Los Angeles magazine, March 2009
Great news for Los Angeles’s freeways, strip malls, and glass houses: Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies is being reissued after almost 40 years (University of California Press, 281 pages, $23). Few books have shifted popular understanding of this city and its visual style as forcefully as Banham’s. When it was first published in 1971, Los Angeles was suffering under the twin afflictions of abysmal air quality and widespread cultural disdain. “The smelliest,…most uncivilised major city in the United States,” sniffed one British journalist Banham quoted. Another complained of the metropolis’s penchant for “sinless joy and joyless sin.”
Banham, who had studied modern art and architecture at London’s prestigious Courtauld Institute and was an influential critic for leftist journals, might have been expected to sneer as well—either at Los Angeles’s gimcrack pastiche of historical styles or at the profligacy of its car culture. Instead he approached his subject with the fervor of a knight riding to the aid of a much-dissed damsel. “No city,” he claimed with love’s absolutism, “has ever been produced by such an extraordinary mixture of geography, climate, economics, demography, mechanics and culture.”
What detractors derided as confusion, Banham celebrated as variety. What they called L.A.’s monotony—the low buildings and sense of endless suburbia—he redefined as its unity, including the local fondness for terra-cotta roof tile. The Spanish colonial revival style, he wrote, was well suited to “the ecological and psychological facts of life in the area” and as much a part of L.A. as its weather. A habitual bicyclist, Banham was over 40 when he first visited Southern California in 1965, but in an act of supreme devotion to Our Lady the Queen of Freeways he learned to drive, explaining that “like earlier generations of English intellectuals who taught themselves Italian in order to read Dante,” he wanted “to read Los Angeles in the original.”
To be hailed as unique should have stroked L.A.’s boomtown sense of destiny, but as architect Joe Day writes in his foreword to the new edition, some local noses—critics Peter Plagens’s and Mike Davis’s—were put seriously out of joint. No doubt part of the book’s problem was also its pleasure: Banham’s exquisite British prose. Though an outsider, he exuded withering confidence. Recognizing that the standard pattern of urban development—a city that creeps outward from its center—could not begin to explain L.A.’s precisely gridded, intermittently populated sprawl, Banham rejected architectural historians’ traditional focus on periods and styles. Instead The Architecture of Four Ecologies divides the L.A. basin into a series of ideograms. One, “The Art of the Enclave,” is devoted to varieties of planned communities, from Rolling Hills’ ranchettes to Burbank’s revitalized, “pedestrianized” downtown. Most influential are Banham’s vividly named “ecologies”: Surfurbia, Foothills, the Plains of Id, and Autopia. Based on topography except for the last—which takes the startling view that L.A.’s freeways form a life zone unto themselves—Banham’s groupings uncover common themes in the city’s far-flung locales.
Water-facing suburbs from Malibu to Corona del Mar, he says, lack a civic center; rather, they concentrate public life linearly along pedestrian shore walks. These egalitarian promenades warm Banham’s populist heart. Along with the shared vista, they provide a public arena for idiosyncratic accomplishment, be it bodybuilding or surfboard graphics. Hillside neighborhoods, by contrast, offer tortuous, unwalkable streets and jealously guard their views behind thickets of old-world shrubbery, the better to create the air—at once snug and wild—of what Banham, also admiring and with no sense of contradiction, calls the ultimate middle-class suburban dream: “deeply buried privacy.”
Four decades later these observations still seem sharp and illuminating. Few aspects of the city are beneath his notice. The old-world shrubbery, unlike tropical greenery, gets its effect from small leaves; Disneyland, with its steam trains, monorails, and riverboats, offers Los Angeles its most illicit pleasure: mobility. His pronouncements are so persuasive—and remain so true—that it’s easy to forget that L.A. was, at the time of his book’s publication, the darkly dysfunctional home of carousing rock stars, teenage runaways, and the Manson murders. Counter- and antiwar culture make no appearance in Four Ecologies, but its subject, after all, is architecture. Bones, not flesh.
When Banham was born, in 1922, Britain was in a brief, hectic, stricture-loosening hiatus between World War I and the Depression. His birthplace, Norwich, was a smallish city whose principal industry, like Hartford’s, was insurance. Banham later characterized it as a provincial byway where “people who might just have made the big time with an effort relax and go small-time instead.” Architecture, still an upper-class pursuit when he was growing up, was not in his sights. The men in his family worked with—and were obsessed with—machinery. Banham took up engineering at a local technical college at the start of World War II, then worked in an airplane plant, but the job and the stress got to him, and he was let go. His response, familiar to many Californians though less common in England, was to reinvent himself. It took him two tries before he was accepted to the tony Courtauld in 1949. Not bad for a working-class techie from the provinces. He expected to become an art critic.
Norwich offered one worldly perk: proximity to an American air force base. Comic books from the PX were one of Banham’s early passions, but he also discovered the local bijou repertory company, thanks to visiting American officers, including Jimmy Stewart. In London Banham’s taste for both high and low culture—and his ability to play one off the other—made him a core member of the Independent Group, a collection of experimental artists and writers whose interest in disposable images and innovative technology prefigured the pop art explosion.
Modern architecture attracted him, not least because it allowed him to pair his interest in aesthetics with social engineering. His sympathies tended to the practical rather than the theoretical. Well-painted ice cream wagons pleased him; the suggestion, common in educated circles, that good design was somehow over most people’s heads did not. After graduation, as a columnist for The New Statesman he could follow an essay on Noguchi with an ode to the voluptuous postwar Cadillac. Meanwhile his wide-ranging antiestablishment perspective was a perfect fit with the times. He began his teaching career at University College, London, when the students invited him to lecture. By 1968, in a major coup of self-invention, he was named Britain’s first-ever professor of architectural history.
In the 1972 film Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, the rangy professor in leather jacket, beard, and beret can’t keep from grinning as he folds himself into his gizmo-outfitted coupe. To anyone raised in the insular hierarchies of small Waspy cities—and this includes not only Britons like Banham but New Englanders like myself—no amount of smog can make Los Angeles seem like anything but a breath of astonishingly fresh air. From his first visit, at the invitation of UCLA’s urban planning department, Banham found a hometown that matched his imagination: a place that “creates a feeling—illusory or not—that you can still produce results by bestirring yourself.”
Banham’s enthusiasm for the New World continued even after he moved to the United States in 1976 to teach at the universities of Buffalo and Santa Cruz. His later writings covered Southwestern deserts and Northeastern factories as well as Airstream trailers and the manufacturing history of the sheriff’s badge. When he died in 1988, he was about to take up a professorship at NYU.
With its successive maps of ranchos, railways, and Red Car lines, The Architecture of Four Ecologies is, among other things, a monument to tracing paper. Banham, the former engineer, was used to looking for systems. That there was a there here, architecturally speaking, had already been well established by local critics like David Gebhard and Esther McCoy when Banham arrived, and Four Ecologies praises them handsomely. Yet their chronicles of a vibrant modernist tradition concentrated on buildings. For Banham, L.A.’s charms lay not just in its beauty spots but in its wrinkles—googies, piers, and dingbats—and what they said about the city’s inhabitants.
Tom Wolfe, whose 1965 book The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby Banham reviewed admiringly, was the first to give California surf and custom-car art semiserious consideration, though critical appreciation of L.A.’s funkitecture lagged. Learning from Las Vegas, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s seminal reevaluation of strip-mall aesthetics, would not be published until a year after Four Ecologies; Charles Jencks’s Daydream Houses of Los Angeles, with its sly-sharp stylistic nomenclature, not for another seven. California Crazy, Jim Heimann’s paean to L.A.’s Brown Derbys and dog-shaped hot-dog stands, and The City Observed: Los Angeles, Charles Moore’s brilliant analysis of Disneyland, both appeared in the 1980s. Banham anticipated them all.
His writing on Los Angeles’s fantasy tiki restaurants and sign-laden roadscapes has none of Wolfe’s dandy’s distance. Banham is determined to introduce L.A. to a wider world, and he’s not ashamed to say he’s having fun. Long before reviews of casual restaurants were ubiquitous, Banham was deconstructing California’s signature burger, pickles included. Critics, he suggests, have better things to do than disapprove. Not that he talks down. His analysis of individual buildings, like Irving Gill’s demolished Dodge House or Craig Ellwood’s office buildings in El Segundo, offers plenty of technical detail, served without jargon or creaking academic syntax.
The Architecture of Four Ecologies is not always enamored of its subject. The chapter “A Note on Downtown” famously begins “…because that is all downtown Los Angeles deserves.” Nor is it always prescient. Banham saw commuter flights between satellite airports like Burbank and Long Beach as a long-lasting solution to freeway congestion. Yet even now, to look at his aerial view of the
I-10/405 interchange is to forget all the hours spent inching through its torn-up lanes and simply agree. The interchange is a work of art, full of rhythm, grit, and expansive grace—like Banham’s book itself. In one volume he does the near-impossible: He makes us see this fragmented city as a breathing whole. As he expected, its ephemerality has begun to look like a virtue. Los Angeles, the city built not to last, is the city that adapts.
Illustration by Guy Billout