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Reading L.A.: Carey McWilliams and Southern California's 'vast drama of maladjustment'

February 27, 2011 |  2:22 pm

Architecture I kicked off the Reading L.A. project last month with a pair of little-known but sharp-minded (and frequently cutting) analyses of Los Angeles, the first by the émigré Louis Adamic and the second by Morrow Mayo. But we could easily have begun with Carey McWilliams, because so much important scholarship about Southern California flows from his example. His 1946 book “Southern California: An Island on the Land” is, if not quite our urtext, then easily the most significant volume ever published on L.A.'s civic and urban character.

What makes the book feel so definitive begins with the way it knits skepticism with consistent, if always clear-eyed, enthusiasm -- and in so doing anticipates the whole diverse spectrum of later studies of Los Angeles and its architecture, from the upbeat rhapsodies of Reyner Banham to the bleak-black critique of Mike Davis.

Published five years before McWilliams left Los Angeles for New York City to work at the Nation, where he would go on to serve as top editor for two decades, the book includes chapters on L.A.’s complex, confused and often embarrassing treatment of its American Indian and Mexican past, its endless search for new sources of water and the myth-making of Jackson and others.

A fantastic section on what McWilliams calls the “notorious cleavage between Hollywood and Los Angeles” explores the many ways in which the movie business, beginning with the advent of soundproofed studios at the end of the silent era, managed in civic as well as architectural terms to separate itself almost entirely from the life of the city. (Anybody who wonders why Hollywood executives continue to be so detached from L.A.'s civic and philanthropic life should take a look at this chapter.) The book's analysis of Hollywood's flight from engagement with Los Angeles -- what he calls its “retreat to the lots” -- contains what may be the earliest study of the architecture of the big film studios, which McWilliams describes as “walled towns, each with its principal thoroughfare, sidestreets, and alleys.”

For all that range, the heart of the book remains its effort to document and dissect L.A.'s exceptionalism -- all the ways in which it different from every other big city ever developed. (This effort begins the book’s famous subtitle, borrowed from a line by the novelist Helen Hunt Jackson.) McWilliams sees Southern California primarily as a place founded by successive waves of newcomers, building uneasily on what he calls its “synthetic past.” (McWilliams, born in Colorado in 1905, was one of those newcomers himself, having arrived in L.A. in the early 1920s and earned a law degree from USC in 1927.) The result is “a region geographically attached, rather than functionally related, to the rest of America."

McWilliams is particularly good at breaking down the contradictions and strange urban character created by L.A.’s haphazard early development, with new cities and subdivisions continually founded, with boosterish enthusiasm and in the relative middle of nowhere, before the existing ones have had a chance to mature. As a result, he writes, “just as Southern California is the least rural of all the regions in America, so, paradoxically, Los Angeles is the least citified of all the cities of America.”

Los Angeles for McWilliams is “a gigantic improvisation,” a place where “virtually everything … has been imported,” from its people to its water. This is particularly true of the city's architecture: “With no architectural tradition in the region, aside from the meager fragments from the Spanish period, it is not surprising that the newcomers should have imported the style of house then prevailing in the particular region from which they came.” Settlers from New England, for example, “dotted Southern California with typical New England homes, with high steep roofs to shed the snow that did not fall.”

Still, he finds worthy buildings mixed in with the faux-historical styles and what he memorably calls the city's ever-spreading “stucco rash.” He praises the work of the modernist Irving Gill, with its spare, nearly Platonic geometries, for the way it rebelled “against all gimcrack ornament, cheap construction, and false effect.” Gill's buildings, with their frank minimalism and quiet echoes of Mission architecture, suggest for McWilliams a path toward an authentic Southern Califonia culture.

Like Adamic and Mayo before him, McWilliams spends a good deal of time chronicling the boom-and-bust cycles that had given L.A., by the 1940s, a sense of sprawling disconnectedness. “There can be no doubt that Los Angeles has paid a high price for its rapid growth,” he writes, adding that continual inflows of new residents, with little connection to the landscape or culture of the place, have “made Los Angeles a vast drama of maladjustment: social, familial, civic, and personal.”

At the same time, McWilliams, encouraged by the growth of industry and infrastructure in Southern California before and during World War II, is the first really savvy chronicler of L.A. to see brightness in the city’s future. After admitting that he had become “as devoted to the region as a native son,” he ends the book with this sentence: “One does not need to share all the illusions of the boosters to believe, as I believe, that that most fantastic city in the world will one day exist in this region: a city embracing the entire region from the mountains to the sea.”

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Photo: Irving Gill's 1919 Horatio West Court in Santa Monica. Credit: Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times

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