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Reading L.A.: Admirers of Los Angeles, warts and all

December 27, 2011 |  1:18 pm

Christopher Hawthorne's "Reading L.A." series considers books by Richard Longstreth, John Chase and William Alexander McClungThe three titles we'll consider next in Reading L.A. -- all published around the year 2000 -- are linked by an interest in examining Los Angeles as it actually exists, or has existed, rather than in its utopian or dystopian forms. As a result, each is marked by measured admiration for a city that has been so often written off as vacuous or irredeemable.

The first of the bunch, Richard Longstreth's "The Drive-In, the Supermarket and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-1941," explains how architecture and car culture developed a symbiotic relationship in Southern California between the world wars. In a broader sense it explores the ways in which Los Angeles and other American cities turned their backs in that period on their historic, aging and often congested downtowns in favor of the ease of shopping centers with gigantic surface parking lots.

As Longstreth tells it -- in scholarly, often Olympian prose -- in the 1920s and '30s real-estate developers, retailers and architects began designing their projects with one goal at the front of their minds: attracting the attention of passing motorists. In large part this meant staking out sites removed from the congestion of downtown, taking advantage of the low density and visual openness of neighborhoods that were still being developed.

Longstreth has some incisive things to say about the relationship between these new buildings and L.A.'s most innovative architects. The drive-in market, he notes, "afforded a unique opportunity at that time to apply modernist concepts ... to complexes that were not only arranged to accommodate the automobile, but were part of an urban order where movement by car was a primary generating force." (Emphasis mine.) The figures who produced designs for these drive-ins, which tended to be semicircular stores set back from a curving driveway, included Richard Neutra and Lloyd Wright.

The supermarket, by contrast, proved to be a dead-end for adventurous architects. "The supermarket appears to have elicited little interest among avant-garde architects," Longstreth writes, "probably because its boxy mass and traditional street-front orientation left little room for formal design innovation."

One wrinkle in this story is that downtown L.A., home to so much significant architecture from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, became by the late 1930s a clear example of how a car-centered urbanism could produce, among various districts of a city, losers as well as winners.

The Ralphs chain, which won so much publicity in 2007 when it opened a supermarket downtown for the first time in 50 years, actually built its very first store downtown, in the 1870s, at 6th and Spring. But by the 1930s, downtown Los Angeles, thanks to the spread of the city accelerated by the automobile, was becoming just one neighborhood among many. And after a while, it could hardly even claim to be that. 

"No hierarchy existed among Ralphs big stores scattered throughout the metropolitan area," Longstreth notes. "The downtown facility had for some time served as just another unit. By 1937, its location became so marginal that the store was closed, the first [Ralphs] outlet to experience that fate."

Unlike Longstreth's book, the collected essays of the late planner and bon vivant John Chase -- gathered under the title "Glitter Stucco & Dumpster Diving: Reflections on Building Production in the Vernacular City" -- are driven by a lively and unpredictable prose style. Chase, who died unexpectedly at 57 in the summer of 2010, was employed in the last years of his life as the chief urban designer for the city of West Hollywood. But before taking that job he had made a name for himself as an astute, open-minded analyst of the Southern California built environment.

Christopher Hawthorne's "Reading L.A." series considers books by Richard Longstreth, John Chase and William Alexander McClungChase's shrewd but open-hearted attitude toward cities is summed up in a quote, highlighted in the book, from the writer and geographer Peirce Lewis: "Nearly all items in human landscapes reflect culture in some way. There are almost no exceptions."

Chase writes at length about the history of period-revival architecture in Los Angeles, paying close attention to the contributions of interior designers and Hollywood set decorators, and about the exterior decoration of modest bungalows in West Hollywood and elsewhere remade by their (often gay) owners. This second category of design is for Chase very clearly an extension of democratic ideals: "Even if the results may not be to everyone's taste, surely the remodelers deserve credit for that all-American attempt to construct an identity by choosing among alternatives, to be self-made individuals by living behind a self-made facade. In West Hollywood, clothes alone do not make the man or woman. The house facade does."

In the volume's best-known essay, a collaboration with John Beach, he writes with uncommon insight about dingbat apartments and the slightly larger architectural category, nearly ubiquitous in L.A., that he dubs "the stucco box." And in a part of the book that deserves far more attention than it's gotten, he writes about what he defines as "building production": about architecture without a capital A, all those structures we see every day on foot or from our cars but whose design origins we barely ever pause to consider. These buildings -- which include "motels, tilt-slab warehouses, shopping malls, parking structures and parking lots, ice vending machines and concrete-block warehouses" -- are particularly significant in Los Angeles, where handsome civic architecture is comparatively rare.

Chase didn't write just to entertain his readers or give them historical perspective, though he did both of those things; he wanted to give them tools to change the city around them. His goal, as he writes near the end of the book, was to "illuminate the contemporary urban landscape in a way that is redemptive, one that allows for creative reinterpretation on the part of individual designers, architects and citizens, so that we can react to consumer culture and appropriate it rather than just being passive consumers of it -- or being overpowered by it."

As I wrote in Chase's obituary for The Times, "Rather than entertaining utopian fantasies about the future of cities or engaging in rarefied theoretical debates, he was interested in how the built landscapes and streets of Southern California look and work (or don't work), how they came to be and how they might be improved." That attitude was evident in all of his work, but never as clearly as in these essays.

Similarly entertaining -- and similarly patient in its analysis of Southern California -- is William Alexander McClung's "Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles." McClung, who was for years an English professor at Mississippi State, barely pauses at the beginning of the book to define what he means precisely by "Anglo" or to explain why he is writing only about "Anglo mythologies" at the expense of all the rest. Nor does he write in great detail about why his study ends around 1985, which he identifies in passing as the end of "Anglo dominance" in Los Angeles. In truth, he seems eager to get on with the business of the book itself, and what follows is for the most part so entertaining and so beautifully written that we forgive the oversight.

Christopher Hawthorne's "Reading L.A." series considers books by Richard Longstreth, John Chase and William Alexander McClungIn this odd, subtle and highly original piece of work, which features architecture prominently, McClung argues that Anglo visions of Los Angeles have fallen into two camps: arcadian (the city as a discovered paradise) and utopian (the city as a created paradise, or as an empty space waiting to be filled). For him, the slipperiness of Los Angeles -- the way that the city tends to resist easy definition or categorization -- is a direct result of the way its residents have failed to reconcile those two visions. The utopians want L.A. to become a major city, and are always fretting about the ways in which it falls short, while the arcadians are forever bemoaning the natural beauty that has been lost or spoiled by development.

The result is a kind of split civic personality; as McClung puts it, "Contradictions in the imagination of Los Angeles reflect contradictions among the kinds of spaces that L.A. is implicitly imagined to be, such as, for example, a metropolis, where stress is accepted as the price of grandeur, and a resort, which is organized for pleasure." This remains the case today, in a Los Angeles increasingly divided between those who welcome density, new transit lines and other changes as signs of urbanity and progress, and those who fear them as threats to L.A.'s sense of freedom, openness and privacy.

McClung writes with ease about a range of cultural subjects, including, though hardly limited to, art, architecture and fiction. His comments about the Case Study houses, for example, are unusually perceptive. He calls them "not only a high-minded experiment in reforming architectural taste to the canons of high modernism; in a city whose buildings lacked organization, density, and consistency, they were also an effort to create an archipelago of ideal forms, to which the bulk of the city, derivative and inconsequential, would be ancillary."

As we've noted all year long, chroniclers of L.A. have included lots of boosters and nearly as many cynics. McClung is frustrated by both groups, but is hardest of all on the cynics, most notably the novelist Nathanael West. Their work has convinced him, he writes, that "it is not the lovers but the haters of Los Angeles who are the true narcissists: looking at the city, they see only themselves." After spending so much time this year with Mike Davis and other dedicated dystopians, I think he may be right about that.

The book's heroes, meanwhile, are those artists, writers and architects who are able to transcend the longstanding sunshine/noir divide -- or what he calls the "alternation between enthusiasm and disgust" -- and portray the city with clear-eyed, often deadpan sophistication, building on its traditions without falling into either cynicism or facile nostalgia. For him the ideal treatment of the city is "aware of contradictions" but "free of ... sarcasm." The figures he singles out in this regard include the artists Ed Ruscha, Terry Schoonhoven, David Hockney and -- perhaps most of all -- the architect Irving Gill, whom McClung calls " the moral touchstone of Los Angeles architecture."
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-- Christopher Hawthorne

Upper photo: A contemporary Ralphs supermarket and parking lot. Credit: Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times

Center photo: Writer, planner and man-about-town John Chase. Credit: Rich Schmitt

Lower photo: The cover of William Alexander McClung's "Landscapes of Desire." Credit: UC Press

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