Urban Design Library

Los Angeles, The Architecture of Four Ecologies

Urban Design Library #22
Rayner Banham

City of Angels. Smogville. Tinsel Town. Internal Combustion City. Los Angeles has long attracted epithets and put-downs, whilst also generating its own mythology in Hollywood. Does the city deserve the flak it has received? In 1971 an intrigued English academic set out to retrieve something of Los Angeles’ Reputation and to find out what makes it so distinctive.

Peter Rayner Banham (1922-88) was Professor of Architectural History at the Bartlett in the sixties and seventies, who also lived and taught at various American institutions. He published several books including Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, and was an early chronicler of Brutalism. Banham also contributed essays and reviews to many newspapers and periodicals.

Los Angeles is Banham’s best known work and has rarely been out of print since its publication in 1972. The book also inspired a BBC film, Rayner Banham Loves Los Angeles (still available online) in which the presenter’s tall, heavily bearded form explores the boulevards and freeways like an urban Attenborough.

The city’s short but eventful history is outlined, beginning with its roots in the Spanish colony on the plain and the Mexican ranchos. Los Angeles grew rapidly; at the time of writing, Banham observed that the urban area was 70 miles across but, apart from a few remnants, was barely seventy years deep. Accordingly, the author foregoes a chronological narrative for a thematic approach, interleaving chapters on architecture with four themes or ‘ecologies’. These are labelled as Surfurbia, Foothills, the Plains of Id and Autopia, ranging across the territory from the sea to the mountains.

In the 1920s Aldous Huxley described Los Angeles as 19 suburbs in search of a metropolis. And whilst LA has claim to a heart around the old Mexican pueblo, its centre is far less evident than in any other city of its size. Banham offers no more than a footnote on downtown ‘for that is all it deserves’. Instead, the focus is on the suburbs of Watts, Santa Monica and Venice Beach, as well as the strips connecting them, especially the twelve miles of Wilshire Boulevard.

Like other outside commentators - Rasmussen in London, Mary McCarthy in Florence - Banham provides a detached and perceptive view of his subject. Whilst not uncritical, the book is ultimately a love letter to a city that breaks all the European rules of compact and concentrated spatial organisation. Quoting Richard Austin Smith, Banham says that the LA will only be fully understood by those who can move freely through its diffuse urban texture: ‘...so, like earlier generations of English intellectuals who taught themselves Italian in order to read Dante in the original, I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original’.

On his journey Banham explodes some myths. Whilst LA is undoubtedly a city of the automobile, its form was not made by it. Instead it was the railways that first linked distant townships and the city spread seaward from the hills, rather than growing inland from the port. The Camino Real, the old Spanish military road, provided another, north-south axis. Banham emphasises the vital role of water and power supplies in the city’s growth, a topic familiar to viewers of Polanski’s Chinatown.

Banham makes a surprising and questionable claim of Los Angeles as a walkable city, pointing out that the 12 mile commercial strip of Wilshire Boulevard is only one block deep, and with residential development immediately behind, allows in theory at least, only a short stroll to work or to the shops.

The book does not set out to be an architectural guide of Los Angeles, on the reasonable grounds that others had already done that job. But the author writes well about the houses of the wealthy in the Hollywood Hills, designed and beautifully crafted by Richard Neutra, Frank Lloyd Wright and Rudolph Schindler. Noting trends in contemporary architecture, Banham praises a new studio designed by a young Frank Gehry.

Turning to commercial buildings, Banham likens them to making a hamburger. Bread and the beef patty provide the structure, but garnish is also needed (it seems that slivers of red apple were de rigueur in 1971). So too with buildings on the strip, their simple shed-like forms vigorously embellished with all manner of colours, decoration and signage. In making this observation Banham anticipates Venturi and Scott Brown’s inquiry, Learning from Las Vegas.

Like many classics, Los Angeles it is both of its time and timeless. Almost half a century has passed, the city is even bigger and much else changed; greater intensification downtown, a heightened environmental awareness, even, at long last, an operational rapid transit system. But it is still a city facing high levels of deprivation and homicide, fuelled by drug crime, gangs and racism.

What does Banham’s book offer to urban designers today? The vibrancy of LA is evident, but the city is an extreme contrast from the European urban model, with its well-defined and fine-grained core ringed with suburbs on a walkable scale. LA is the product of an exceptional set of circumstances, almost certainly unrepeatable. The book is hardly a manual of best practice and at one level serves as a counterblast to the doctrines of Banham’s contemporaries, Kevin Lynch and Jane Jacobs. This alone makes it a refreshing read.

The vitality of the text matches that of its subject, without being tempted to its sprawl. The monochrome photographs are well chosen, if sometimes rather sootily reproduced, and there are useful maps drawn by Mary Banham.

URBAN DESIGN 143 Summer 2017 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 143 Summer 2017

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Read On

Rayner Banham | Loves Los Angeles | https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=WlZ0NbC-YDo
Read on Peter Hall, 1998 | Cities in Civilisation | Weidenfeld and Nicholson
Deyan Sudjic,1992 | 100 Mile City | Harcourt Brace
Mike Davis, 1990 | City of Quartz | Vintage
Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown, 1968 | Learning from Las Vegas | MIT Press

Los Angeles, The Architecture of Four Ecologies Publication Urban Design Group
Reviewed By
Geoff Noble, urban design and heritage consultant