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Playground

Fear dictated originally the form and spirit of the house. The behavior of our ancestors was overshadowed by constant defense reactions against real and imagined enemies. . . . [but nowadays] . . . The earth, the sky, and the neighbor, the curse of the past and the retribution of the future, have lost their frightfulness.
– R.M. Schindler, from Shelter or Playground, part of the series “Care of the Body,” in Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1926

As surely as it rests upon reinforced concrete, Schindler’s residence on King’s Road was built upon a foundation of unbridled optimism about Los Angeles’ present moment and future potential. Only Schindler’s faith in the benign natural and potentially benevolent social environments of 1920s Los Angeles made it possible for him to develop the theoretical ideals and architectural realizations of “space architecture.” Translucent houses, open-air sleeping, gymnastic bathrooms, outdoor rooms, communal kitchens – these distinctive Schindler design concepts are inconceivable without a profound embrace of the body, the land, and the neighbor.

As such, Schindler’s optimism was wholly continuous with a larger popular vision of Los Angeles, a view that permeated national and international perception in the early decades of this century. On this Edenic view, Los Angeles was a giant and paradisiacal health spa, a quasi-rural retreat offering sun, clean dry air and mild winters to those afflicted by the damp, cramped and crowded conditions of the gritty modern city.

The Retribution of the Future

Special thanks to the John Coltrane family for permission to use “Love Supreme” as the WHICH WAY, LA? theme.
– from Splice, KCRW’s Monthly Newsletter and Program Guide, March 1997

Initiated in response to the civil disturbances of the spring of 1992, the public radio program, Which Way, LA?, stepped in to help Angelenos understand what led up to the riots and what the future in L.A. might look like. Despite the hopeful title of the show’s theme music, it was clear to all within listening range that the notion of L.A. as a Multicultural Paradise was a bubble irrevocably burst. Largely replacing that booster-ish self-delusion in forums from the nightly news to survey exhibitions in European art museums is a vision of L.A. as a bullet-riddled and syringe-strewn wasteland.

While this dark oversimplification deserves no more credence than its sunnier cousins, the fact remains that since the riots a string of civil and natural disasters have thwarted attempts to shake its grip on public perception. Which is not to say that many such attempts have been made in either mainstream media or in “alternative,” let alone “high”, cultural venues. In fact, perpetuation of this dystopian image has become a major and profitable industry in the worlds of art-making and cultural criticism, let alone in Hollywood.

Kings Road to King’s Break

Whether the idyllic view of Schindler’s time, like all others in the long line of utopian constructions of L.A., was ever an adequate description of conditions here is of course debatable. Likewise, the adequacy of any of the equally long line of nightmarish versions, including the present boilerplate, is dubious.

A single example from contemporary L.A. makes clear the more tangled relationship between the stereotypes of “sunshine” and “noir”: the man arguably at the very epicenter of the lingering mood of dread, Mr. Rodney King, recently launched a non-profit organization which will teach inner city children to hang ten on westside beaches. The program will be funded in part by proceeds from King’s “indie” record label, Straight-Alta-Pazz, which is in turn bankrolled by the settlement check King eventually received for his infamous beating by four sunburnt white police officers. The publicity photo of King distributed at his July 4th [1997] announcement party featured him poolside at his Upland home, wearing a (black-and-blue) neoprene wetsuit and holding a pastel turquoise surfboard stenciled in “urban pineapple” script with the rhetorical question, “‘CAN WE’ ALL GETALONG” [sic]. Whether King’s choice of a demure eleven-foot longboard in an era of 5-foot, neon-splashed shredding boards reflects a nostalgia for an earlier, reputedly more peaceful, era of L.A.’s history remains an open question.

What Schindler and King seem to share is faith in the connection between the natural and the social spheres of life in southern California. In different ways, both King’s Road and King’s foundation assert that the harmony attributed to the natural world can provide a model, and perhaps even a kind of spiritual mentor, for cultivating a similar state of grace in the social realm. Sleeping under the stars and swimming with dolphins, riding waves and cooking by “campfire” – by strengthening the body and syncopating its rhythms to those of the natural world one gains in both confidence and humility, curiosity and tolerance, self-reliance and community spirit. Such goals of decreased social tension through increased individual self-realization of course have a long history. The specific tactic of self-fulfillment through contact with nature is perhaps the most enduring and determinative American ideology, stretching from Plymouth Rock to Walden Pond to Manifest Destiny to Outward Bound to The Turner Diaries.

Blame it on the Weather

It is easy and rather fashionable to debunk a “back-to-nature” approach to social relations as hopelessly romantic and politically naÔve. The jury is still out on Rodney King’s surfing program, but even in the architecturally driven social experiment on King’s Road, it’s not clear that all the interpersonal relations produced there were intended ones, or were effects necessarily deemed desirable by Schindler after their emergence.

Before the baby is thrown out with the bath water, however, and King’s Road is reduced to an architectural relic bereft of the life it was designed to support, it is worth asking whether the alleged naÔvetÈ in Schindler’s thinking lay in the conceptual act of basing his vision of the social upon a model of nature. Or was it rather in a prior, almost factual error: that of starting with an inadequate or insufficiently specific model of L.A.’s natural environment?

The diversity and abundance of flora in Los Angeles is generally recognized; the frequent sunny days and moderate nights are legendary. What is equally specific but wholly unintegrated into the popular conception of L.A.’s natural setting is its unique temporality. Seismic and meteorological research summarized by more popular writers (e.g., John McPhee, Mike Davis, and Brian Fagan) makes it clear that nature in southern California follows patterns and observes rhythms unlike those in any other part of the country, perhaps any other part of the world. Nowhere else are precipitation levels, seismic events, brushfires, debris flows and other natural events so given to erratic gaps and unpredictable magnitudes. Time here is a staccato affair, a discontinuous cadence of events at times furious and at others geologically slow.

By contrast, the northeastern United States, home of Thoreau and many other definitive American nature writers, boast of the world’s highest degree of reliability in average annual rainfall – an annual deviation from the average of less than ten percent. Other natural cycles follow similarly steady patterns, with rough parity among the length of seasons, severity of storms, average temperatures, etc. The resulting conception of the natural rhythm is one of regularity and predictable cycles. A certain modularity of time results, where for years each July has been largely a reiteration of the July previous, a hard winter substitutable in all but detailed particulars for a mild one. It is precisely this degree of orderly repetition within the natural world that allowed its rhythm to be confused and conflated not only with the arithmetic temporality of the calendar, but with more abstract, even theological, constructions such as notions of “indefinite” and “infinite” durations.

Imported into L.A., this cyclical and modular conception of time produced profound misunderstandings of the local situation. For instance, this predisposition to see the natural world in terms of repetitive cycles and regular patterns gave rise directly to the (still widespread) notion of L.A. as a place of eternal summer, where any given day is just like the next, bright and sunny, warm and completely substitutable for any other. The ideological implications of the resulting notion – that L.A. somehow exists “out of time” – permeate virtually every construction of L.A. Take, for example, the snide pejorative of L.A. as “La-La Land,” where citizens cut themselves off from history, politics and other serious issues of the day, or the envious dream of L.A. as the place of perpetual (and hedonistic) adolescence, or the biblico-agrarian utopianism of L.A. as primeval garden.

Nature’s Way

If one were to persist in looking to the natural realm for models upon which to envision a better social sphere, it is worth inquiring how L.A.’s specific temporality would alter both the resulting concept of community, and also the specific designs and strategies required to effect such relations.

To start, the popular notion of “sustainability”–virtually the sine qua non of twentieth century utopian planning, currently reflected in everything from curbside recycling to Biosphere II – would cease to be a defining feature. Abstracted from the repeatable successes of agrarian food production under much more regular climactic conditions, sustainability is an alien notion and an unsupportable reality in a land where both natural blessings and disasters are erratic in timing and unpredictable in magnitude. The eventual (and often quite rapid) failures of southern California communities uncritically predicated upon this imported model have been well documented.

Instead, an appropriate southern California temporal concept would not construe utopia as an ordered and enduring state of affairs, but rather as a sporadic and ephemeral alignment of conditions. That in mind, further attention to L.A.’s natural setting is rewarded: if there have been windows of grace punctuating Los Angeles’ longest-running social narratives – racial division and unequal distribution of capital – they are those brief days of cooperation and fraternity that follow upon the heels of natural catastrophes. Perhaps only in these moments – where safety and/or survival require communication and cooperation and where no personifiable “other” can be blamed for producing the situation – have there been spontaneous and large scale break-downs of the lines of ethnicity, religion and class that otherwise striate Los Angeles’ social fabric. Ironically, then, it is perhaps in the very heart of events largely responsible for the dystopic image of Los Angeles that lurk the best possibilities for its highest social potential.