LA, Sunshine or Noir

Please post your comments on readings for our next session here.
Mike Davis, Fortress Los Angeles: The militarization of Urban Space
Aaron Betsky, Nothing but Flowers: Against Public Space
Reyner Banham, Los Angeles, The Architecture of Four Ecologies (selection).

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7 Responses to LA, Sunshine or Noir

  1. cambedard says:

    Hi everyone,
    As part of our IPLAI reading group on Architecture+Film, we will be screening ‘Blade Runner’ tomorrow, Thursday February 21st, at 6pm in room 212 at the School of Architecture. It’s actually a perfect timing, as the movie is set in dystopian Los Angeles. Hope to see you there!

  2. cambedard says:

    Some cities are more charismatic than others ; New York, for instance, evokes freedom, the dynamism of urban life and the possibility to achieve your dreams. But other cities, as Banham argues, are misunderstood like Los Angeles, which rather evokes dystopia and danger. If New York is the popular football quarterback, Los Angeles is the pimple-faced reject.

    Perhaps this unpopularity of Los Angeles derives on its obsession with the militarization of urban space. As Davis suggests, this emphasis on security has destroyed any truly democratic urban space, thus turning the American city inward. The ‘success’ of a city does not depend solely on the innovative design of its buildings, but on the attention given to the users of such buildings, and to the spaces between them. As beautiful as the governmental buildings of Brasilia are, the city is simply not designed for pedestrians. Los Angeles is trapped in a vicious cycle: the city is dangerous because it lacks vibrant public spaces, thus street life is almost inexistent and becomes dangerous, therefore people frequent even less such public spaces. Breaking this cycle demands a significant design shift, and certainly not the luxurious and dramatic fortresses of Frank Gehry. Los Angeles needs solutions that will put the users at the core of their design.

    The car culture that prevails in the United States has already been blamed for destroying street life and public spaces. Betsky criticizes the return of the legible city, claimed by New Urbanism, since such strategy destroys urban public space. On the contrary, Betsky advocates for spaces of layers, fractures and confusion, which will force users to find their own order within the city. According to Davis, the predominance of military design in Los Angeles has not only killed the street but killed the crowd. And, I would argue, it also killed the hope in a renewed public space.

    • elisabethbouchard says:

      Mark Davis and Aaron Betsky: same battle, different weapon. While Betsky argues against the definition of urban space as the bourgeois boulevard designed and taught by planners and architects and therefore projected by the political power, Davis criticizes the same political power for its distorted actions toward the urban space; imposing itself as a primary actor in the commodification of the urban space instead of its protector. Also, Davis’ description of the spaces of the ‘’militarized syntax’’ of Los Angeles, the streets and its sidewalks, the garbage alleys etc. are the same ‘’anarchic spaces of self-representation’’ defined by Betsky. However, Davis works much closer to the reality of the street and the consequences public policies has on the daily life of the ‘’outcast’’. His argument is built from within and shows a stronger grasp in the understanding of the city than Betsky’s incredibly intelligent, but still academically distant, interpretation on the contemporary urban public sphere. All this being said, likewise Reyner Banham, I have always had that positivist feeling during my three or four visits to Los Angeles. I experienced this community of artists, designers and architects ‘’…who decided to stay because it is still possible for them to do their thing with the support of like-minded characters and resources of a highly diversified body of skills and technology.’’ Such a reunion of can-do people is unique and transpires through the atmosphere of the drenched-in-sun city. And just as Banham, I am completely biased as my heart is sold to California.

  3. yfaras says:

    It is interesting to analyze Reyner Banham’s views of Los Angeles within the framework of Jan Gehl’s analysis of “in-between” spaces within a city. Jan Gehl is an architect and urban Design consultant form Copenhagen, whose work focuses on the quality of the urban environment. Gehl talks about urban life in the city, in terms of 1) necessary 2) optional and 3) social activities. Gehl argues that : “While necessary activities take place regardless of the quality of the physical environment, optional activities depend to a significant degree on what the place has to offer and how it makes people behave and feel about it. The better a place, the more optional activity occurs and the longer necessary activity lasts. Social activity is the fruit of the quality and length of the other types of activities, because it occurs spontaneously when people meet in a particular place”. Public/communal spaces within cities, which feed what Gehl refers to as the life between buildings, are “ meaningful and attractive when all activities of all types occur in combination and feed off each other”. What Los Angeles seems to lack is precisely this notion of optional and social activities, which are highly related to the environment. Moreover I strongly believe that the empirical evidence on the evolution of Los Angeles over the past forty years (since Banham’s observations were made), seems to undermine Banham’s comment that “Los Angeles performs the functions of a great city, in terms of size, cosmopolitan style, creative energy, international influence, distinctive way of life and corporate personality”.

  4. tsouthcott says:

    Military fortress, urban detritus, breeding ground for truly original architecture – Los Angeles invites this polarity of opinion in its critics, while defying traditional definitions of successful urban forms. While both Betsky and Banham celebrate its uniqueness, Davis critiques its militarization of city life
    .
    Davis describes a Los Angeles that is highly designed, the product of “an explicit socio-spatial strategy”. While other critiques suggest Los Angeles’ form as an ‘oversight’ of urban design, Davis argues for this military state as the result of ‘deliberate repressive intent’, from its downtown prisons, police urban planners, and panopticon shopping centres. The policing of social boundaries through architectural barriers is used as a strategy to attack citizens by homogenizing them, and filtering out ‘undesirables’, fragmenting the population into isolated groups.

    Betsky and Banham instead celebrate a Los Angeles that is less tangible, more ephemeral and difficult to quantify. The spaces that define this city are not created by design. For Betsky, Los Angeles offers a new kind of spatiality: “It is the space of potential, speculation and fantasy” made up of car interiors, turning radii, sight lines and security perimeters. He reconsiders spaces normally considered urban ‘detritus’, voids in our environment produced through neglect and lack of focus. Banham too speaks to “this sense of possibilities still ahead” as inherent in the basic life-style of the city, in its tradition of mobility and potential for illusion. This is where ‘first-class and highly original architecture’ is conceived and created.

    It is clear from the articles presented that to celebrate Los Angeles we must go outside of our traditional conceptions of urban success. The tension between the designed and the undesigned or overlooked is at the heart of its urban character and what makes a city like Los Angeles unique.

  5. LA: “Sunshine or Noir”
    Los Angeles, the epitome of wealth, glamour and glitz, or so I thought. Before visiting LA, I had this built up image of what I thought the city would be like based off of books, movies and televisions, however I quickly learned that images can be deceiving, just as Banham points out in his article An Ecology for Architecture “the closer view can be totally disarming.” When I first arrived in LA I had imagined that the infamous Hollywood sign was located at the end of Hollywood Boulevard, and as you drove/walked down the street, the sign would be in your direct line of vision, peering over the city constantly reminding you of where you are, letting you know that you had finally made it to “Hollywood”. Unfortunately that was the not the case, the sign is not visible from Hollywood Boulevard, or from many streets in fact. I was only able to see it once I turned up a tiny residential street off of the main strip. The sign is only meant to be seen from a higher a level, up in the hills, and it is a constant reminder that it is meant to be seen only by the privileged, those who can afford it and less so for the commoners, which seems to be a constant theme in all three readings on LA.
    LA is continuously seeing a division between rich and poor and the measures that are being taken to separate the two classes are getting more drastic by the minute. As Mike Davis points out in his article Fortress Los Angeles “homeowners are rushing to fortify their equity with walls and gates,” turning their communities into fortified cities. Communities seem to be resorting back to the classical medieval design of fortified cities, adding a modern day twist to it. Instead of having a 10 foot brick wall surrounding the community it is a fancy gate, and instead of the watchtower it is 24 hour surveillance cameras, guards and dogs. Just when we think that people have become more evolved and civilized it turns out that we haven’t, but our technology and know-how have. It is sad to think that we have to start resorting back to our old ways (medieval) in order to feel protected, but the truth is, no matter how hard we try to control a city and keep unwanted out, they will always find away in. People want what they cannot have, and some will do anything to get, we are not solving a problem we are only creating more.

  6. jacdeguire says:

    The american dream : « pressed in between the official policy of containment and the inhumanity of Downtown street »
    – M.Davis p.164

    What caught my attention on the subject studied this week, concern the drastic shift from a managerial approach to an entrepreneurial approach in the metropolitain politics strategies. The perception of futur development switched to goals based on economic growth. This global competiveness of the post-war momentarily took control and influenced directly the tangible and intangible environnement. The inhabitant seems to have been demoted to mere status of simple taxpayer in favor of the municipal administration.The interest for community building or equity, seems to fade. The relationship between the envelope, the networks and the users are so unharmonic that they engaged serious phenomenon of segregation, identity and belonging, observed in different phychogeographical studies. The militarization and the crystallization are sadly demonstrated in M.David text, as the way local « experts » responsed to these social changes in LA… Ouach!

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