Los Angeles : An Angel Cast as a Demon

People are not disturbed by things, but of the view they take of them.

Epictetus

Amongst joking jabs at Los Angeles’ contribution to culture through frozen yogurt, as well as countless references to what is falsely portrayed as its perpetual smog haze, Los Angeles has been the victim of mistaken identity. Though I am surely not the first to praise at least some of its virtues, Los Angeles, in spite of its size, accomplishments and contributions, has often been regarded as a fake and inferior metropolis. Perhaps this is due in part to its desert setting, and its consequent reliance on imported water for its own survival. Or perhaps over time, Los Angeles has seen Hollywood become its ambassador; A Hollywood which on its own terms has been accused of being the ambassador of fake and excess, whether that is an appropriate title or not. Whatever the root of this unjust label, I fail to see Los Angeles as a fabricated, unnatural city. Nothing is fake about the abundance of life that exists in this city. Nothing is fake about its constant evolution. And most importantly, nothing is fake about the still-not-completely-ravaged-and-certainly-salvageable natural landscape with which it must learn to coexist. This is the optimism that represents Los Angeles; an optimism that yields hope for a more synergetic future between man, nature and city.

There is also still a strong sense of having room to maneuver. The tradition of mobility that brought people here, sustained by the frenzy of internal motion ever since, and combined with the visible fact that most of the land is covered only thinly with very flimsy buildings, creates a feeling – illusionary or not – that you can still produce results by bestirring yourself. Unlike older cities back east – New York, Boston, London, Paris – where warring pressure groups cannot get out of one another’s hair because they are pressed together in a sacred labyrinth of cultural monuments and real-estate values, Los Angeles has room to swing the proverbial cat, flatten a few card-houses in the process, and clear the ground for improvements that the conventional type of metropolis can no longer contemplate.

p. 242, An Ecology for Architecture, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham

My needle is slow to settle, – varies a few degrees, and does not always point due southwest, it is true, and it has good authority for this variation, but it always settles between west and south-southwest. The future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side…Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free…We go eastward to realize history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race; we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure.

Walking, Henry David Thoreau

As an outsider, or rather as a new resident of Los Angeles, people often inquire as to whether or not I experienced culture shock upon first arrival. Invariably the answer is no, and in fact, Los Angeles feels a lot like home. And though the reason for its familiarity escaped me for some time, I finally came to realize that it is in fact one of its greatest strengths.

I spent most of my life growing up in Baie Sainte-Marie, what can only be described as a conglomerate of small villages, one next to the other, sprawling the south-western coast of Nova Scotia. The small French-Canadian region that I call home is made up of smaller, individual villages, whose borders are distinguished only by road signs, yet together they create a whole that is more interesting than any one town by itself. And this is the virtue of Los Angeles. In spite of its gargantuan population, moving through the city, more often than not, feels as natural and therapeutic as a Sunday stroll along a small town main street. Los Angeles is a collection of small towns on a massive scale; a conglomerate of big small towns.

But while we drive along the freeways that are its crowning glory or prime headache, and con the rear-view mirror for historical illumination, what shall be our route?…because the point about this giant city, which has grown almost simultaneously all over, is that all its parts are equal and equally accessible from all other parts at once. 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.

p. 36, In the Rear-view Mirror, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham

Just as Los Angeles itself is an infrastructural hybrid of small town and massive city, so too appears to be the mentality of Angelenos. In a city where one artist went as far as taking traffic matters into his own hands, a deed much more akin to small town resourcefulness – http://www.good.is/post/the-fake-freeway-sign-that-became-a-real-public-service/ one will also find various forms of celebration and reverence for the multicultural identity that defines Los Angeles, something usually more familiar to large urban areas.

Yet these small town traits might also be at the origin of any animosity that residents of other more conventional cities might feel towards Los Angeles. Whereas I feel at home in an environment style that is surprisingly similar to my rural motherland, New York City natives may dismiss the many virtues of Los Angeles for the very same reason. They simply don’t share the same familiarity.

Whatever the case, it is in my opinion that this ‘big small town’ attitude is the greatest virtue of Los Angeles. Not because it reminds me of a massive reinterpretation of my home or because it brings me comfort, but because like a rural village, in comparison to other great cities, the landscape of Los Angeles continues to share a great deal of space with nature, and for the most part, represents a diversity of neighborhoods throughout the region that hardly exists in any form of official hierarchy. And this is why I see Los Angeles in an optimistic light. Though there remains much work to be done, the Los Angeles network of big small towns representative of various architectural ecologies, has inherited the great assets of ceaseless sun, the endless horizon of the Pacific and the beaches that overlook it, as well as the greenery into which the city has imbedded itself. And by doing so, Los Angeles has embraced this defining topography as its ambassador. These assets are why Los Angeles is so often perceived as having a natural and relaxed state of mind in spite of its size. In the end, Los Angeles represents freedom, and freedom is natural. And where there is freedom, no person can truly feel like an outsider.

Freedom however, is synonymous with mobility; and for better or for worse, so is Los Angeles. Much like any small town, where point B is often practically unattainable from point A without some form of motorized vehicle, Los Angeles is home to the very same phenomenon.

…with that freedom of movement that is the prime symbolic attribute of the Angel City.

p. 36, In the Rear-view Mirror, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham

The city itself is the symbol of transportation throughout the world, and its urban landscape is representative of this very attribute. And though Los Angeles represents freedom, one can not fully experience this freedom without proper mobility. Whereas the natural, architectural, and cultural assets of Los Angeles lay down the ground work for the freedom that defines the city, only through mobility does that freedom actually come to life. And if Los Angeles is to build and improve on its present form, which is the only logical thing to do, freedom of mobility within a hybridized natural/urban landscape will remain the constant in the equation to a successful Southern California metropolis.

…and the language of design, architecture, and urbanism in Los Angeles is the language of movement. Mobility outweighs monumentality there to a unique degree, as Richard Austin Smith pointed out in a justly famous article in 1965, and the city will never be fully understood by those who cannot move fluently through its diffuse urban texture, cannot go with the flow of its unprecedented life.

p. 23, In the Rear-view MIrror, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham

Tools do not introduce new principles but they greatly extend the range of conditions under which the discovered control principle may be effectively employed by man.

p. 112, Chapter 7: integral functions, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, Buckminster R. Fuller

And in spite of all its faults, and there are many, the automobile has insofar been the most successful variable at attempting to solve this equation.

A city as wide-ranging and free as Los Angeles cannot be adequately served solely by straight transit lines or intermittent bus stops. These transportation solutions have without a doubt a very important role to play, but could never carry the burden, by themselves, of providing transportation to Angelenos. In many instances, Angelenos require something closer in character to walking, the most natural of all transportation solutions. But in a city as large as Los Angeles, and where there is no true hub of activity, but rather a collection of hubs, walking from point A to point B is more often than not a practical impossibility. Bicycles are an attractive alternative, but the stark truth is that when employed in distances as great as the ones present in Los Angeles, they remain, for the time being at least, an option considered by only part of the population: the young and the truly athletic. Visions of an aging population embarking on daily bicycle excursions of fifty-plus kilometers are ill-fated once reality takes hold. And so in seeing the automobile in a light of compromise and as a tool for transportation, no other solution comes as close to greatly extending the range of conditions under which the discovered control principle of walking may be amplified by man in a realistic and daily scenario. No other solution, for now, offers adequate freedom of mobility to a region as important in scale as Los Angeles. (More on this here)

And so it is my opinion that automobiles, or some form of personal motorized transportation, will continue to have a place in Los Angeles, much like in the rural areas that the city so closely resembles. Upon closer consideration, it is not the concept of personal mobility that must be abandoned, but rather our execution of it that must evolve and transform into something much more sustainable, much safer, and much more capable of easier interaction with other intracity and intercity transportation solutions. In other words, an outright discard of one hundred-plus years of automotive evolution is clearly unacceptable. Instead, building upon the foundations of the automobile, that is to say isolating its triumphs from its failures, and refining those triumphs into a more advanced solution, seems like the more reasonable approach. In the penmanship of nature itself, evolution yields longer lasting and more favorable results than radical change.

In this regard, Los Angeles and the automobile are synonymous in more ways than one. Much like the automobile, the relatively young city of Los Angeles has seen both triumph and failure. And once again, evolution must be favored over radical change. But contrary to popular belief, the automobile is merely the effect of systems built beforehand, rather than the cause of the sprawl of which it is falsely accused.

‘A city built on transport’ – like all truisms it offers a misleading truth, because it is persistently interpreted as referring only to automobile transport…Motorized transportation is almost as much of a recent epiphenomenon on the basic city of Los Angeles as it is in any other major metropolis. However, the less densely built-up urban structure of the Los Angeles basin has permitted more conspicuous adaptations to be made for motor transport than would be possible elsewhere without wrecking the city…The freeway system is the third or fourth transportation diagram drawn on a map that is a deep palimpsest of earlier methods of moving about the basin.

p. 75, The Transportation Palimpsest, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham

The motor age, from the mid-twenties onwards, again tended to confirm the going pattern, and the freeway network that now traverses the city, which has since added major aerospace industries to its economic armoury, conspicuously parallels the five first railways out of the pueblo.

p. 35, In the Rear-view MIrror, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham

The Big Red Cars ran all over the Los Angeles area – literally all over. The route map of the PE (Pacific Electric) at its point of greatest extension, when it opened 1,164 miles of track in fifty-odd communities pretty well defines Greater Los Angeles as it is today.

p. 82, The Transportation Palimpsest, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham

And by understanding this, we come to understand that the automobile may not be quite as villainous as first thought, and that in the case of Los Angeles at least, it may simply be a first attempt at solving the transportation dilemma within Los Angeles County, the legacy of sprawling trails followed by sprawling trains, that by themselves, simply do not provide an adequate transportation solution for such a large and diverse terrain. Yet together with an evolved personal transportation system, as well as parallel mass transit options, these trains may once again propel Angelenos from one ‘big small town’ to another. These are all solutions to be added to the palimpsest in an effort to favorably modify the landscape.

As with Miracle Mile, Los Angeles has done what we are always told it will do, but rarely does in fact – prototyped a new solution for other cities to contemplate.

p. 91, The Transportation Palimpsest, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham

At it’s most extreme, it [Los Angeles] can become a naïvely nonchalant reliance on a technology that may not quite exist yet.

p. 242, An Ecology for Architecture, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham

Despite the optimistic tone of the above paragraphs, I am fully aware of the problems that face both present day and future Los Angeles. (There are too many to list within the boundaries of this paragraph and they’re all too obvious to be worth a mention at this time. In any case, the existence of the Astronauto Vol. 1 project is above all an effort at finding solutions to these problems. Consequently, they will invariably come to light at some point in the upcoming chapters.)

This is the part of the walk where I almost die, and it happens in the most unexpected and silly place.

Walking in L.A., Ryan Bradley, GOOD.is, 03.06.2010

But I am nevertheless quite optimistic, as I have already mentioned, about what Los Angeles may one day become. My vision for Los Angeles holds true as my aspiration for any city around the world. Yet in Los Angeles, I see it as particularly attainable. And in Los Angeles, I see it as particularly urgent.

Only under the stresses of total social emergencies as thus far demonstrated by man do the effectively adequate alternative technical strategies synergistically appear.

p. 99, Chapter 6: synergy, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, R. Buckminster Fuller

Simply put, Los Angeles must transform and evolve its present form into a woven and balanced landscape of natural assets, man-made infrastructures, and several transportation solutions, themselves woven together in an effort to create a reliable and sustainable mobility network capable of truly appreciating the City of Angels.

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