Rediscovering Reyner Banhams Los Angeles
by Michael Dear
Always contextualize. This was Reyner Banhams golden rule
in his book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. Now 35
years old, the book should not be consigned to some antiquarian bookstore, nor
smothered by respectful scrutiny or canonization. Banham discovered new ways of
seeing and writing about cities that are just as vibrant and relevant in
todays urbanizing world. His was an architecture in place; he wrote a new kind of urban history, and in so doing
irrevocably changed the way the world understood Los
Angeles. When observers scornfully mocked LAs
monotony, not unity and confusion rather than variety, Banham claimed that
the fault lay with them, not with the city. Their misapprehensions, he averred,
resulted because the context had escaped them. Any
perceived chaos was a product of their minds alone, for it was not something present
in Los Angeles.
In place of urban chaos, Banham offered four ecologies as a
way of unpacking Los Angeles. To
this day, I still use his thumbnail sketches of these cardinal geographies to
orientate newcomers to the city:
Surfurbia (the beach cities): The beaches
are what other cities should envy about LA, Banham swooned. Sun, sand, and
surf are held to be ultimate and transcendental values,
and one way or another the beach is what life is all about in Los Angeles.
Foothills (the privileged enclaves of Bel Air, Beverly
The foothills are where the financial and topographical contours
correspond almost exactly: the higher the ground the higher the income.
The foothill ecology comprises narrow, tortuous residential roads serving
precipitous house plots that often back up directly on unimproved wilderness
even now [in] an air of deeply buried privacy.
The Plains (the central flatlands):
This is where Los Angeles is
most like other cities: an endless plain endlessly gridded with endless
streets, peppered endlessly with ticky-tacky houses
, slashed across by endless
, and so on
Autopia (the freeways):
The LA freeway system is now a single comprehensible place, a
coherent state of mind, a complete way of life where Angelenos most feel at
is one of the greater works of Man, on
a par with the streets of Sixtus Vs Baroque Rome, or Haussmanns Paris
Santa Monica-San Diego freeway intersection is a work of art, and daily
conversations about traffic are a standard rhetorical trope, much as the
English constantly carp about the weather.
Writing with a characteristic grace and wit that even his
most pungent critics were obliged to concede, Banhams four-part ecological
symphony was constantly interrupted by dissonant improvisations on urban and
architectural history. These chapters included riffs on fantasy architecture
and architects-in-exile, as well a brief note on downtown LA (because, he
claimed, that is all [it] deserves.)
The texts non-linearity upset many readers, but Banham clearly intended it as
a deliberate metaphor for the fragmented and discontinuous nature of the LA
I was a graduate student in University College London when Banham
taught there. This was at the tail-end of the Swinging Sixties, when
self-absorption and extravagance were at a premium. It was (supposedly) all
happening in London at that time:
Twiggy, Carnaby Street,
Archigram, and all that. Yet Banham appeared to turn away from it all. Instead,
he wrote in hallowed terms of what others regarded as the armpit of urban America.
His overheated brain celebrated LA surfboards, automobiles, and even hamburgers
as works of art. But he was not being inconsistent or obtusely contrarian. In London,
Banham had been engrossed in pop art, and through this he found easy entry into
Los Angeles. He regarded LA as
urban art, an honorific he wittily extended to Las Vegas,
which takes some of the established trends in the Los
Angeles townscape and pushes them to extremes where
they begin to become art, or poetry, or psychiatry.
Everything Banham wrote still seems fresh, but what would this
forensic urbanist make of contemporary Los Angeles?
He would probably be most taken aback by downtown LA, which has experienced
several building booms since 1971. Downtown LA now even looks like a
conventional downtown: a cluster of high-rise office towers, some
starchitect-designed civic and cultural buildings, sports venues, top
restaurants, and burgeoning residential neighborhoods. Yet it still remains
only one out of many Southern California downtowns,
and I suspect Banham would agree that the best thing to do with Bunker
Hill is to put a fence around it and to charge admission.
Always driving, rarely a flâneur afoot, Banham would be unmoved
by the proliferation of pedestrian-oriented shopping malls, seemingly so
essential to todays 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 LAs resurgent sense of history, most
evident at the grass-roots level in (for example) the murals of the Great Wall
of LA [IMAGES], or the Power of Place projects in Little Tokyo commemorating
the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans [IMAGES], 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
LA. I believe Banham would cherish these small spaces as something completely
consistent with LAs cartography of diverse, fragmented memory.
The sheer size of contemporary Los
Angeles would likely leave Banham speechless, if only momentarily.
The five-county metropolitan region (incorporating the counties of Los Angeles,
Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura) is today home to more than 16
million people, twice what it was in
Banhams locust days only 35 years ago. It comprises 177 cities spread over
14,000 square miles. It is an emergent world city, molded by an urban dynamics
that Banham could not possibly have imagined. His immediate reaction to LAs
demographic diversity might simply be annoyance that his 1971 book could so
underplay race, immigration and gender issues. But then he would remind
himself: Always contextualize! What are
the forces that today determine LAs efflorescent urban ecologies? In my
judgment, five matter more than most:
Globalization, the rise of an integrated
global economy characterized by the emergence of a closely-linked hierarchy of
world cities that act as centers of command and control;
Network society, the transformations
wrought by the arrival of the Information Age including a global media
Social polarization, the ever-increasing
socioeconomic divide between the very rich and the rest of us;
Hybridization, the mixing of racial and
ethnic groups and traditions brought about by the shrinking of distance, an
ubiquitous media, and large-scale domestic and international migrations; and
Sustainability, the emergence
of a global
consciousness regarding the finitude of resources, habitat, flora
plus the consequent threat to planetary survival.
These five tendencies globalization, network society,
polarization, hybridization, and sustainability are common in the landscapes
of Southern California. In the wild east around Ontario,
for instance, vast acreages of distribution centers house and move the goods
that arrive at the nations largest port complex (Los Angeles-Long Beach). In West
LA and the Valley, names like Sony, Yahoo! and MTV attest to LAs role
in a globalized media society. The landscapes of poverty are everywhere; in
downtown LA, for example, the regions largest concentration of emergency
shelters for homeless people emerged during the mid-1980s. The rise of
ethnoburbs in the San Gabriel Valley testifies to the arrival of affluent
Chinese immigrants who take up immediate residence in well-to-do suburbs,
by-passing the traditional immigrant experience of the inner-city Chinatown.
Finally, the Los Angeles River
was a forgotten, channelized concrete gulch until the Friends of the LA River
(FOLAR) began to make the river a centerpiece in a revitalized region-wide
environmental consciousness [IMAGES].
Banham taught us to see Los Angeles
differently, but he made no large claims about the wider lessons of LA for other
cites at home or abroad. He remained wedded to the notion of LAs uniqueness, and
yet his book contains the seeds of a more general urban theory whose potential is
only now being realized. At the core of Banhams putative revisionism was the
observation that LA has no urban form at all in the commonly accepted sense
of an outward sprawl from a central nucleus. For him, downtown LA would never qualify as
the heart of the city, partly because Wilshire
Boulevard already existed as a linear downtown.
The problem, in Banhams view, was that observers of LA had once again got it
wrong; they were forcing the city into categories of judgment that simply do
not apply. What we
are in fact looking at in LA is an agglomeration of suburbs without a single
center, an arrangement that profoundly contradicts existing conventions in
Although Banham himself did nothing to develop the
implications of these observations, the revolutionary potential of his LA road
trips was recognized by Tony Vidler in his introduction to the 2001 reissue of
Banhams book. Vidler observed that Los Angeles
provided a tightly constructed part manifesto, part new urban geography.
For myself, looking back over two decades of research and practice in LA, only
now do I appreciate the extent to which I absorbed the insights of Reyner
Banhams Los Angeles
though with consequences totally different from Vidlers. My involvement in the
emergence of the Los Angeles School of urbanism is profoundly rooted in
Banham; so is my approach to postmodern urbanismwhose core conviction is
that contemporary urbanism no longer follows a modernist core-to-hinterland logic,
but instead insists on a postmodern conceit in which the hinterlands organize
what remains of the urban center.
Any revitalized urban theory, in which urban peripheries
dominate what is left of the core, will require a new language for describing
urban growth and change. For example, in many cities it no longer makes sense
to speak of suburbanization, understood as a peripheral accretion to a
center-dominated urban process; edge cities may look like suburbs, but they are
not. Neither can ethnoburbs be equated with traditional concepts of immigrant
ghettoes, as I already explained. New ways of seeing cities will also require a
fresh approach to making urban places. For instance, it seems hopelessly naïve
to assume that an urban policy for downtown renewal can restore vitality to a city
center that has been by-passed by a non-core-oriented urban process.
Reyner Banham loved LA because it was (and is) a place
permeated by a palpable sense of possibilities still ahead.
He understood that LA threatens
because it breaks the rules of conventional
theory, practice and pedagogy. 
Thirty-five years after Los Angeles,
Banham would still get a kick out of LA. He would extend his ecologies to
include the San Diego-Tijuana borderlands and the miles of fencing today
separating the U.S.
[BORDER FENCE IMAGE]. He would revel in the mestizaje
urbanism of LAs phenomenal diversity [MANHOLE COVER IMAGE]. He would drive
every corner of the Inland Empire and find a prominent
place for the desert in his urban ecology. He would be amazed by the variety
and geographical reach of Southern Californias artistic,
intellectual and cultural scenes. He would grieve over LAs status as the
homeless capital of the USA.
And he might even agree that LA has altered the ways we understand cities
Banham, Los Angeles: The
Architecture of Four Ecologies (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 23.
Hereafter abbreviated as Banham. Pagination is the same in the original British
editions of the book (Penguin Press, 1971; and Pelican Books paperback, 1973).
Readers with access only to the recent reissue of Banhams book (University
of California Press, 2001) should
subtract 18 from the page numbers quoted in this essay, while trying hard to
avoid looking at the execrable cover design of the reissue.
only the history of modern architecture is treated in anything
like chronological order, and can be read in historical sequence. The rest is
to be visited at the readers choice or fancy, with that freedom of movement
that is the prime symbolic attribute of the Angel
Banham, Las Vegas, Los
Angeles Times, West Magazine, November 8, 1970, 38-9.
Vidler, IntroductionLos Angeles:
City of the Immediate Future in Reyner Banham Los Angeles: The Architecture
of Four Ecologies (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 2001) xxxi.
 An introduction
to the precepts and concerns of the LA School is to be found in Michael Dear
(ed.) From Chicago to LA: Making Sense of Urban Theory (Thousand Oaks:
Sage Publications, 2002); see also Allen J. Scott and Edward W. Soja (eds.) The
City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the end of the Twentieth Century.
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). My personal view of the LA
urban problematic is found in: Michael Dear The Postmodern Urban Condition (Oxford:
Blackwell Publishers, 2000).
MICHAEL DEAR is Professor and Chair of the Department
of Geography at the University of Southern
California, and Honorary Professor at the
Bartlett School of Planning at University College London.