Reyner Banham Loves LA
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In Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, a 50-minute film devoted to exploring the British architectural historian’s love affair with this uniquely American city, Banham roams the “four ecologies” of Los Angeles—beach, freeways, foothills, and basin—first presented in his 1971 book, with the playful assistance of “Baede-Kar” (an 8-track audio tour that parodies the 19th century German guidebooks published by Karl Baedeker).
An outrageous pop billboard designed by Deborah Sussman placed high above Santa Monica Boulevard was included in the documentary’s opening credits. For architectural elites like Banham, loving some parts of Los Angeles was easy—the houses of Greene & Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright, of Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, and the Case Study program. Even the freeway infrastructure, which Banham likened to Sixtus V’s Rome and Haussmann’s Paris, was so monumental that it was hard to discount. But Banham also loved the fantastic architecture of the commercial landscape.
He dissected L.A.’s hamburger stands and coffee shops as “symbolic assemblages'' of architecture that had much to tell us about the culture that produced them—not just in Los Angeles but as “a general phenomenon of U.S. life,” in which “doing your own thing” and movement and mobility were understood as distinctive cultural values. More specifically, Banham argued that the roadside buildings of L.A.’s endless strips were the purest and most ridiculous embodiment of these values. Nonetheless, he loved them with, as he described his feelings for the city as a whole, “a passion that goes beyond all sense and reason.”
Along the way, he tours the Watts Towers, riffs on Googie architecture with artist Ed Ruscha, visits the unusual characters of Venice Beach, and meanders the highways with a giddy enthusiasm that knowingly celebrates the city’s sprawl and indecipherability, the very qualities derided by conventional critics of architecture and urbanism.
In the late 1960s, revered journalist Adam Raphael described Los Angeles as a ‘stinking sewer,’ and until Banham LA was commonly perceived by critics to have no culture and little architectural merit. If Banham’s conclusions were critically palatable in the 1970s, it may have been because he situated all that architectural mimesis and Googieness within a distinctly urban framework, within a vital, still-growing city, as opposed to John Margolies’s preference for “cities where growth came to a halt” and strips that “used to be main drags'' but are now just in between. Or maybe it was because Banham was British (he had not yet moved permanently to the United States), and there is a long tradition in this country of having foreign visitors explain America to us—from Frances Trollope to Alexis de Tocqueville to Charles Dickens. Or maybe it was because Banham was a distinguished historian of modern architecture, author of the well- received Theory and Design in the First Machine Age and The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment. While these books were decidedly revisionist, they were grounded in the theory and practice of canonical modernism and its techno-functionalist foundations. Even in Banham’s radical work on Los Angeles, modernism was a point of departure. As Nigel Whiteley has shown, this helped Banham rationalize his enthusiasm for popular culture and legitimize its methodological incorporation into his work as a historian and critic.
Banham had plenty of giddy enthusiasm himself, especially for the United States — its culture and technology, its cars and its buildings. After years of observing America from afar in movies and magazines, Banham visited for the first time in 1961. Taken at the age of 39, this trip was, according to his wife, “the realization of a long held dream.” He returned to the U.S. regularly thereafter, notably to Los Angeles on a Graham Foundation Travel Grant in 1965, before moving to Buffalo in 1976 to teach at the State University of New York. (This was after having taught at the University College London for over a decade.) Four years later, he settled in Santa Cruz to teach at the University of California. At the time of his death, Banham was about to move across the country again, having accepted a professorship at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.
As a critic, Banham is sometimes seen as a more learned (though less glib) practitioner of Tom Wolfe’s pop New Journalism; as a scholar, he is viewed as a less staid (though more snarky) heir to Nikolaus Pevsner’s partisan history of architecture’s recent past. These assessments are on the mark: they usefully characterize Banham’s approach to the full spectrum of design in his immediate present.
More particularly, Banham came to understand this: once he became a regular visitor to the U.S. after 1961, he realized that to comprehend American culture one had to grasp the specificity of place. And in a country 3,000 miles across this meant the specificity of places. For the historian who made it acceptable to embrace a plurality of modernisms beyond the International Style (which was the topic of the Architectural League debate that brought him to the U.S. for the very first time), this probably wasn’t a stretch. Still, Banham’s awareness of the multiplicity of American places reveals itself only gradually in his writings, as over the years he becomes more attuned to diverse surroundings and particular locales, to familiar topographies and brand new typologies. Unlike Dickens, for example, who formed the impressions published in American Notes during “hasty travels” that lasted a mere six months, Banham had the luxury of time. Beginning with extended research trips in the 1960s, his passing acquaintance with the country deepened into intimate knowledge.
This knowledge was gained from direct experience of American buildings and landscapes, and Banham, every inch the “observational” historian equipped with stenography notepads and plenty of Ektachrome, was an indefatigable traveler in these years. Even after he took up permanent residence in the U.S., he seemed to relish his role as an “archetypical British tourist armed with credit card and rented car.” That mode of transport is significant: it was in the United States that, famously, Banham learned to drive “in order to read Los Angeles in the original.” His understanding of mobility as a native tongue and the automobile as the generator of autochthonous culture was key to Banham’s analysis of American urbanism, architecture and design.
Once Banham got a driver’s license, the pull of those miles was irresistible, and he spent plenty of time behind the wheel: up and down the California coast, into the deserts and canyons of the Southwest and Texas, across the rust belt and the Midwest, and over and through the northeast megalopolis. There were countless stops in between and along the way, all fully documented in field notebooks, maps, postcards and 35mm slides. Banham visited architectural monuments and natural landmarks, evincing equal interest in the Seagram Building and the Cima Dome. He was attracted to everyday landscapes and out-of-the-way obscurities, supermarkets and motel chains having nearly the same allure as one-off wilderness resorts. He explored thriving commercial centers and abandoned industrial wastelands (and vice versa), lavishing the same attention on a Ponderosa Steak House as on a General Mills grain elevator.
From the Tennessee Valley to Silicon Valley, no building or landscape was unworthy — or safe — from Banham’s formal analysis, socio-cultural critique or outspoken opinionating. He thought the TVA dams with their “overwhelming physical grandeur” were better in real life than in the iconographic New Deal photographs where he had first encountered them, and while he may have sneered at the “Redneck Macholand” in which they were located, he reserved his true scorn for the “eco-radicalist” supporters of the Endangered Species Act who, in the 1970s, prevented the closing of the Tellico Dam sluices in order to preserve the snail darter minnow. The construction of the dam may have looked more arrogant, but Banham wondered if it really was.
Throughout his travels in the U.S., whether pursuing a major interest or indulging a minor whim, conducting historical research for a book or engaging in contemporary criticism for a magazine, Banham exploited his own self-conscious point of view as a European. By looking at America as an outsider, Banham was able to question cultural assumptions and challenge social prejudices (though rarely acknowledging his own). In one of his best-known essays, “The Great Gizmo” (1965), Banham uses this privileged position to lambast “Manhattan-based Jeremiahs” for bemoaning the disappearance of open space, claiming that from the perspective of Europeans — “who really know about intensive occupation of land” — there were still plenty of “empty acres beyond the filling stations and hamburger stands along the freeway.” He may or may not have meant to sound like an apologist for sprawl, but for Banham, context was key.
But sometimes Banham intends you to keep on driving, all the better to experience how a building belongs to the land, and how the building and land belong to the environment, and how the environment serves the needs of humans and their activities, which brings us back to the building. In driving mode, Banham was less interested in individual monuments (major, minor, or neither), styles and typologies than in their totality as a continuum of experience — as an ecology. And if you drove far enough, from Maine to Georgia, from the Midwest to Southern California, or simply from one end of Los Angeles to the other, you would start to notice that there were different ecologies, and that some were geographical and some were cultural, but that they intersected and collaged to form a vast, sprawling, layered network whose patterns were discernible only if you took the long view and just kept driving.
And that’s why his L.A. book eschewed a conventional chronological narrative (except for the chapters on the evolution of modern architecture), and could be read in any order. Beaches, foothills, flatlands, freeways — as far as Banham was concerned, they could be “visited at the reader’s choice or fancy with that freedom of movement that is the prime symbolic attribute of the Angel City,” the same way you would experience them driving around on your own. Not long ago, the geographer Michael Dear noted that he still uses Banham’s four ecologies to orient newcomers to Los Angeles, and one wonders if he’s rigged up a GPS or smartphone app to simulate Banham’s simulated “Baedekar Visitor Guidance System.” This “joke tribute” to Karl Baedeker, computer-age letters taped over a dash-mounted AM radio, turns up in the first scene of the 1972 documentary Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles. It’s a goofy gimmick, but Banham is serious about its purpose. “Devising a guide,” he says in the voice-over narration, “is a useful way to explain a city.”
Using Baede-Kar—a fictitious audio tour guide—Banham drove across Los Angeles meeting artists, filmmakers, and diner waitresses, enthusiastically extolling the qualities of the sprawling metropolis. In so doing, Banham, the auto-flaneur, part historian and part provocateur, created a new form of critic and an alternative model for studying the city. The female-voiced, gas-guzzler known as Baede Kar was a tribute to Karl Baedeker, a nineteenth-century German publisher of popular guidebooks for tourists.
The House of Baedeker was established in 1827 in Coblenz, by Karl Baedeker. Though it remains the largest publisher of travel books in Germany, the company is today a pale shadow of what it was in its heyday. It began with a guide to the Rhine, published in 1835, and Karl followed the format of travel guides written by English writer John Murray. Baedekers were dependable, their facts were right, travelers were led to points of interest by the most rewarding route. Karl engaged experts to contribute articles, and the maps were far ahead of their time. Had WWI not broken out, ultimately there would have been a Baedeker for every corner of the globe.
Always driving, rarely a flâneur afoot, Banham would be unmoved by the proliferation of pedestrian-oriented shopping malls, seemingly so essential to today’s urban experience. He would feel less warmly toward those “psychotic forms of territorial possession” that we call “gated communities.” But he would be genuinely delighted by L.A.’s resurgent sense of history, most evident at the grass-roots level in (for example) the murals of the Great Wall of L.A., or the Power of Place projects in Little Tokyo commemorating the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans, or Biddy Mason Park. These are much more democratic forms of remembering than conventional forms of public memorializing, which in any case remain rather rare commodities in L.A. Banham would cherish these small spaces as something completely consistent with L.A.’s cartography of diverse, fragmented memory
Recollect, if you will, the opening shot of the 1972 BBC documentary Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles: a wondrous, fluffy, vibrant confection of a billboard that spells out the title of the film in cloud-like letters. The brilliance of this design is that it captures perfectly the giddy, celebratory effervescence of the city that spreads out in the billboard’s shadow, flying in the face of the clichéd image of Los Angeles as a polluted wasteland. It also perfectly expresses the joie de vivre, humor, and vibrancy of the designer herself, Deborah Sussman.
Magenta. Vermilion. Aqua. Chrome yellow. These are the colors that Sussman, trailblazing environmental graphic designer, used to describe the essence of her adopted city, Los Angeles. Sussman helped graphic design take on a bigger, quasi-architectural scale in the 1970s and 1980s and how the cultural identity of Los Angeles was forged in those decades. Sussman’s work, in that sense, provided a bridge between two definitions of graphic design — one about text and the other about the city — as well as between two eras in L.A. design history.
Sussman/Prejza’s design for the “look” of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics introduced to the world’s attention the bold style now known as supergraphics. The lively implementation of ad hoc, graphically festooned scaffolding, brilliant cardboard sonotubes, and (affordable!) visually alphabetic bits were the parts of the Olympic ephemera that we Angelenos loved. Can words alone describe the electric vitality of Deborah’s life and work? Banham’s come close. Picture in your mind “that great moment of plastic, fluorescent spectacle, the sun going down in man-made splendor, that really is to all us lovers of Los Angeles the greatest exit line any city could ever have.” That full, loving Technicolor splendor is Deborah.