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Los Angeles has long been the prime example of a poorly planned city. In 1959, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Harrison Salisbury wrote, “When Lincoln Steffens went to the Soviet Union just after the Bolshevik Revolution, he proclaimed, ‘I have seen the future—and it works.’ Today’s visitor to Los Angeles might paraphrase Steffens and say, ‘I have seen the future—and it doesn’t work.’” Scores of experts have examined Los Angeles, he said, and “backed away shuddering.”
Not Reyner Banham. Banham’s 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies was, and remains, an unexpected celebration of the city. The book changed how architects and planners thought about L.A.—and about cities in general.
Banham, an English architecture critic, writer, and professor, first visited Los Angeles in 1964 and was fascinated by its lack of forethought (he called it a “nonplanned” city). He soon began wondering whether the result might not be all that bad: “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!’”
[Banham] defends the aspects of Los Angeles that were, and often still are, the chief targets of criticism among members of the academic establishment.
After watching the city swing for a few years himself, Banham wrote Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. In it, Banham celebrates the architecture of L.A., from the common drive-through to the architectural gems of Frank Lloyd Wright and Craig Ellwood, and defends the city—sometimes fiercely—as a liberating environment. “For every visiting academic who never stirs out of his bolt-hole in Westwood and comes back to tell us how the freeways divide communities because he has never experienced how they unite individuals of common interest … there will be half a dozen architects, artists or designers, photographers or musicians who decided to stay because it is still possible for them to do their thing.”
Four Ecologies defends the aspects of Los Angeles that were, and often still are, the chief targets of criticism among members of the academic establishment: the ubiquitous clogged freeways, the heterogeneous architecture, and the horizontal sprawl. But it also changed how architects, planners, and academics viewed cities. Rather than focusing on well-known monuments in chronological order, Banham looked at both high and low design, and considered how large-scale topographical features—the coast, the foothills, the plains, and the freeways—shaped the city’s development. Like Los Angeles itself, Four Ecologies is expansive and not overly concerned with pedigree.
A year after the publication of Four Ecologies, the BBC aired Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, an hour-long tour of the city, with Banham as guide. Resembling an I’m Not There-era Joaquin Phoenix dressed for warmer weather, the visibly excited Banham drives around the city, visiting Watts Towers, the Griffith Observatory, and the bodybuilders of Venice, insisting that Los Angeles does, in fact, “work.”
Some aspects of his generous take on Los Angeles seem naïve in retrospect. Anyone who commutes on the infamous 405 freeway today might wonder whether a working city can be one so plagued by such permanent regular gridlock . But Banham, enamored of L.A.’s free spirit, minimizes its transportation problems, writing that “most Angeleno freeway-pilots are neither retching with smog nor stuck in a jam; their white-wall tyres are singing over the diamond-cut anti-skid grooves in the concrete road surface, the selector-levers of their automatic gearboxes are firmly in Drive, and the radio is on.”
Passages like that one cut against not only the academic urban-planning orthodoxy of the 1950s and 1960s, but also the livable-streets movement of today. But if Banham was shortsighted in places, perhaps it was because he was infatuated. As he explains in the BBC documentary, he “loves the place with a passion that goes beyond sense or reason.”
Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, recently picked Four Ecologies as the first book for his L.A.-oriented book club, calling it “an incredibly detailed and smart analysis of the city at every level.”