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At the edge of the city, the forms of the future rise in front of you like an apocalyptic nightmare of normalcy. Coming over the crest of the San Gabriel mountains, you see nothing but the closed compounds of suburban tract developments spreading out over the high desert, eating up its emptiness with the boxed-in forms of our city. The Antelope Valley is the fastest growing part of Los Angeles County, with well over 15,000 housing starts a year. What only a few years ago was a collection of a few stucco rows huddled together against the winds whipping down from the Tahachapis is now a thriving city of over 100,000 inhabitants. Downtown is a strip several miles long, where the fore courts of parking lots set off the Post-modern graphics of commercial seduction. The edge of the city is a perennial construction zone. The only industry is Plant 14, home of the B-1 bomber. The largest forms are still those of the desert and the mountain. There is no focus, no core, no place like home in Palmdale-Lancaster. But there is a lot of building, connected by the umbilical cord of the Freeway to the jobs, amenities and life of Los Angeles.

Drive down the little cul-de-sacs that snake through each of these developments, and you find yourself in Spielberg Land – that surreally normal anyplace where single family homes have been transformed into abstracted fragments of Orange County derivatives of the myth of Spanish Colonial living – here spliced together so mercilessly that only the sloping roof and rough stucco coat remain. Packed together, sometimes even turned into row houses, they are reminiscent of the dense lines of homes that formed the vernacular of the first suburbs of the Midwest. But these neighborhoods have freed themselves completely from the city. They sit back from the major arteries, each isolated and identified only by real estate signs. They are walled in, allowing no view to the outside. Secure in their paranoia, they leave a few narrow gates into their curving labyrinths, where all sense of direction is soon lost as you curve around the bright green patches of lawn (wasn’t there a desert here somewhere?). There are no corner stores, no parks, no places to go except into the vast emptiness of the desert.

The Antelope Valley poses the question to architecture: what is to be done? Sooner or later, some enlightened city father or mother will ask an architect to create a place somewhere out there, to give the community an identity, bound it and focus it. But can it be done? A good Postmodernist will tell you that any place can be like home. All it takes is tight urbanism, easily legible graphics, a few references to the natural elements, and a careful choreography of spaces. But will that solve the fundamental alienation of this place? Architecture cannot bring jobs or sense to this community. It exists by virtue of its far-flung quality, its separation from the perceived urban wasteland of crime and smog, and by the relative worthlessness of its land. Architecture cannot make a place in the desert except as a solitary oasis or a nomadic settlement. It must accept the unsettled, ephemeral and isolated nature of human habitation in this fork of the Mojave. It must confront the carpet-like mesh of infrastructure and habitation that is the naked truth of exurban development. That would seem to deny the traditional notion of an identifiable architecture and thus poses the question: if Palmdale-Lancaster is the future of Los Angeles, what is the future of architecture in Los Angeles? As the prophets knew, only by facing the desert can we define ourselves.

Aaron Betsky

Back to September 1991 Newsletter