A visit to Los Angeles in 1968 had a profound effect on Banham and inspired a set of talks for the radio which were then reprinted in The Listener. “Encounter with Sunset Boulevard” is the first of the series, appearing in the 22 August 1968 issue of The Listener; in it Banham reflects, during a bus ride through the city, on the layout of LA and its similarity to London.
The bus had broken down on the coast road, miles short of Los Angeles. The driver had thumbed a ride on a passing truck and gone for help. And we passengers sat on the rocks between the road and the surf, with the sun shining in our eyes and reflecting off the ocean in front of us. We watched the perfect waves, exact as ruled lines from headland to headland, roll glittering towards us and break in unmathematical profusion among the rocks below.
There was nothing else to do – except worry. I had an important date for dinner and a lecture by the Chancellor of the University of California in Los Angeles, for which I was to be collected from a hotel off Sunset Boulevard. I had never been in Los Angeles before, and I was anxious to get my arrangements sorted out in good time. But we were still sitting by the shore looking at the perfect – and perfectly boring – ocean, and my margins of time were ticking away.
Eventually, the relief bus arrived, and we were bowling along the highway again, through Malibu, through Pacific Palisades, and up through the tunnel into the bus-station at Santa Monica. There I sat, while the bus unloaded some of its passengers, in a fit of bewildered indecision; some way back along the highway, well beyond anything that could be called a built-up area, the bus had stopped at some traffic lights, and on a stretts name-board I had read the baffling words, “Sunset Boulevard”.
Now, Sunset Boulevard, I knew, like any normal movie-goer, to be in Hollywood. Wasn’t it? Could there be two parts of Greater Los Angeles with Sunset Boulevards, or did the same boulevard run on throught the various parts of the town, and if so, which part did I need? Should I get out here and take a taxi or sit tight and get out of the bus at the terminal? I decided to sit tight, but rarely have the dictates of my natural caution been less trustworthy, for the bus rolled onto the elevated freeway, and from up there, Los Angeles seemed totally incomprehensible. Mile after mile of neat little houses, either the same bland colour as the gravel earth below, or the same bland colour as the late afternoon sky above, deeply bedded in lush greenery, overtopped by forests of ugly poles carrying utility wires, and even taller and uglier palm trees like rows of giant feather duster. And it all looked the same, growing neither denser nor thinner; impossible to tell if we were approaching downtown or heading for some other suburban bus-station first. Then worry began to approach panic as the sun got lower in the sky and I realized I had no idea what downtown would look like when we finally got to it. I could summon up mental images of innumerable famous private houses in Los Angeles – by Charles Eames, Craig Ellwood, Frank Lloyd Wright, Greene and Greene, Pierre Koening, Neutra, Schindler – but no pubblic buildings or major office blocks at all could I call to mind, and thus watch out for.
I was late and I was lost – and bitterly humiliated. I had been saving up Los Angeles in the way that some travellers save up Venice or Kyoto, an experience to be anticipated and relished to the full. I was not going to be like namby-pamby English architects and town planners who were terrified of Los Angeles and its sprawl – only I was. I could almost hear Ian Nairn chuckling “I told you so!” on behalf of all those who hold Los Angeles to be an unmitigated disaster.
Anyhow, I got to the hotel, and to the lecture – but only just. I would have been right in abandoning the bus at santa Monica, because it was the same Sunset Boulevard right through from dowtown to the coast, and the hotel was much nearer the coast than downtown. But that is not the point of this story: the point is that I was out of my culture-shock and topograhical dismay within 24 hours and feeling perfectly at home in Los Angeles.
Now, at first sight, this is ridiculous. No city in the world could have been less like any of the cities I have called home. Los Angeles is spectacularly unique among the great cities of the world. It is vast in area, thoung not much vaster than the area defined by long-distance commuting into London. Within that area, the citizens live at conspicuously low densities, trough not much lower, I suspect, than Oslo or Stockholm. And they live almost entirely in single storey houses surrounded by a style of horticulture which is a cross between the Anglo-Saxon tradition and the tropical, and like nothing on earth except possibly Perth in Western Australia. What is confusing is that the basic human habitat offered by house and garden is the same in exclusive Beverly Hills as it is in the ghettos like Watts. Equally confusing are the distances that the Angelenos are prepared to travel within their diffuse metropolis. To pick up some friends, bring them to your house for dinner, take them back afterwards and get home again, might involve you in 100 to 150 miles of motoring in one evening. Fortunately, it is no more difficult than ferrying dinner guests between Highgate and Fulham, say, because most of the distance will be done at 60 miles an hour on the freeway.
Under the general sunshine and exotic trees, with the Santa Monica Mountain for back-drop and the surfing beaches of the Pacific for foreground, nothing looks even remotely familiar in detail. Like all the truly great cities, Los Angeles in unique unto itself; but unique in a special way that makes it weirdly familiar to any mean sensual English academic of my generation and experience.
Let me begin to explain this backhandedly. Some months ago, one of our leading Americologues – Sir Denis Brogan, I think – complained of a callow cult of Los Angeles among the young. This just did not jibe with my own experience, which is that the cult of Los Angeles in England is strongest among persons of my own age – bluntly, the middle-aged. True affection for Los Angeles seems to come with the first grey hairs, or the second marriage, or the assumption of public responsibility. There is no greater enthusiast for the place among my near contemporaries than Peter Hall, who has just become Professor of Geography at Reading. The visionary closing pages of his book, London 2000, describe a city that is much nearer to Los Angeles now than to any London I expect to see by the end of this century.
And speaking of professors, my own – Lord Llewelyn Davies – has proposed for one of the new towns he is designing “a modified type of Los Angeles plan”. This is an even more striking example of mature acceptance, because it implies that, far from being a total and disorderly shambles, Los Angeles has a comprehensible system that works, and can be applied elsewhere. Indeed, what seems to unite us greying Angelophiles is that we have been there and seen that it works in spite of the much-quoted complaints of some of its inhabitants.
But in being there and perceiving its virtues, all my generation have the help of a special kind of déjà vu – when we see it for the first time we know we have seen it before. We have been seeing it in the movies all our lives, and especially in the slapstick comedies of our impressionable youth. Far from being the city in all our futures, Los Angeles is the city in all our pasts. Those old Keystone Cops shorts, for instance, made on a shoestring and on available locations like empty building sites, remote street intersections, stretches of suburban railway line, have left our minds stocked with images of typical Los Angeles scenery. And they are still typical. If those movies have made the Los Angeles of the 1920s as visually familiar as Canaletto and Guardi have made Rococo Venice, most of Los Angeles has altered less since the time of Rudolph Valentino than Venice has changed since the time of Casanova; you would swear it’s the same concrete road surface, the same little wooden houses, the same trees, even the same utility poles. The best possible study towards a basic understanding of the fabric of Los Angeles wuold be to sit again through that series of Pause for Laughter films that BBC-2 showed some months ago.
But there is another reason why so many Britons will feel at home in Los Angeles, and it is a very odd one. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it myself, but Alan Forrest, one of my teaching colleagues, did. “Los Angeles is just like London”, he said. As the visiting eye sees them, no two cities could look less alike, but as the resident uses and inhabits the place, it is profoundly true because, to finish what Forrest said, “it’s a collection of separate villages”.
Anybody who has read Rasmussen’s famous book, London, the Unique City, will remember that it was this village structure of London that caused him to apply the adjective “unique”, but it must now share that title with Los Angeles. What he said about London will often fit Los Angeles word for word: “Around every little village”, he said, “the buildings crystallized into a borough and that development was to continue, so that London became a greater and still greater accumulation of towns, an immense colony of dwellings where the people still live in their own houses in small communities, with local governments”. That, with its emphasis on dwelling in one’s own house in a small locally governed community, is probably more true of Los Angeles in 1968 than it is of London since the new giant boroughs were formed. In London, of course, the villages have been growing bigger, and growing togheter, since the Middle Ages. In Los Angeles it has all happened since about 1890, and the evidence of it is everywhere. There are bits of Wilshire Boulevard between the townships that still haven’t been built on, and the house-numbering runs from both ends, out from downtown and back from Santa Monica on the coast. Neither London nor Los Angeles sprawled out from a single centre; both grew by filling in the spaces between a number of centres.
Perhaps because they are structurally similar, these two uniquely scattered cities exhibit a striking similarity in what I suppose must be called their psychological geography. New residents in London find their way about by entrusting themselves to the Underground, and the elegant abstract logic of its maps. When you tell them an address, they ask if it is anywhere near the Northern Line, or the Central. In exactly the same way, the new Angeleno clings to the almost equally elegant, abstract and logical diagram of the freeway network, and asks if an address is anywhere near the Harbor Freeway, or which off-ramp he should use on the San Bernardino. Both cities are illogical and haphazard in their street-plans – Los Angeles is nothing like the regular grid that a lot of people seem to imagine – and so one tries to short-circuit the ensuing navigational problems by replacing as much as possible of the chaos at ground level by the diagrammatic clarity of the railways below or the freeways above. This is a similarity that was mentioned to me by several ex-Londoners in Los Angeles. Perhaps it is the more striking, the more noticeable, because it is a similarity in the mind. The physical facts involved could hardly be more different: in London you rattle in a pubblic vehicle through a tunnel that entirely cuts you off from the reality of the city. In Los Angeles you buzz along in your private car on an elevated highway that would give you excellent and revealing views of the city if you weren’t so busy with driving.
The scale of everything is different, the style of life is different, almost everything is profoundly, disturbingly different. After my bad first experience in Los Angeles I can still see why others respond to it with immediate hostility and dismay. The cities of the Old World and the eastern United States run very much to a pattern – you don’t realize how standardized they are beneath their much-vaunted individualities, until you come up against somewhere like Los Angeles.
London, as Rasmussen rightly observed, is something of a deviant from that pattern, but not such a deviant that London terminology like “West End” can’t be applied to the others. But it makes no sense if you try to apply it to Los Angeles – and Los Angeles makes nonsense of itself when it tries to see itself in terms of concepts borrowed from other cities, such as “downtown”. The unique value of Los Angeles – what excites, intrigues and sometimes repels me – is that it offers radical alternatives to almost every urban concept in unquestioned currency. As they say in California, “Los Angeles is so wild they should just let it swing and see what happens!”.
Immagine di copertina: Los Angeles from Griffith Park, ph.Emanuele Piccardo, 2012