Book review: Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies

Oct 1, 2013
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Photography by Richard Weller
  • Designer

Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies
Reyner Banham
University of California Press
Paperback | 296pp | $26.95

First published in 1971 Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies is by now well established as a classic of (Post)modern architectural journalism (‘journalism’ is meant in the best possible way: well researched, concise, erudite and above all, polemical). Trained as an art historian under the auspices of British academic Nikolaus Pevsner, Banham intentionally avoids the pomp and ceremony of academic writing and as such is a pleasure to read.

Something was in the air in the early seventies as both Banham and US architect Robert Venturi more or less simultaneously headed west into the badlands of American popular culture. Where Venturi discovered a liberating Esperanto of (illegitimate) signification in Las Vegas, Banham’s spiritual home and primary subject became Los Angeles, California. There, famously learning to drive so, as he put it, “to read Los Angeles in the original”, Banham tracked the roots of what we now call sprawl, or less pejoratively and more correctly, polycentric urbanism. 

In a mere 296 pages The Architecture of Four Ecologies provides both a history of Los Angeles and a chequered survey of its hitherto largely ignored Modern and Postmodern architectural virtues. The “four ecologies”, interestingly enough, are simple subdivisions of the city’s geomorphology and car-based culture that in turn structure the book. There is little in Banham’s analysis that is “ecological” in contemporary terms.

Banham means ecology in the sense that certain infrastructures create certain growth patterns and architectural objects are best understood in relation to that larger condition. Accordingly, he describes how, with such bravado LA evolved after the initial annexation of water from the Owens Valley – an umbilicus that feeds its paradisiacal delusions to this day. With the otherwise arid petri dish of the LA basin and the adjacent San Fernando valley wetted down, it was then the Pacific Electric Railway network and later the freeways, which enabled LA to become the monstrous beauty it is today.

For Banham the freeways are “one of the greater works of man”. He even admires the earthworks of the off-ramps as pleasant views for the surrounding flatland of suburbia, where “the dream, the illusion holds still”. In visiting now, however, one will find the most recent casualties of global capitalism “camping” in these Ballardian wastelands. For Banham though, ‘freewayland’ is the apotheosis of the futuristic no-place that his beloved Angelinos are, according to him, perfectly happy with. It is only visiting “snobs” who see an apocalyptic dystopia.

Inside the macro story of Los Angeles’ unlikely path toward megacity status Banham also tells another of considerable architectural detail. Prior to what would become known as Critical Regionalism, Banham searches out a vernacular Modernism and finds it variously in architects such as Irving Gill, Craig Ellwood, Richard Dorman, John Lautner and of course Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra and the early Frank Gehry.

Along with these now well-known icons of southern Californian living, Banham finds merit in the “dingbat” architecture of cheap residential enclaves. He lauds roadside buildings, where the sign is bigger than the box; he enjoys Disneyland and adores Simon Rodia’s DIY Watts Towers built over a thirty-year period from scrap. Drive-in churches … and so on.

And so, for the well-credentialled English art historian, now high on sunshine, speed and surf, anything that screams “I am not European civilisation” is good. But what impresses him most and what is perhaps the most important discovery of the “four ecologies” is that the Postmodern city needs neither a centre nor a certain level of density to be a thriving metropolis. Nor, given LA’s market-driven and fragmented planning system, does a city need a masterplan.

And, if all that is true – and here is the most important statement in the whole book – Banham says Los Angeles proves that “[a]ll the most admired theorists of the [twentieth] century, from the Futurists, and Le Corbusier to Jane Jacobs and Sibyl Moholy-Nagy have been wrong”.

If Banham is right, and he might well be, because despite low rankings in world liveability indices LA is becoming more ‘liveable’, then he’d said good riddance to ‘new’ urbanism before it even existed. On the other hand, Banham’s LA comes too early to be pitted against Koolhaas’ vertical antithesis in the form of Delirious New York, but since Banham’s death in 1988 Los Angeles has, through transit-oriented infill, become the densest city in the US.

In any event, both Koolhaas and Banham would surely agree that with the right catalytic mix of water, power and mobility a city could take on its own extraordinary shape without too much help from either architects or planners. Indeed, as LA attests and what Banham recognised and loved was the fact that what really drives high-octane cities such as Los Angeles, is a compelling but ultimately unattainable vision of the good life.

Conversation • 3 comments

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02 Oct 13 at 1:44 PM • tone wheeler

The point about Banham is that he could really write: style and substance, content and a command of the language. Architecture’s Nabokov. You don’t get nearly enough of that these days. Which is why we are reviewing books from 40 years ago n’est ce pas?

04 Oct 13 at 3:26 PM • Kieran McInerney

check out page 199, Danziger Studio, Frank Gehry 1968- kind of Adolf Loos in New Mexico

04 Oct 13 at 6:38 PM • Michael Holt

Tone – it’s best that this review is read in the context of AR131 Present. It’s reviewed here to suggest a fluctuation between now and then, past and future. A questioning of where we’re at as a discipline. What you’re alluding to is a similar line of enquiry to AR131: do we produce innovative aspects or repeat/tick a box?



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