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On the Boulevard. Learning from loving L.A.

Los Angeles, 2011 © Iwan Baan Photography

It is well known that Reyner Banham learnt to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original. Amongst the four ecologies with which he synthesized his celebration to the city in 1971 in his manifesto Los Angeles. The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1), Autopia is the only one that does not have a specific geographic condition and just tightens the other three – Surfurbia, Foothills and The Plains of Id – together.

Reyner Banham is a post-modern representative of the tradition of European travellers whose first-hand observations of the genius loci of America provided an enlightening portrait of a nation observed from afar in magazines and movies (2). His romance with the country started with his first trip in 1961 and became a passion going beyond sense or reason (3) in Los Angeles, where he found his ideal subject: a multi-centred city developed by the language of movement, in which the population shifts shaped the enclaves of the modern city. This multi-cantered character was key to Banham, as he wrote in the opening chapter of Los Angeles: the point about this giant city, which has grown almost simultaneously all over, is that all its parts are equal and equally accessible from all other parts at once. (4)

Starting at the water’s edge, the first ecology described by Banham is the idyllic Surfurbia. The term merges the trinomial of the three Ss (Sun, Sand, and Surf) with the suburbanization of the beaches, piers and neighbourhoods spanning from Malibu to Corona del Mar. The hillsides encircling the greater L.A. basin are next; the second ecology, the Foothills, is essentially focused on luxury living. The third, labelled as The Plains of Id, are the central flatlands where the crudest urban lusts and most fundamental aspirations are created. (5)

The last and most epic of Banham’s ecologies is his polemical tribute to the expansive freeway system, in which he found a unique state of mind combining the romance of the road and the fascination for transportation as the major agent of a sprawling suburbanism which, unlike in Europe, “is an independent unit with a character of its own”. Beyond the asphalt network, what Banham named The Transportation Palimpsest is a huge board of movement that has allowed the transformation of the city from ranchos and pueblos into the isotropic metropolis.

Parallel to the freeway system there is a common ground underlying Banham’s reading of the “three geographies”: domesticity, or in his own words, domestic dreams that money can buy (6). From the great palaces of the film stars on the beaches and the hills to the unpretentious homes in the endless streets running away from the flatlands, Banham finds in Los Angeles a common romantic form of domesticity built on what he calls a “mass-produced phantasy”. The local tradition of domestic architecture has two formal ancestors –the Spanish Colonial and the California Bungalow– and one basic principle: freedom for all.

The American sense of private property has ever transcended the simple walls of a house. Garages, patios, porches, gardens, backyards are just some of the entities that, along with the house, complete the actual home and shape the functional, spatial and visual relationship between inside and outside; between private and public. Most often those annexed pieces and the interstitial spaces generated in-between are the places where domestic dreams take shape with the highest intensity. In Southern California, the environmental conditions made it possible to take advantage of that potential and translate it into a magnificent repertoire of the dialogue between indoor and outdoor living; as always, Los Angeles echoed such feature exponentially.

From Frank Lloyd Wright’s California Romanza to the Case Study Houses that were built in Los Angeles, all of them are declarative statements of the found conditions’ potential, like Frank O‘ Gehry’s Norton House, which irreverently captures the melting pot essence of Venice Beach in the 80’s. Above them all, Banham celebrates a step forward in the Eames House in Pacific Palisades: the conquest of machine-aged materials in the domestic imaginary; materials that could be beautiful and even pretty, and make a proper setting for beautiful objects. (7)

Mobility and private land-use appear to be the engines of that great environmental machine called Los Angeles, whose relentless lack of urban planning is the positive result of a process in which form (buildings) belongs to motion (cars) and, thus, is essentially impermanent. In such stage, where should a visitor go? In 1972 Reyner Banham poses the (still current) question to Ed Ruscha –painter and photographer– and Mike Salisbury -art editor of West Magazine- in L.A.’s last drive-in restaurant; Rusha’s answer is a classic: Gas stations; any kind of edifice that has to do with a car. (8)

Ed Ruscha’s series of photo books began in 1962 with Twenty-six gasoline stations, the result of the artist’s journeys between Los Angeles and his hometown Oklahoma City on Route 66. In the books that followed, Ruscha mainly focused on his visual engagement with the very ordinariness of L.A. through the exploration of the urban environment and man-made landscape. Every building on the Sunset Strip (1966) documents each structure on the stretch of Sunset Boulevard between Beverly Hills and Laurel Canyon, and was published as a double-sided 25-foot accordion foldout. The artist used a 35 mm camera mounted to a slow-moving automobile to photograph both sides of the street and developed the system in subsequent works, such as Pacific Coast Highway (1974), in which he extended the range to Los Angeles’ sprawl. (9)

Like Reyner Banham’s works on L.A., Ed Ruscha’s drive-by photography projects are an evocative vision rooted in the romance of the road and its mutant nature. In a city whose limits are hard to recognize and get blurred in a continuum of experience, both Banham and Ruscha encountered a similar fascination for the conditions in which the road becomes urban, shaping the city in a huge scale level and almost leaving the rest to the private –often unexpected– initiative. With the same enthusiasm they embraced the inverse process that intended them to keep on driving outwards.

45 years after “Reyner Banham loved Los Angeles”, his Baede-kar (10)  an advanced fake interactive geolocative app named after Karl Baedeker, the father of the modern guidebook – may be confronted with a further futuristic perspective. Not only has mobility already evolved exponentially, but the immediate future in a natural born pilot place like Los Angeles –a few hundred miles from Silicon Valley- could be facing a shift in terms of transportation. Uber, Google, Tesla, driver-less and clean cars might be a challenge for the uncanny relationship between Angelenos and their wheels. Fortunately, L.A. has widely demonstrated its ability for dealing with contemporariness and metabolizing it into an improved system.


BANHAM, R. (1971). Los Angeles.The Architecture of Four Ecologies. London: Penguin Books.


ESPERDY, G. Banham’s america. Places Journal, March 2012.


COOPER, J. (Director), BROWN, M. (Producer) (1972). Reyner Banham loves Los Angeles. BBC. Opening: “That’s Los Angeles airport. You can always recognize it by the palm trees. And that’s me, Reyner Banham, crossing the road.  I’m Professor of the History of Architecture at University College London.  And you might wonder what I am doing in Los Angeles, which makes nonsense of history and breaks all the rules. Well, I love the place with a passion that goes beyond sense or reason”.


BANHAM, R. (1971). Los Angeles. The Architecture of Four Ecologies. London: Penguin Books.




COOPER, J. (Director), BROWN, M. (Producer) (1972). Reyner Banham loves Los Angeles. BBC.






MAHONEY, J. Before there was Google Street View, there was Ed Ruscha. American Photo Magazine, April 2013.


COOPER, J. (Director), BROWN, M. (Producer) (1972). Reyner Banham loves Los Angeles. BBC.

21.Mar.2016 3962 views
Cecilia Obiol

Cecília Obiol (Barcelona, 1981) is an architect graduated in the ETSAB (2006) where she was assistant professor of Architectural Design (Chair of Professor Carlos Ferrater, 2006-2010). She was assistant director of the Barcelona Institute of Architecture (2010-2012) and assistant teacher at the Chair of Professor Josep Lluís Mateo at the ETH Zurich (2012-2013). Since 2010 she is editor-in-chief of the magazine and publisher house Palimpsesto. She has over 10 years of experience as a freelance architect, editor and curator.

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