Book review: Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies

Book review: Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies

Photo by Richard Weller

First published in 1971 Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies is by now well established as a classic of (Post)modern architectural journalism (‘journalism’ is meant in the best possible way: well researched, concise, erudite and above all, polemical). Trained as an art historian under the auspices of British academic Nikolaus Pevsner, Banham intentionally avoids the pomp and ceremony of academic writing and as such is a pleasure to read.

Something was in the air in the early seventies as both Banham and US architect Robert Venturi more or less simultaneously headed west into the badlands of American popular culture. Where Venturi discovered a liberating Esperanto of (illegitimate) signification in Las Vegas, Banham’s spiritual home and primary subject became Los Angeles, California. There, famously learning to drive so, as he put it, “to read Los Angeles in the original”, Banham tracked the roots of what we now call sprawl, or less pejoratively and more correctly, polycentric urbanism.

In a mere 296 pages The Architecture of Four Ecologies provides both a history of Los Angeles and a chequered survey of its hitherto largely ignored Modern and Postmodern architectural virtues. The “four ecologies”, interestingly enough, are simple subdivisions of the city’s geomorphology and car-based culture that in turn structure the book. There is little in Banham’s analysis that is “ecological” in contemporary terms.

Banham means ecology in the sense that certain infrastructures create certain growth patterns and architectural objects are best understood in relation to that larger condition. Accordingly, he describes how, with such bravado LA evolved after the initial annexation of water from the Owens Valley – an umbilicus that feeds its paradisiacal delusions to this day. With the otherwise arid petri dish of the LA basin and the adjacent San Fernando valley wetted down, it was then the Pacific Electric Railway network and later the freeways, which enabled LA to become the monstrous beauty it is today.

For Banham the freeways are “one of the greater works of man”. He even admires the earthworks of the off-ramps as pleasant views for the surrounding flatland of suburbia, where “the dream, the illusion holds still”. In visiting now, however, one will find the most recent casualties of global capitalism “camping” in these Ballardian wastelands. For Banham though, ‘freewayland’ is the apotheosis of the futuristic no-place that his beloved Angelinos are, according to him, perfectly happy with. It is only visiting “snobs” who see an apocalyptic dystopia.