The Getty is showing the 1972 video “Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles” tonight. Although I won’t be able to make it, I thought it’d be appropriate to post a draft of this essay that I’ve written on Banham and Los Angeles. Footnotes not included. This is a teaser. For the notes””?and much more””?you’ll need to buy Pat Morton’s edited book on Taste, which should be out in 2006 and promises to be well worth the money.
Pat Morton, ed., Pop Culture and Postwar American Taste, [London: Blackwell, forthcoming 2006]
note, this is a draft. for an up-to-date version and the footnotes, you’ll need to buy the book.
Few projects have had as marked an impact on postwar architectural historiography as has Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles. The Architecture of Four Ecologies. Perhaps only Siegfried Giedion’s Space, Time, and Architecture and Manfredo Tafuri’s Architecture and Utopia can lay claim to a comparable influence on the field. Certainly, this would have satisfied the author for, as Anthony Vidler writes in his insightful introduction to the book’s 2001 edition, Banham set out “with a declared mission to revise the way the history of buildings and cities had traditionally been written.”
Banham’s foremost innovation was to flip the valence on the historical evaluation of Los Angeles, praising precisely those qualities that others listed as irredeemable failings: the territory’s posturban sprawl, its lack of an overall plan, the chaotic, untamed signscape, comical roadside architecture, and the ubiquitous boulevards, parking lots, and freeways. To understand Los Angeles, Banham not only learned to drive, he learned to see architecture anew, reading the built environment through “hamburger bars and other Pop ephemeridae at one extreme [and] freeway structures and other civil engineering at the other.” Until Banham, the historiography of architecture was largely a matter of understanding the development of “the monuments” and coherent styles and movements. Even when Giedion cast his eye over the balloon frame in Space, Time, and Architecture, he was in pursuit of the “constituent” facts, which for him meant a genealogy of modernism that would ground it in the United States.
In contrast, Banham sought neither to validate any architectural movement nor to advocate any response save that of a laissez-faire attitude towards the city. For at the same time as Manfredo Tafuri was observing that the project of the avant-garde had failed because the reality of the economic plan had obviated the need for the architectural plan, Banham pronounced planning itself harmful to the city. Los Angeles works, he declared, and it works because of, not in spite of, a lack of plan. In response to the unprecedented nature of this unplanned environment, Banham developed an equally unprecedented form of writing that avoided the conventional structures of historiography and turned as much to psychogeography, New Journalism, and conceptual photography for models as to the traditions of architectural historiography. The result reassesses both the city and the traditional modernist belief that architecture should have a moral basis.
Taken within Banham’s oeuvre, the reevaluation of Los Angeles is part of the sustained questioning of accepted modernist taste that defined his career. As a member of the Independent Group [IG] in Britain in the 1950s, Banham shared the group’s interest in deciphering the role of popular culture in everyday life. An informal cluster of about twenty individuals including Banham, Alison and Peter Smithson, Richard Hamilton, Edouardo Paolozzi, Nigel Henderson, and Lawrence Alloway, among others, the IG chose to engage Pop culture directly””?indeed its members coined the term””?instead of treating the material at a distance or condescendingly. Banham would later explain that this came naturally: having grown up with American films and magazines in the 1930s, he wrote, “We were at home with this stuff, it was return-of-the-native stuff, we were in our own culture, sub-culture, or whatever you like to call it.” Banham quickly showed an interest in not only looking at the material, but in re-shaping his writing to engage Pop in its own terms. His 1955 essay on Detroit automobile design, “Vehicles of Desire,” gives an early taste of the tone that Banham would adopt in his own popular writing for magazines throughout his career: “The New Brutalists, pace-makers and phrase-makers of the Anti-Academic line-up having delivered a smart KO to the Land-Rover some months back, have now followed it with a pop-eyed OK for the Cadillac convertible, and automobile aesthetics are back on the table for the first time since the Twenties.”
But, composed of artists and architects, the IG would have a limited interest in Pop, limits that Banham would ultimately find too constraining. In the definitive book on Banham thus far, Nigel Whiteley observes that the IG’s interest was restricted to products and imagery. They did not accept mass culture tout court. Rather, they were attracted only to a subset of Pop, defined by Whiteley as “car styling, science fiction, fashion, graphics, and movies””?which reflected technological and cultural change,” hoping to prepare consumers for the modernist future in constructive ways.
In particular, the New Brutalist architects in the IG did not so much take Pop at face value as use it for a departure point. Thus, in their famous passage, “Gropius wrote a book on grain silos, Le Corbusier one on aeroplanes, and Charlotte Perriand brought a new object to the office every morning; but today we collect ads,” Alison and Peter Smithson draw the allusion to Gropius, Corbusier, and Perriand to suggest that research into Pop culture is only a stimulus for architectural design. For the Smithsons, Pop was not to be taken at face value, it was to be questioned: “Today we are being edged out of our traditional role by the new phenomenon of the popular arts””?advertising… We must somehow get the measure of this intervention if we are to match its powerful and exciting impulses with our own.” The Smithsons intended not to embrace Pop but to transcend it, as they would write elsewhere: “Brutalism tries to face up to a mass production society, and drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work.” So just as works of engineering were an inspiration, not an end for Corbusier, the reality of Pop is something the Smithsons “face up to” so that one can again produce an appropriate art from the artless confusion of modern life.
Banham was nevertheless intrigued enough by New Brutalism’s “rough poetry” that he had hoped it might form the basis for his vision of une architecture autre, a term he derived from the French art critic Michel Tapié’s un art autre, a raw anti-aesthetic of bricolage that left the work seemingly unfinished, in a state of dynamic flux. Following Tapié, Banham calls for an anti-formal, anti-classical, and anti-elite architectural production. Whiteley aptly summarizes Banham’s une architecture autre as “an architecture that rejected abstract, formally derived concepts and forms in favor of human presence, signs of life and symbols of living in the ‘mass production society’ that was the Second Machine Age.” Above all, une architecture autre depended on the Image. In his essay on the New Brutalism, Banham explains: “Basically, it requires that the building should be an immediately apprehensible visual entity, and that the form grasped by the eye should be confirmed by experience of the building in use.” In projects such as their reductionist Hunstanton Secondary School, the Smithsons or their vicious assault on staid suburbia at Sugden House, or their pop-driven, prefabricated House of the Future, the Smithsons seemed to Banham to manifest une architecture autre. But with New Brutalism becoming a style in the late 1950s, a dismayed Banham writes a disparaging eulogy to the movement in his 1966 survey, New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic?: “In the last resort they are dedicated to the traditions of architecture as the world has come to know them: their aim is not une architecture autre but, as ever, vers une architecture.”
But already by 1959, Banham’s search for une architecture autre lead him away from contemporary production of architectural form to phenomena that emerged directly out of the contemporary city. That year, in his article “The City as Scrambled Egg,” Banham applauds the Situationist technique of psychogeographical drift for its ability to map how the city affects the emotions and behavior of individuals. If, according to Corbusier, the medieval city resembled an egg with its densely packed core and surrounding city-wall shell, Banham suggests that with the spread of telecommunications, the contemporary city has turned into a “scrambled egg,” its walls dissolved and broken yolk of urbanity spreading across the landscape. Banham invokes Isaac Asimov’s science fiction novel The Naked Sun to summon up his image of the near future: “a highly mechanized garden city spread evenly over a whole planet, its well-bred citizens communicating with one another electronically, not person to person.” And Banham notes the advanced form of urbanism of his future object of study, pointing out that “The scrambled egg conurbation is a going concern, and I don’t just mean Los Angeles. A large part of the population of Europe already lives conurbatively.” But, Banham continues, it is not the smooth dispersal of “a conurbative society” that intrigues him. Rather, his interest lies in how individuals “agglomerate in specialized sub-centres.” For even if this temporally-delimited phenomenon of clustering is fundamental to conurbative society, there is often no readily identifiable reason for the development of the clusters. Thus, mistaken in their conception, the planned centers of Britain’s New Towns will be nothing more than “monuments to a dead culture.”
Instead, Banham suggests direct action: “leg-work on the territory, polling people or following some such technique as Guy Debord’s ‘Psychogeographic Drift’” and a radical rethinking of what urban life is: “there will have to be a massive overhaul of mental apparatus. Words like city will have to go, because they prejudge the issue before argument starts.” The new role of planning, Banham concludes, “must now be to ensure that only voluntary association takes place (e.g. people aren’t heated up in traffic-jams) and that, when it does occur, there will be places where people will want to go to do it. … The true destination of the scrambled egg environment is to provide an infrastructure of usable facilities””?or else.” To drive the point home, Banham juxtaposes Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’s Psychogeographic Guide to Paris with an aerial photograph of a drive-in cinema.
Banham returns to this contrarian view of conurbative sprawl two years later in 1961, when he first visits the United States. Although Banham does not make it all the way to Los Angeles, he takes the opportunity to weigh in his observations on postwar American sprawl for the Architectural Review. In “Urbanism: U. S. A.” Banham reviews a special issue of Daedalus on “the Future Metropolis,” concluding that if Daedalus sought a renewed, authentic, American metropolis, the editors missed the point. There already is an existing alternative, the suburb. Citing Alistair Cooke’s observation that the American suburb does not need to a metropolis to “have a character of its own,” Banham observes that if the suburb blights the edges of the metropolis””?and here Banham sees Los Angeles as just one metropolis among many””?that is because it does not rightly belong there. On the contrary, suburbs floating free of cities are naturally suited to the expanse between the coasts. In the grand expanse of the American continent, the gridiron plan embodies the genius loci of the Jeffersonian land plat. Rather than obscuring landscape, the gridiron reveals it by drawing attention to changes in the terrain by following its contours. Unaware of the future consequences of the Wal-Martization of the country, Banham concludes that if the Main Street of the suburban community is too narrow to handle commerce, pulling shopping out of the grid to free-standing shopping centers on the periphery will amply solve the problem.
Banham’s embrace of American automobility and the suburb was by no means commonly held at this point. On the contrary, just as the suburb comes to dominate the American landscape for the first time, the critique of the suburb takes over urban discourse and with it Los Angeles as the dismal destiny of the contemporary city. Already by 1958 Francis Bello observes that “[City planners] point to Los Angeles as the ultimate example of what can happen to a city that worships the automobile””?a city with an undistinguished business and cultural center, engulfed by endless sprawl.” A year later, Pulitzer prize winning reporter Harrison Salisbury suggests that a visitor might say of the city’s transportation system, “I have seen the Future””?and it doesn’t work. … The cult of the automobile has saturated a vast metropolitan area. Expert upon expert has examined the Los Angeles picture and backed away shuddering.”
Critiques of sprawl continued in the 1960s through books such as Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities and Peter Blake’s God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America’s Landscape. By no means, however, did the critique stem mainly from the counter-culture. On the contrary, sprawl was as much a concern for the architectural and planning establishments: the inventor of the shopping mall, Victor Gruen, felt the need to propose the mall not as a symptom of sprawl but as a cure for the disease in his 1964The Heart of Our Cities while in 1969 Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill founder Nathaniel Owings wrote the American Aesthetic, attacking contemporary urban development as a blight upon the land, a point he punctuated with William Garnett’s aerial photos of development treading across the landscape, proposing as one solution the intense urban density obtained by the firm’s John Hancock Center as a solution.
Throughout the early 1960s Banham sought to find a role for architecture to play in this conurbative metropolis. He hoped that architects might develop une architecture autre to respond to “the city as scrambled egg” and Pop culture. Yet he openly doubted whether architects were brave enough to let this happen, asking in 1964 “could architects accept the position of being designers of a technological infrastructure but not be responsible for its eventual appearance?” Examples such as Cedric Price’s Fun Palace presented themselves rarely. In that project, Banham observes, the designers try to “create a neutral technological frame which was simply a support of structure and services within which people could express themselves freely” and even so concludes that “it’s something which still hasn’t quite come off, and because of all sorts of things, but chiefly because in the end architects are still committed to some kind of hieratic culture in which command comes from the few experts at the top and not from the mass of consumers at the bottom.”
Subsequent to the Smithsons’ retreat into aesthetics, Banham turned his endorsement to the young group Archigram, hoping that their promise of a rapidly expandable environment through plug-ins and mass-produced capsules could lead to the refiguring of architecture as a form of infrastructure clothed in Pop form, an “aesthetic of expandability” that Banham investigates in his discussion of the Futurists in Theory and Design in the First Machine Age.
Archigram seemed capable of taking greater risks than the Smithsons, even able to question the necessity of architectural production itself. In the Living City Survival Kit exhibited at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1963, Archigram presented their “vision of the city as an environment conditioning our emotions,” a show that Simon Sadler suggests was likely directly influenced by “The City as Scrambled Egg.” Living City Survival Kit does not, however, give any direct images of architecture or the city. On the contrary, for Archigram, buildings become an anonymous infrastructure against which real activity takes place. The exhibit contains no buildings, only a kit made up of records by Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, toy cars, coca-cola, puffed wheat, Nescafé, cigarettes, lighter fluid, sunglasses, money, a gun, and Playboy magazine. The Living City Survival Kit is nothing less than a set for viewing the city as the hip, young 1960s male fl?É¬¢neur.
Reviewing the exhibit, Banham concludes: “I’m not quite sure where they have got with it so far, but this is still a minority reaction within the general body of architecture, which remains extremely cautious in its response to Pop because of the expandability aspect. But there are more things than just the time-span problems involved here. Pop is economically linked to what, for architects, is an alien culture. Pop puts the ultimate command in the hands, if not of the consumer, then at least of the consumer’s appointed agents. And architects cannot really manoeuvre themselves into this position.”
In his 1965 essay “A Home is Not A House,” Banham turns to environmental systems to polemically question if, given the advanced state of engineering, there still is any reason for houses to be constructed. At about this time, Banham was working on the Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, a brilliant counter-history, in which he pursued his pro-infrastructural polemic to tell the story of modernism through the models of environmental management employed instead of from the point of view of any model of theoretical or stylistic succession. Throughout, Banham would make strong judgements, criticizing modernists when he felt that their designs had failed to live up to the boldness of their pronouncements about the technological nature of modernism.
With the Graham Foundation funding travel for him to research The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, Banham came to the United States in 1964 and 1965 and managed to finally visit Los Angeles. There he took part in a symposium hosted by the Urban Design Department at the University of California, gave a lecture on his current research entitled “Frank Lloyd Wright as Environmentalist” and participated in discussions at UCLA aimed at defining the school’s new program in architecture. Fascinated by the city, he would repeatedly visit Los Angeles throughout the late 1960s.
Nor was Banham the only British thinker interested in Los Angeles at the time. In 1963 urban planner Peter Hall, then in the London School of Economics, wrote his London 2000, promoting a future for England influenced by American suburbia. Banham would later say, “There is no greater enthusiast for the place than Peter Hall.” The members of Archigram looked to Los Angeles as well. In 1967 Warren Chalk served as visiting professor at UCLA and, over the next two years Ron Herron and Peter Cook came to the city.
As Banham was first encountering Los Angeles, he had also become the regular design and architecture critic for the New Society, a magazine of social inquiry founded in 1962 and, according to Paul Barker, editor from 1968 to 1986, “obsessed with pinning down how things were, rather than how they were supposed to be.” In this venue, his writing was informal, frequently incorporating his own personal taste, the language of the street, and a first-person narrative in discussing topics ranging from Pop culture to the history of modern design. In retrospect, then, it seems fitting that Banham’s first article for New Society would be a review of Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, the first product of a form of non-fiction writing later dubbed””?by Wolfe himself””?the New Journalism. Freeing themselves from the neutral language of reportage, writers such as Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Michael Herr, Robert Christgau, and Joan Didion adapted literary techniques traditionally used in the novel in their articles for magazines such as Esquire, the New Yorker, and Playboy, creating a new literary genre in which the techniques of realism could be applied to writing about reality.
It could be argued that Banham’s writing for more popular magazines was New Journalistic avant la lettre as the above quote from 1955, “The New Brutalists, pace-makers and phrase-makers…” demonstrates. But his review is not entirely charitable: “two thirds of the book is, bluntly, toilet paper.” Banham nevertheless is enthusiastic about a few essays, including the title piece, on the custom car culture in Los Angeles, as well as the essays on Las Vegas and auto racer Junior Johnson. Banham approves of Wolfe’s exploration of “prole culture,” as well as his rejection of any opportunity at moralizing and admires the deep knowledge of his subject matter coming from his having “walked the territory in detail.”
For the time, being, however Banham himself said little about Los Angeles. Perhaps, having not “walked the territory in detail,” he did not yet feel the right to do so. Or perhaps he did not yet have much to say. Art Seidenbaum, in a 1966 Los Angeles Times article reports a largely negative evaluation: “When Reyner Banham was visiting UCLA and its appended city a few months ago, he took one look at Van Nuys and humphed that signs were the only symbols of vitality on a scabrous stucco desert.” If this statement hints at one direction Banham will later take in his writing about the city, it also suggests that he was, as yet, unable to value the city as a whole.
It took Banham four years to document his first impressions of Los Angeles. When he finally did, it was on the occasion of four radio shows for the BBC’s Third Programme in August and September 1968, simultaneously printed as articles for The Listener, a general-audience magazine published by the BBC. In his introduction to the 2001 edition of Los Angeles. The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Vidler observes that these four episodes””?“Encounter with Sunset Boulevard,” “Roadscape with Rusting Nails,” “Beverly Hills, too, is a Ghetto,” and “The Art of Doing Your Thing”””?outline three of the four ecologies””?the beach, the freeways, and the foothills as well as the alternative architecture of “Fantasy.”
“Encounter with Sunset Boulevard” is, in many ways, a piece of New Journalism, luring the audience in with a “scene,” a mournful description of the historian waiting by the side of the Pacific Coast Highway after the bus carrying him suffers a breakdown. Anxiety rises as he reveals that he is rushing to his hotel where he is to be picked up for “an important date for dinner and a lecture by the Chancellor of the University of California in Los Angeles…” Banham’s description of the journey from PCH to the hotel is peppered with exclamations of his shock at the vastness and “totally incomprehensible” quality of the city. Viewing a sign for Sunset Boulevard in Pacific Palisades, the historian expresses bewilderment, believing Sunset Boulevard should be in Hollywood, far from the coast, and asks, astonished “Could there be two parts of Greater Los Angeles with Sunset Boulevards, or did the same boulevard run on through the various parts of the town, and if so, which part did I need?” But after devoting a third of the piece to his bewildered condition, he reveals it as a ruse, “that is not the point of my story: the point is that I was out of my culture-shock and topographical dismay within 24 hours and feeling perfectly at home in Los Angeles.” Banham suggests that the generation of British planners and writers he belongs to would share this comfort with the city and cites two reasons for this: the Hollywood films that they saw in their youth have firmly enshrined Los Angeles as “the city in all our pasts” and that the city’s emergence out of a collection of villages coalescing into a larger conurbation mirrors that of London. Moreover, if the freeway allows the typical Angelino to move from point to point in this diffuse texture without any real connection to the city, it too is mirrored by the London subway. The result is that “these two uniquely scattered cities exhibit a striking similarity in what I suppose must be called their psychological geography.”
Banham concludes “Encounter…” by affirming the value of the city for further investigation: “The unique value of Los Angeles””?what excites, intrigues and sometimes repels me””?is that it offers radical alternatives to almost every urban concept in unquestioned currency. As they say in California, ‘Los Angeles is so wild they should just let it swing and see what happens!’”
The second piece, “Roadscape with Rusting Nails” turns to the freeways and the evolution of the city’s transit. Banham defends the automobile against the charge that it created sprawl by recounting the earlier role of the Pacific Electric Railroad in the dispersal of the city. If that much is entirely reasonable, in defending the automobile’s role in the city against what he sees as British misperceptions, he makes some surprisingly misguided statements: that the “Los Angeles freeways are laid across almost open country” and that “Los Angeles can put in ten-lane freeways and only has to knock down a tiny proportion of its dispersed and flimsy buildings.” He also makes light of the smog, which appears to him to be better than the air in London and more the product of gardening rather than of the automobile. He decides that this obsession with “smog is really an emanation of the collective bad conscience of Angelenos, who have mostly escaped quite recently from the Protestant ethic and hard winters of the Bible-punching Middle West, and who may feel that they don’t deserve to have so much fun zooming around in cars in the pleasant sunshine.” Far from a blight on the landscape, the freeways, instead have “the unmistakable stamp of great engineering””?plus something else.” He praises the intersection of the Santa Monica and San Diego Freeways where “The two highest ramps rise, converge and separate in sweeping curves of perfect symmetry, carried on single rows of slim cylindrical concrete columns. But to drive over those ramps in a high sweeping 60-mile-an-hour trajectory and plunge down to ground level again is a spatial experience of a sort one does not normally associate with monuments of engineering””?the nearest thing to flight on four wheels I know.”
In “Beverly Hills, too, is a Ghetto,” Banham takes a less positive tone. He will chide other critics for not making the effort to understand the city””?far from being superficial, Los Angeles requires a deep reading””?but he has little positive to say about the “intensely local and self-regarding independent community” in the city nor does he defuse the situation by pointing out similarities with London. Instead Banham looks at the terrain as a series of cities developing out of the old colonial ranches, set up to protect special interests, and to serve tax dodges. The result is a landscape of social monocultures, be they in Beverly Hills or Watts. Functional monocultures develop as well: “in Los Angeles you tend to go to a particular place to do a particular thing, to another to do another thing, and finally a long way back to your home, and you’ve done 100 miles in the day. The distances and the reliance on mechanical transportation leave no room for accident, even for happy accidents. You plan the day in advance, programme your activities, and forgo those random encounters with friends and strangers that are traditionally one of the rewards of city life.”
Banham ends the series with an upbeat note in “The Art of Doing Your Thing.” He extols the culture of fun in Los Angeles and the role of Angelenos as “the privileged class of pop culture today. Their civilization has invented and decorated artifacts that are the envy of the world and go so far beyond mere physical need as to be perfectly useless.” Banham recalls Wolfe’s observations about the custom-car obsession in Los Angeles in “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” and elaborates, “The preoccupation of the designers with the fantastification of form and finish has left function nowhere; these baroque and peacock-hued vehicles of the imagination are usually undrivable.”
The custom cars demonstrate the city’s individualistic culture, but if the enclaves Banham observes in the third installment prevent the city from developing a more inclusive sense of community, in contrast “doing your thing” is positive. Banham concedes that with the majority of the city’s inhabitants able to pursue their desires, there is little need for the ritual of public symbolism or for the valuation of its artists, “In the eyes of the community at large, an artist is just another guy doing his thing, like the lonely surfer communicating privately with the universe. If he’s the best, or perfect, then bully for him, but it’s hardly a public matter.” The work of Charles Eames illustrates his point, “He became so nearly perfect that he is now a world figure: his chairs and his toys and his movies have marked and characterized an epoch. And it has had hardly any public effect on Los Angeles at all.” But Banham doesn’t utter any regret with regard for the situation. On the contrary, “The Art of Doing Your Thing” is the least moralistic of the four.
Banham’s own detachment may be influenced by the subject matter. He finds himself intrigued by the work of Ed Ruscha, contrasting his Thirty-Four Parking Lots with his Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire. “The very obtuseness of the presentation compels attention” in the case of Thirty-Four Parking Lots: “You are made to feel that the refusal to pass any of the customary town-planners’ value-judgments implies some transcendental system in which parking lots are valued simply for being what they are, for doing their parking lot thing.” In the case of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire, Banham observes, “it sums up what most people in Los Angeles seem to feel about the County Art museum, a pathetic and empty attempt at a public gesture in a context where public gestures are irrelevant. The only kind of architecture that makes any public sense there seems either to stem from clear and present public need, like the engineering of the freeways or the great rock-cut amphitheatre of the Hollywood Bowl, or else it arises from doing such a private thing to such a degree of liberated perfection that it finally transcends itself.” The latter is embodied in Watts Towers, “the most triumphant monument, ever, to the art of doing your thing.”
Banham more thoroughly shapes his laissez-faire attitude through his involvement with “Non-Plan” at roughly the same time. Between 1967 and 1969, the New Society’s deputy editor Paul Barker developed a deliberately controversial project for the magazine involving Banham, Cedric Price, and Peter Hall. In 1967, Barker ran excerpts from Herbert Gans’s The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Poetics in a New Suburban Community, which he saw “as a corrective to the usual we-know-best snobberies about suburbia.” At roughly the same time, Barker and Hall “floated this maverick thought: could things be any worse if there was no planning at all?” Barker elaborates: “We were especially concerned at the attempt to impose aesthetic choices on people who might have very different choices of their own. Why not, we wondered, suggest an experiment in getting along without planning and seeing what emerged?” The project, titled “Non-Plan: An Experiment in Freedom,” Barker notes, “was strongly influenced by Banham’s essays in the magazine.” For the special issue, which would be published on 20 March 1969, Barker recalls, “We wanted to startle people by offending against the deepest taboos. This would drive our point home.” To this end Hall, Banham, and Price each took a section of the revered British countryside and imagined it blanketed with a low-density sprawl driven by automobility. According to Barker the reaction was a “mixture of deep outrage and stunned silence.”
Images of neon signs””?the “imageability” so important to Banham’s idea of une architecture autre””?that would mark the commercial structures of non-plan punctuated the issue. In Banham’s contribution, “Spontaneity and Space,” he suggested that “the monuments of our century that have spontaneity and vitality are found not in the old cities, but in the American West. There, in the desert and the Pacific states, creations like Fremont Street in Las Vegas or Sunset Strip in Beverly Hills represent the living architecture of our age. As Tom Wolfe points out in his brilliant essay on Las Vegas, they achieve their quality by replacing buildings by signs.”
The “brilliant essay” by Tom Wolfe is “I Drove Around Los Angeles and Its Crazy! The Art World Upside Down,” first published in the Los Angeles Times in December 1968 and apparently finding an eager reception in Britain, being reprinted as “Electrographic Architecture” in the July 1969 issue of Architectural Design. The article is heavily illustrated with images of signs, especially neon signs, throughout the Los Angeles area. Wolfe notes that contemporary art is obsessed with “light sculpture.” He is impressed by the theories and work of artists like Dan Flavin and Billy Apple. “But,” he decides, “I look at what they have actually done and then at Melvin Zeitvogel’s BUICK””?it’s crazy! The art world is upside down. All of a sudden the avant-garde, the serious artists are the primitives, the Grandma Moseses … The commercial artists, the Melvin Zeitvogels, are the classicists…”
Just like the custom cars, the landscape of signage is a symptom of a new society, something that he feels the East coast establishment can’t comprehend:
bq. It was left to commercial artists in towns like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Diego to create something wild enough or baroque enough to express the new age of motion and mass wealth. There is a terrific Eastern intellectual snobbery about Los Angeles as a city of sprawl, chaos, madness, strangled by the automobile. … Nostalgie de la chateau! … I still hear people in New York who insist on saying that the trouble with Los Angeles is that it has no landmarks, you can never orient yourself. I doubt that anybody who lives in Los Angeles feels that way. In fact Los Angeles has the most monumental landmarks ever built, namely the freeways.
Even if, as we noted above, Banham had already said positive things about Los Angeles’s billboards in 1966, the four BBC pieces omit any mention of commercial architecture and indeed avoid discussing the built domain at all, except as an undifferentiated sprawl. Could Wolfe’s article have driven him to re-evaluate the city? It seems plausible: not only does Banham call the essay brilliant in Non-Plan, he includes it in the bibliography for Los Angeles. The Architecture of Four Ecologies.
In any event, Banham must have been actively gathering material for an extended project on Los Angeles by this point. He would visit Los Angeles a few times in the late 1960s, putting together the material for the book. By spring of 1971, the general outline of the book had been established. The book would be published later in the year.
To adequately summarize Four Ecologies would be a project of Borgesian cartography equal to at least the length of the book itself. Instead, having set the book into context, in the rest of this essay I intend to analyze the project’s overall organization and further discuss the sources that might inform it.
First, let’s turn to the role of New Journalism in Four Ecologies. In Four Ecologies itself, the influence of New Journalism is muted. If Banham’s style is a bit more informal than that which a conventional historian might use, he nevertheless does not use the first-person narrative and avoids any of the vivid scene setting that was so much a part of the BBC series. In the foreword to Design by Choice, Banham reflects on the way he writes, shaping his writing for different audiences:
bq. …I have also changed my stance or tone-of-voice according to the readership I have been addressing. Obviously, the readers of Art In America were very different to those of New Statesman, but probably nothing like as different as those of Architectural Review, (monthly, cosmopolitan, intellectual, elitist) from the subscribers to Architects’ Journal (weekly, local, business-like, work-a-day). Of course, many architects read both, and probably New Society as well, but they would recognize their own changes of expectation in putting down one paper and picking up another.
The BBC series would have been aimed at a broader, more Pop listening in on the radio so story narrative and scene setting seems particularly apt as a way of engaging the viewer. In contrast, Four Ecologies is a book, and thus the stakes are different. Banham starts the introduction, titled “In the Rear-View Mirror” with a contradiction: on the one hand, “Los Angeles is instant architecture in an instant townscape,” on the other hand, “The city has a comprehensible, even consistent quality to its built form, unified enough to rank as a fit subject for an historical monograph.”
But is Four Ecologies that “historical monograph”? The answer is mixed. Banham immediately questions the idea: “Historical monograph? Can such an old-world, academic, and precedents-laden concept claim to embrace so unprecedented a human phenomenon as this city of Our Lady Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula? ””? otherwise known as Internal Combustion City, Surfurbia, Smogville, Aerospace City, Systems Land, the Dream-factory of the Western world?” He also observes that Los Angeles had already been covered by a monograph of sorts, Architecture in Southern California By David Gebhard and Robert Winter. Banham sees the handbook as “erudite, accurate [and] clear,” while faulting it for including “neither hamburger bars and other Pop ephemeridae at one extreme, nor freeway structures and other civil engineering at the other.” Gebhard and Winter’s conventional view of architecture, he concludes, fails to understand that “both are as crucial to the human ecologies and built environments of Los Angeles as are dated works in classified styles by named architects.” He also thanks Esther McCoy’s “one-woman crusade” to have the monuments of Southern California modernism appreciated, but of these kind of approaches he states baldly “there is no need to try and write it again…”
Instead, in hopes of accommodating the broad range of artifacts in the city and explaining how they came to be, Banham proposes to “deviate from accepted norms for architectural histories of cities,” to “present the architecture (in a fairly conventional sense of the word) within the topographical and historical context of the total artifact that constitutes Greater Los Angeles…” In working with that context, Banham argues, “the polymorphous architectures” will be bound into “a comprehensible unity that cannot often be discerned by comparing monument with monument out of context.”
As Anthony Vidler has noted, German urban geographer Anton Wagner’s 1935 Los Angeles. Werden, Leben und Gestalt der Zweimillionenstadt in S?É¬ºdkalifornien, (Los Angeles. The Development, Life, and Form of the Southern Californian Metropolis) was a major influence on Banham. The first book listed in Four Ecologies’ “Drive-In Bibliography,” Wagner’s project is the earliest great intellectual attempt to understand the city on its own terms. As Banham will do later, Wagner eschews more traditional forms of writing about urbanism to interprets Los Angeles as a st?É¬§dtische Landschaft, or urban landscape, reading the city as the product of Americans confronting the forces of nature.
In contrast to the stable terrain of Europe, Wagner sees Los Angeles shaped by a “geological dynamism” echoed in the city’s extremely rapid growth. The result, Wagner writes, is that “Especially for the current form of Los Angeles, becoming is more characteristic than being.” Again providing a model that Banham will adopt for Four Ecologies, Wagner describes the physical artifacts of the city as parts of that landscape, writing evocatively of the “drilling tower forests” of the oil fields or the “fa?É¬ßade landscapes” that began as Hollywood’s stage-sets and spread, like weeds, throughout the city.
The city’s terrain produces the character of the city’s inhabitants, Wagner concludes. The difficulty of reaching Southern California means that only mobile, entrepreneurial and adventurous individuals make the journey to Los Angeles, leaving conservatives and the timid behind. Writing during the early days of the Third Reich, Wagner traces this personality-type to “the battle-ready Calvinistic spirit that forged the organism and the military basis upon which Prussia and the German Empire alone could have been developed.” Chillingly, Wagner concludes with Los Angeles as a model for the expansion of the German city in the 1930s and an affirmation of the need for Lebensraum, a policy that became the basis for Hitler’s desire to expand the Reich eastward.
Politics aside, Banham certainly shared Wagner’s interest in understanding Los Angeles as a total landscape and drew on Wagner’s method for Four Ecologies. Like Wagner, Banham suggests, the “extraordinary mixture of geography, climate, economics, demography, mechanics and culture” must be understood as a whole. To this end, Banham divides the city into the four ecologies, each giving rise to particular flora and fauna. Each of the ecologies””?Surfurbia, the Foothills, the Plains of Id, and Autopia””?is discussed in a discrete chapter covering its spatial boundaries and geologic qualities, historical evolution, and the categorizations of the architectural species it gives rise to.
And yet, Four Ecologies refuses to conform to the topographical clarity of that method, embodied so clearly””?and thereby deceptively””?in the title. On the contrary, between each ecology, Banham inserts historical sections on architecture””?Exotic Pioneers, Fantastic, The Exiles, and The Style that Nearly…””?as well as a second set, even less clearly linked””?In the Rearview Mirror (the Introduction), The Transportation Palimpsest, The Art of the Enclave, A Note on Downtown …, and an Ecology for Architecture (the Conclusion). These intervening sections do not have any readily apparent connection to their associated ecologies. The result thoroughly confuses the clarity of the ecologies schema. The confusion does not go unnoted by Banham. On the contrary, it is very much his intent. He writes:
Everyday commuting tends less and less to move by the classic systole and diastole in and out of downtown, more and more to move by an almost random or Brownian motion over the whole area. The chapters that follow are intended to invite the reader to do the same; only the history of modern architecture is treated in anything like chronological order, and can be read in historical sequence. The rest is to be visited at the reader’s choice or fancy, with that freedom of movement that is the prime symbolic attribute of the Angel City.
If Banham feels the need to forgo the literary devices of New Journalism in this book defending the city””?a matter requiring a degree of formality””? Four Ecologies will not only retain a fascination with mass culture it will also have a remarkable freedom in organization that echoes the psychogeographic organization of Los Angeles.
The result is less a master narrative or historical monograph and more an archive of the city in the sense of the word as used by Michel Foucault:
bq. The archive … determines that all these things said do not accumulate endlessly in an amorphous mass, nor are they inscribed in an unbroken linearity, nor do they disappear at the mercy of chance external accidents; but they are grouped together in distinct figures, composed together in accordance with multiple relations, maintained or blurred in accordance with specific regularities.
Organized as a sprawling textual landscape in which one can take dérives at will, Four Ecologies is not so much a static text as a set of relationships, simultaneously a historical narrative and a cartographic survey of a territory, both understood not as continuous but as a overlapping palimpsests of discontinuous systems.
The result is an early postmodern cognitive map in the sense described by Fredric Jameson in his seminal 1983 essay “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” Now that capital has colonized culture completely, Jameson concludes, it is impossible for us to choose an outside vantage point from which to regard it. The result is a state of delirium beyond all boundaries of individual comprehension, a postmodern hyperspace in which we can no longer locate our own position. Maps claiming to mirror reality, such as those produced by Haussmann or Marx, are impossible as are any master plans predicated on such knowledge. In place of the total map, Jameson proposes “an aesthetic of cognitive mapping” that he describes as “a pedagogical political culture which seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system.” Rather than a call for a renewed attempt at total understanding, the aesthetic of cognitive mapping is by nature incomplete, beginning from a position of inadequacy and incorporating an acknowledgement of the total map’s impossibility. Four Ecologies fits Jameson’s model well. Having abandoned any pretense towards fixing the problem of the city with a master plan, Banham instead gives us a Living City Survival Kit in a book, giving an incomplete postmodern map of the city that best embodies an affluent, mobile, late capitalist consumer culture. Four Ecologies is, then, performative, demonstrating the processes of spatial location in that culture through its own organization, as it remains studiously unwilling to provide a total map of condition.
If Four Ecologies is a psychogeographic textual drift through the real live city of Non-Plan, then what of the role of the image, the signpost that might inflect this drift? Not only is the sign key to Non-Plan, “imageability” is crucial to Banham’ idea of une architecture autre. To be sure, this is a major attraction of the city’s signscape to Banham, but the image is also structurally key to the text. For a book with 123 images interspersed in 226 pages of text cannot merely be a straight narrative, it has to be understood as a photo essay.
The photographs are key to Banham’s argument. Of the 100+ photos in the book, Banham casually mixes images by architectural photographers Julius Schulman, Marvin Rand, and Ezra Stoller with photographs from historical archives, photographs he takes himself, and, most curiously, four photographs from Ed Ruscha’s Thirty-Four Parking Lots. The relatively low quality of photographic reproduction in Four Ecologies reduces all images to a similar, documentarian status, undoing the different aesthetic intents of the photographers. The role of the Ruscha photographs is the most complex. Banham removes them from their original context, employing them merely as aerial photographs documenting areas of the city. Their art status is further confused when Banham includes other aerial photos taken not by Ruscha but by companies specializing in aerial photography for commercial purposes. Complicating matters still further, at least one of Ruscha’s aerial photographs””?of parking at Dodger Stadium””?is itself taken not by Ruscha but by a commercial service in 1959.
Ruscha, however, was more than just a source of parking lot images. On the contrary, Banham required a native guide to the city’s built domain and in his “Drive-in Bibliography” he made it clear who that was: “for a view of the typical Angeleno building and environment ‘like it is’, we have no substitute as yet for the extraordinary picture books assembled by Ed Ruscha, most notably Some Los Angeles Apartments…1965; Every Building on the Sunset Strip… 1966; and Thirty-Four Parking Lots in Los Angeles…1967.”
In their documentation of urban banality, on initial glance, Ruscha’s photographs resemble those printed in books that criticize the city and the suburb, in particular the work of William Garnett. His story itself is rather curious. Garnett had been hired by the developers of the Long Beach/Los Angeles suburb Lakewood to show the assembly line construction of the development: the grading and trenching of the land, the erection of foundations and slabs, and the construction of framing and finishing of the houses. By the time of Peter Blake’s 1964 God’s Own Junkyard, however, the photographs had become symbols of environmental devastation and in 1969, Garnett, then viewed as an accomplished photographer and Chairman of the Department of Visual Arts at the University of California at Berkeley would be given co-author status for Nathanial Owings’s The American Aesthetic, a book to which he contributed the bulk of the images. By this point, Garnett’s photographs were meant to be understood as political avant-garde: both aesthetic and critical, hence the title of the book. If Garnett moved from prosaic documentary photographer””?he had also worked for the Pasadena police department””?to environmentalist and art photographer, Ruscha moved in the opposite direction. For Ruscha did not so much flip the valence on Garnett’s project as turn it off.
Ruscha’s aerial photographs of parking lots””?like all of his ventures into serial photography at this time””?do not purport to be art, they claim to be documentarian. Thirty-Four Parking Lots in Los Angeles is nothing more than a typology of parking lots, attaining aesthetic unity only as a typological study. Lacking any explanatory framework, the parking lots can only be linked formally. The book is there only to draw attention to the formal aspects of the subject. In other words, Ruscha’s concern is only with the frame. His photographic projects are not aesthetic in their own right, but rather serve to re-frame the subject matter.
In this they act much like Tony Smith’s recollection of his nighttime drive on the unopened New Jersey Turnpike, a foundational statement for the development of conceptual art:
bq. When I was teaching at Cooper Union in the first year or two of the #03950s, someone told me how I could get on to the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. I took three students and drove from somewhere in the Meadows to New Brunswick. It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markers, lines, railings or anything at all except the dark pavement moving through the landscape of the flats, rimmed by hills in the distance, but punctuated by stacks, towers, fumes and colored lights. This drive was a revealing experience. The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. …On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done. At first I didn’t know what it was, but its effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had had about art. It seemed that there had been a reality there which had not had any expression in art.
The experience on the road was something mapped out but not socially recognized. I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that’s the end of art. Most paintings look pretty pictorial after that. There is no way you can frame it, you just have to experience it. Later I discovered some abandoned airstrips in Europe — abandoned works, Surrealist landscapes, something that had nothing to do with any function, created worlds without tradition. Artificial landscape without cultural precedent began to dawn on me. This is a drill ground in Nuremberg, large enough to accommodate two million men. The entire field is enclosed with high embankments and towers. The concrete approach is three 16-inch steps, one above the other, stretching for a mile or so.
This approach to re-framing the subject matter, be it by Ruscha or Smith, is ultimately more sophisticated than that of Robert Smithson’s 1967 “Monuments of Passaic New Jersey,” in which a devalued landscape is turned into art through the artist’s shaman-like actions. Instead, like Smith, Ruscha suspends judgement of the Los Angeles cityscape and refuses to compromise the documentarian qualities of his book in favor of the sheer impact of the experience, one parking lot, one dingbat apartment building, or one building on the Sunset Strip after another.
In a 1971 article for Casabella, Kenneth Frampton remarks on Ruscha’s photographs as a way of contrasting the photographer with Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who Frampton sees as being blindly enthusiastic about consumer culture:
For is not the objectivity of Ruscha say, very comparable to the objectivity of a ‘value free scientist? The essence of Ruscha’s photo folders is surely that of the alienated environment augmented by subsequent alienation through dead pan photographic record. … For far from having an affinity to their kitsch subject matter, Ruscha’s photos are solely clinical observation, made nonetheless objective through their fixation on motopia; swinging through the open city from car park to gas station, to apartment, to swimming pool, to stadia, evoking a cycle of restless, secular, homogeneous movement.
Banham’s own photographs are mainly of vernacular buildings in Los Angeles, illustrations for a point, neither overt snapshots nor studied compositions. Banham’s use of photography, coupled with his psychogeographic strategy of (dis-) organizing the text leads us to conclude that like Ruscha, Banham’s goal is to present Los Angeles ‘like it is’ and nothing more. The “cycle of restless, secular, homogeneous movement” that Frampton sees in Ruscha is present in the way Banham employs photography in Four Ecologies as well: the photographs meander in and out of the argument. Thus in Ecology I, Surfurbia, images of beach cities are interspersed with Craig Ellwood’s elegant Hunt House in Malibu, a large two page map, a historical photo of Santa Monica Canyon from 1870, surf-board art, Huntington Beach and Santa Monica piers, and an image of “Dereliction at Pacific Ocean Park.” Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wayfarer’s Chapel is juxtaposed to the eerily similar aesthetic of “Beautified oil rigs off Long Beach.” Into the staid section “Architecture I: Exotic Pioneers,” on early modernism in the city, Banham inexplicably drops a Ruscha aerial of Dodger Stadium parking and so on. As a result, the photo essay itself not only organizes the book, it serves to prompt thinking about the city’s discontinuous nature and the bizarre juxtapositions that can be found in it.
But why study Los Angeles? Strangely the introduction doesn’t ever quite explain. Motives are, however scattered throughout the book. For Banham Los Angeles is the greatest manifestation of Non-Plan to date. “Conventional standards of planning do not work in Los Angeles,” he writes, “it feels more natural (I put it no stronger than that) to leave the effective planning of the area to the mechanisms that have already given the city its present character: the infrastructure to giant agencies like the Division of Highways and the Metropolitan Water District and their like; the intermediate levels of management to the subdivision and zoning ordinances; the detail decisions to local and private initiatives; with ad hoc interventions by city, State, and pressure-groups formed to agitate over matters of clear ad present need. But Los Angeles is also not the generic city of a Non-Plan future. Banham makes this clear: “no city has ever been produced by such an extraordinary mixture of geography, climate, economics, demography, mechanics and culture; nor is it likely than an even remotely similar mixture will ever occur again.”
Still, if Los Angeles is so unique, why does it merit a book-length treatment? Buried in the text on “Fantastic” architecture in the city, Banham notes that
bq. …Los Angeles sums up a general phenomenon of U S life; the convulsions in building style that follow when traditional cultural and social restraints have been overthrown and replaced by the preferences of a mobile, affluent, consumer-oriented society, in which ‘cultural values’ and ancient symbols are handled primarily as methods of claiming or establishing status.
Within this milieu, Banham is compelled to point out, architecture has flourished and there is a widespread sense of possibilities. Even if “The permissive atmosphere means that almost anything can be started,” he observes that as far as residential architecture at least, the Case Study approach has had its day. Although it may yet have a second life in industrial architecture, good modern architecture seems to be permitted in the city, but not embraced.
Banham closes his book with “An Ecology for Architecture.” In this chapter he lists the large number of architectural monuments the city has produced and suggests
bq. Such a very large body of first-class and highly original architecture cannot be brushed off as an accident, an irrelevance upon the face of an indifferent dystopia. If Los Angeles is one of the world’s leading cities in architecture, then it is because it is a sympathetic ecology for architectural design, and it behoves the world’s architects to find out why.
Banham implies then, that even if planning is inappropriate for an affluent, mobile, consumer society, architecture can thrive within it but only as one style among others. Modern architecture is stripped of any lingering moral stance and becomes only an instance of taste, a “statement about the culture of individualism” something already evident with the “dingbat” two-story apartment block: “Everything is there from Tacoburger Aztec to Wavy-Lane Moderne, from Cod Cape Cod to unsupported Jaoul vaults, from Gourmet Mansardic to Polynesian Gabled and even””?in extremity””?Modern Architecture.”
If Banham understands that any call for modernism has finally been reduced from a question of morality and rational planning to a question of individual taste and consumerism, then what’s left of modernity? The answer corresponds to Manfredo Tafuri’s observation in Architecture and Utopia that modernity results not so much in a physical change to the metropolis but merely in an adjustment in its viewing and lies quite literally in Los Angeles. The Architecture of Four Ecologies itself: what remains at the end of the modern project is the experience of the city and the observer’s pleasure in the psychogeographic experience of drifting on the boulevards and freeways of the city.
Is this a negative result? For diehard modernists still hoping to reform the city, yes, but not only does Four Ecologies suggest an expanded field for architectural historiography, it implicitly urges architects to abandon their naïve trust in the ideology of the avant-garde and instead to find ways to appeal to the consumer while it paves the way for research projects by future generations that continue the project of the cognitive mapping of the city. For without Banham’s re-framing of Los Angeles, could we really imagine the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s research into the landscape or Rem Koolhaas’s gaze on the Generic City? Post-Banham, the city itself is the last great, collective work, inexhaustibly rich, it’s our task is to map it.