Los Angeles: You and a Bunch of Parking Lots
“There are three great cities in the
United States: there’s Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York — in
that order,” wrote no less an authority on the built environment
than BLDGBLOG author Geoff
Manaugh in a
much-sent-around reflection on the city. “I love Boston; I even
love Denver; I like Miami; I think Washington DC is habitable; but
Los Angeles is Los Angeles. You can’t compare it to Paris, or to
London, or to Rome, or to Shanghai. You can interestingly contrast
it to those cities, sure, and Los Angeles even comes out lacking; but
Los Angeles is still Los Angeles.”
Manaugh posted that piece in 2007, less than a decade ago but still a time when Los Angeles' detractors as well as its boosters could argue, in all seriousness, that it may not, strictly speaking, count as a “city” at all. But what, then, to call it? I've heard “constellation of villages.” I've heard “megaregional core.” I've even heard varying numbers — six, seventeen, 72, 88 — “suburbs in search of a city.” In Manaugh's starker view, “L.A. is the apocalypse: it’s you and a bunch of parking lots. No one’s going to save you; no one’s looking out for you. It’s the only city I know where that’s the explicit premise of living there – that’s the deal you make when you move to L.A. The city, ironically, is emotionally authentic. It says: no one loves you; you’re the least important person in the room; get over it. What matters is what you do there.”
I once put Los Angeles with the internet and the United States of America in a group of things people hate if they can't filter. By that I meant that these wide experiential spaces offer no one experience in particular — or, more accurately, they offer a greater infinity of possible experiences than most spaces, leaving it to you to perceive and navigate your way to a satisfying one. If you go to America or on the internet thinking you'll find nothing but base, meaningless, brain-deadening expanses, you'll find nothing but base, meaningless, brain-deadening expanses. If you go into Los Angeles thinking you'll find nothing but a bunch of parking lots, you'll find nothing but a bunch of parking lots.
Of course, in Manaugh's eyes or those of an observer like him — Reyner Banham, the famous celebrator of 1960s and 70s Los Angeles in the book The Architecture of Four Ecologies and elsewhere certainly counts as an antecedent — you could do worse than a bunch of parking lots and the liberation from surrounding expectations that attend them. “If you can’t handle a huge landscape made entirely from concrete, interspersed with 24-hour drugstores stocked with medications you don’t need, then don’t move there,” for “Los Angeles is where you confront the objective fact that you mean nothing; the desert, the ocean, the tectonic plates, the clear skies, the sun itself, the Hollywood Walk of Fame – even the parking lots: everything there somehow precedes you, even new construction sites, and it’s bigger than you and more abstract than you and indifferent to you. You don’t matter. You’re free.”
Today, those parking lots have begun to disappear. As anyone who's sought permission to put up a tall building or waited the years (or more likely decades) for a new train line to open there knows, Los Angeles doesn't change quickly, at least not by the standards of the world capitals of Asia of even much of Europe. But some decisive shift has happened, some tipping point crossed, in the almost nine years since Manaugh wrote his optimistically nihilistic ode to the city. Some of the areas formerly occupied by cars or simply awaiting the arrival of cars have turned into sites of activity: parks, businesses, places to live and work, construction sites signaling the imminent arrival of the foregoing and much more besides.
But some still believe in the eternal nature of all those Los Angeles parking lots, that landscape made entirely from concrete. Manaugh may have written that in a clearly hyperbolic register, but many others will, if you tell them so, unquestioningly swallow any preposterous yet apparently, er, concrete figure you give them: that 90 percent of Los Angeles' surface is covered with the stuff, for instance, a “fact” of mysterious origin that once got passed around the urban planning journals unchecked for a period of years. It must have jibed with the harsh ideas on which people — outsiders and insiders alike — still fall back when thinking about the southern Californian metropolis, or village constellation, or megaregional core: That it's all paved over. That you can't breathe its air. That it has no public space but its filled-to-solidity freeways. That it's ugly.
That last one has demonstrated special resilience. “I was driving down Sunset and I turned down one of the roads that leads up into the hills, and I stopped at this place that overlooks the whole city,” says the troubled young architect protagonist of Model Shop, Jacques Demy's 1969 cinematic venture into Los Angeles. “It was fantastic. I suddenly felt exhilarated here. I was really moved by the geometry of the place. Its conception, its Baroque geometry. It's a fabulous city. To think some people claim it's an ugly city when it's really pure poetry — it just kills me.” They claimed it then, they claimed it before, and they continue to claim it now.
But why? We might begin to understand by looking at the cities to which Los Angeles' detractors usually make their aesthetically damning comparisons: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, London, Paris — the more classically “beautiful” cities, all of which adhere more closely to the traditional city forms seen throughout centuries of history and across the rest of the world. So perhaps this sense of ugliness springs from Los Angeles' unfamiliarity, from its departure from established forms: a fine hypothesis, so far as it goes, but it breaks down when applied to places that depart even farther. Nobody would think to mount an argument for the ugliness of newer, far-flung strip-mall-and-office-park suburbs like Irvine or Calabasas, which nowhere even try to replicate anything traditionally urban.
Look at Los Angeles piece by piece, though, and you'll find that it actually possesses most of the elements we've learned to take as the signs of a proper city, such as a downtown core with old buildings on gridded streets from which development grew outward along railroad tracks. There are broad boulevards and residential lanes, there are some urban parks (more now than there used to be, with others in the planning stages), there are industrial zones, there are currently or historically ethnic neighborhoods like Little Tokyo, Koreatown, Little Armenia, and Thai Town. Not does it take that much searching to turn up the usual volume of monuments and tourist traps.
But in other respects, Los Angeles looks — or more relevantly here, feels — different indeed than other cities, in large part because it grew fast and alongside America's widespread adoption of the automobile and whose construction thus necessitated an unprecedentedly large scale mechanical replication. Hence the equally persistent perception of the city as America's most car-oriented, of which you'd think a trip to the likes of Phoenix or Atlanta or Orlando would instantly disabuse anyone, but perhaps places like those don't raise the expectations of a capital-C City the way Los Angeles does (even if those entertaining the expectations do so expressly to feel them dashed). The aesthetic discomfort must arise from uncanniness: people find Los Angeles ugly for the same reason they find a face with features not quite the right size in not quite the right places ugly.
And in many eyes, those features also clash with each other. The archetypal reaction comes out of the mouth of Woody Allen's character in Annie Hall on a drive through Beverly Hills: “Yeah, the architecture is really consistent, isn’t it? French next to Spanish next to Tudor next to Japanese.” That thoroughly sarcastic line surprised me the first time I heard it, not because I believed Los Angeles had consistent architecture, but because I'd never before thought of architectural consistency as a naturally desirable quality. “There is no reward for aesthetic virtue here, no punishment for aesthetic crime,” wrote hard-boiled crime novelist James M. Cain in 1933, more than forty years before Allen's assessment, of the houses people had built. “Nothing but a vast cosmic indifference, and that is the one thing the human imagination cannot stand.”
And so we find ourselves back in Geoff Manaugh's Los Angeles, which “is the confrontation with the void. It is the void. It’s the confrontation with astronomy through near-constant sunlight and the inhuman radiative cancers that result. It’s the confrontation with geology through plate tectonics and buried oil, methane, gravel, tar, and whatever other weird deposits of unknown ancient remains are sitting around down there in the dry and fractured subsurface. It’s a confrontation with the oceanic; with anonymity; with desert time; with endless parking lots.”
But as Reyner Banham argued, “the fact that these parking-lots, freeways, drive-ins, and other facilities have not wrecked the city-form is due chiefly to the fact that Los Angeles has no urban form at all in the commonly accepted sense.” Or rather, it has no urban form — and certainly had no urban form in 1971 — legible to the average urbanite. Observers like Banham and his intellectual descendants have made a solid start on teaching us how to read what we'd previously considered unreadable cities, but work remains to be done, not least because the form of these cities themselves keeps shifting. It also holds true for cities like Toronto (reflexively considered Canada's New York, but on a deeper level its Los Angeles) and Seoul (where I live now), both of which also routinely get called ugly, and both of which also rank among the urban places I enjoy most in the world.
The aspiring appreciator of any of these cities must, in a sense, learn to read their languages — not the languages of their road signs and advertisements, but the grammar, vocabulary, and vernacular of their built environments. Banham, born and raised in Norwich, famously declared that, “like earlier generations of English intellectuals who taught themselves Italian in order to read Dante in the original, I learned to drive to read Los Angeles in the original.” That may have sufficed 45 years ago, but the urban language of Los Angles has greatly expanded since then, and now we must read it differently. The city itself may still not strike you as beautiful, and you may find yourself face to face with the void there, but at least you don't really have to drive anymore.
See also my site, or follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Many episodes of my video essay series The City in Cinema cover Los Angeles, as do some of the pieces I write for Guardian Cities. If you'd like to subscribe to the Where Is the City of the Future? mailing list, which offers updates on this project as well as a curated selection of other articles related to the cities it will cover, please become a supporter here on Byline.