic chapters with those specifically examining architectural practice, and those discussing the four ecologies of his title, to which he gives names three out of four of which are also strongly reminiscent of New Journalism’s switched-on verbal jouissance: Surfurbia, Foothills, The Plains of Id, and Autopia. This is clearly an act of revolt against the conventional architectural history narratives of Banham’s time, which, when speaking of cities, fabulate a linear sequence of foundation, development, the construction of Important Buildings, and their influence on later Important Architects. The multiple loci of Banham’s narrative render the city’s history resistant to the usual hierarchies of time and influence, and indeed to those of geographic centrality and peripherality.

Its multiple centres of urban gravity, which at the time Banham was writing basically meant the places that Angelenos would get out of their cars, are key to his description of the city. Downtown, which was both the location of important municipal institutions, and the historic origin of Los Angeles, was treated by Banham with contempt, a place which had not expanded rapidly enough to make any unique claim on the metropolis. Despite Los Angeles’s widespread association with the automobile, Banham points out that its decentralised growth was enabled by a comprehensive public transport system of railways and trams, whose unloved and largely dismantled networks became the palimpsest on which the matrix of roads and freeways was inscribed. This distributed peripherality, in which every mall, pedestrian area, assimilated pueblo or commercial strip becomes both a unique urban centre and completely interchangeable with every other locus of commercial activity, is taken by Banham as the city’s characteristic feature, and presumably explains his almost complete lack of interest in its ‘major’ buildings.

The works of name architects that Banham treats as significant are almost all houses, with the occasional commercial structure thrown in. The only major public structures he discusses are the Watts Towers and the freeways, which he regards as the principal repository of Los Angeles’s characteristic formal aesthetics; other large structures get short shrift, the Dodgers Stadium being discussed only in respect of its parking lots. The freeways, which he presents as equivalent to the totality of other metropolises’ great churches, museums, civic buildings, palaces and whatever-the-hell-else, are formally beautiful to Banham, but properly consumed at the wheel of a car.  The intersection of the Santa Monica and San Diego freeways ‘is a work of art, both as pattern on the map, a monument against the sky, and as a kinetic experience as one sweeps through it’, but the book makes clear that it is the last that is privileged. Whether it is its aesthetics, its sociality, its topography or its history, Los Angeles is correctly apprehended in a movement through; the experience of living there is one of motility, of eliding the geographic distance between wherever you are now and whatever it is you need to do next.

Los Angeles: the Architecture of Four Ecologies offers a fifty-year old view of its subject. I know that Banham’s description of run-down Venice Beach, the resort that never was, seems incredible to those currently victimised by its eye-watering property prices, but in general, I have no idea in what ways the city has subsequently changed. However, the Los Angeles that Reyner Banham knew, as he describes it in this book, has clearly either had an enormous influence around the world, or it was simply a portent, the inevitable consequence of a particular model of consumer capitalism that first had the liberty to shape its environment in Southern California, but which now can be found at every vertex of the globe.

At the very end of the book, Banham discusses the differing responses to Los Angeles’s freeway system, as either dividing communities, or ‘uniting individuals of common interest’. He could have been describing contemporary discussions of the internet, and the parties to whom he ascribes those opposing positions are still roughly the same. However, the extent to which just such a network has shaped social life anywhere that relatively affluent people live in proximity to one another could be observed before the ubiquity of digital connectivity. I live in a rural village in the East of England. It is no more than a few miles from the nearest town in any direction. At the time that Banham wrote his book, the vast majority of the inhabitants of such a village could reach those towns only by bus or bicycle; cars were getting cheaper, but their ownership was far from universal. Walking around my village today, viewing its fine medieval church, its Tudor guildhall, its timber-framed inns and houses, it’s easy to imagine that you are looking at the place in which I and others live; but while LA is a palimpsest, its earlier structures visible only occasionally in the spaces created by their removal, in England the parchment has been overwritten without the earlier text being removed.

This gives a misleading impression of continuity with the past; but the people who live in the village are connected to shops, workplaces and cultural or leisure sites across a wide geographic area by a well-maintained road network and easily obtainable, cheap-to-run cars, and they do little in the village except eat, take leisure and sleep in their separate family accommodations. Their experience of topography, of work, leisure and consumption, is characterised by movement, by informational connectivity, and by a fleeting, predominantly visual engagement with the materiality of their surroundings; the church is a thing, whether aesthetically pleasing or utterly meaningless, seen from the car on the way to somewhere else, an image, not a site of community praxis. The same is probably now true of the village pub. The rural geography is elided in just the same way as the territory irrelevant to an auto-mobile Angeleno’s day in 1970. My grandfather liked to describe himself as a ‘historian of the immediate future’, and in the introduction to the 2000 edition of his book that I recently read, Anthony Vidler describes Los Angeles as the ‘city of the immediate future’. Actually, I think, much of the world was already living in it by then.

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