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San Fernando Valley, 1950

The Forum’s summer lecture series, Natural Productions, featured eight speakers who addressed the issue of nature and landscape in the city. Such an issue is particularly complex in Los Angeles, which more than almost any other American city has promoted itself, through the production of seductive myths, as a natural paradise, an oasis in the desert surrounded by mountains and ocean. That most of these ” natural” attributes – the continuous sandy beaches, the groves of orange trees, the blankets of green lawns punctuated with palm trees, the lushly planted developments amongst the canyons and hillsides – do not exist in some essential and unadulterated state, but are rather constructed with as much work, vision, and capital as the laying of a freeway or the construction of a building, is easily, even deliberately, forgotten. The perpetuation of the myths of Los Angeles as a natural paradise in fact fuels the destruction of much upon which these myths are based. Historian Mike Davis reveals, for example, how the very orange groves whose images lured many to Los Angeles were at the same time being destroyed and developed to accommodate this new influx of Angelenos. Such images became, therefore, nostalgic representation of how L.A. once was, and, hopes the home buyer, might be.

How we see nature in the city is of course an ideological phenomenon. Much of the way we have traditionally perceived nature has been informed by artists, especially writers and painters. Landscape painting, a genre which emerged in the seventeenth century, appropriated particular images of nature and presented them as “landscape”, worthy of being depicted and sold as art, as well as imitated in garden and park design. Landscape must therefore be seen as a cultural construct; it is an ideology which frames the way we perceive nature, and therefore informs the way we treat and make it.

Cities, in contrast to nature, have traditionally been envisioned as the realm of culture. The historian Leo Marx, author of The Machine in the Garden, has outlined the numerous myths which have governed the way Americans portray nature, all of which depend on this essential distinction between nature and city. One of the more potent myths is the Progressive belief in man’s destiny over nature; the imposition of civilization, refinement, and order over an untamed, savage, even menacing nature. Very different, but as powerful, is the pastoral perception of nature as a place of harmony, serenity, beauty, and even divinity, in contrast to the corruption, chaos, and oppression of cities. Both constructions of the idea of “nature” are still to an extent relevant and inform much of the cultural and political debates today.

If cities have historically been seen in contrast to nature, it is “landscape” which has mediated between the two. The idea of landscape makes nature accessible to the city dweller, as an urban park, a private garden, a landscape painting in a museum, or even a Club Med billboard luring weary urbanites stuck in rush hour traffic. The nineteenth century notion of parks as the lungs of the city, or Olmstead’s view of the civilizing mission of urban parks, never really took hold in the sprawling, privatized world of Los Angeles, and given current fiscal and social realities probably never will.

But in the confusion of today’s urban, suburban and exurban conglomerations we find another landscape, one of freeways, parking lots, front lawns, concrete-banked rivers, high-tension wire towers, billboards, decaying industrial zones, palm tree allies, scraped hilltops, and the centrifugal sprawl of platting for development. It has been described by many as a landscape devoid of traditional characteristics, a wasteland.

Some of the speakers, such as architect William Fain and architect and landscape architect Walter Hood, see opportunity in this wasteland for a reintroduced ” nature,” an ameliorating layer of landscape upon urban scars. Fain’s proposal utilizes postindustrial remnants such as railroad right-of-ways as well as portions of the Los Angeles River as sites for a continuous four hundred mile linear public open space system of parks and recreational space. Hood’s work in Oakland utilizes similar leftover spaces as sites for new parks. Hood specifically addresses the legacy of Urban Renewal programs, both the spaces and peoples marginalized by these programs. Sited at freeway offramps, parking structures, housing projects, empty lots, and decimated neighborhoods, Hood’s projects use landscape and urban design to create spaces for those typically excluded by the spatial politics of the contemporary city. Hood designs, for example, parks for scavengers of recyclables, streetwalkers, malt whiskey drinkers, dreamers, loners, and lovers.

Cities have appropriated nature, subjugated it, altered, and utilized it as essential components of a complex infrastructural system supporting the myriad functions of the contemporary city. Hidden, but complex and ubiquitous systems of pipes, wires, tunnels, and aqueducts such as electricity, storm drainage, and plumbing are seen by Gary Strang as almost organic in their role of giving life to the body of the city. Strang’s work (installations, professional work, and writings) attempts to render the invisible visible, to educate, demystify, and provoke urban denizens into understanding the repercussions and connections of specific (sub)urban acts with aspects of nature.

Strang’s work also collapses traditional distinctions between landscape architecture, architecture, and civil engineering for a more comprehensive approach to design in today’s cities. In a similar manner, the idea of “civil” in landscape architect Pamela Burton’s designs acknowledges the sense of the original Latin root civil, or “citizen”, also the root of “civilization.” Like Simon Schama’s thesis in his recent Landscape and Memory, Burton uses landscape as a medium of both physical trace and symbolic allusion in an attempt to evoke not only the invisible but the forgotten. The fountain in her Biddy Mason Park in downtown Los Angeles, for example, brings above ground what is usually below. The fountain consists of exposed, vertically cantilevered pipes with water running down outside their walls instead of flowing within: a playful adaptation of the vast systems of water which exist below our feet.

The desire to control water in Southern California has resulted in some of the most extreme contortions of nature, such as the concrete entombment of the Los Angeles River by the Army Corps of Engineers, primarily as a means of preventing flooding by channeling storm drainage. Once a source of life for the original pueblo of Los Angeles, which was founded along the river’s banks, the natural river is now a major public works project, urban infrastructure at a vast scale. Author, poet, and Friends of the L.A. River co-founder Lewis MacAdams is persuasive and tenacious in his quest for recognition of the River. For MacAdams, the River must be seen as a grand work of art which instead of being ignored and invisible, should be confronted, used, even celebrated. His collection of poems in progress entitled The River, evokes William Carlos Williams’ long poem Paterson which uses the form and symbolism of the Passaic River as a means of understanding the city of Paterson. Twenty years later, the Passaic River was also the focus of a series of photographs by the artist Robert Smithson. Ironically entitled “Monuments of the Passaic,” Smithson documented the decaying industrial aspects of the river – concrete abutments, derricks, sewer pipes, storage tanks and debris. Similarly, Stephen Callis’ black and white photographs document the Los Angeles River in all its factual glory of concrete banks, barbed wire fences, high-tension wire towers, and railroad bridges and tracks. Callis’ beautiful, haunting work provokes us to see anew elements of our city which are so easily overlooked, or dismissed. Both Callis and MacAdams attempt to bring the river into the everyday consciousness of Los Angelenos.

Artistic representations of nature have had a strong influence on the way we perceive and create landscape. The relationship of landscape painting with landscape design was at its strongest in the eighteenth century. The ideal Arcadian paintings of Claude Lorraine were embodied in Picturesque gardens by William Kent, Humphrey Repton and others as a series of carefully choreographed scenes for the viewer. With the invention of the Claude glass, a small brown lens which would soften views of nature to imitate a Claude painting, any aspiring tourist to the country could “make” their own picturesque landscape. In today’s Los Angeles, however, with the ever-present haze of smog, artist Kim Abeles hardly needs a Claude Glass to obscure the view of her subject, a peak of the San Gabriel Mountains as seen (sometimes) from her downtown loft. In “Mountain Wedge,” Abeles photographs the barely visible mountain every day until finally, 14 months later, it is clearly visible through a smogless sky. The final image of the clear mountain, in all its factual clarity, is not, however, mechanically reproduced as a photographic print, but rather represented by an oversize impressionistic painting, an image lodged in her memory like a great ruin. Abeles Smog Collector series further attempts to make the invisible (well, hazy) visible by using the particulate matter of smog as the medium of her artistic productions. The revelation of smog is the revelation of the human hand affecting our environment, and a commentary on nature as mitigated through ecology and politics.

The speakers in this summer’s Natural Production series helped us to realize that there is a culture of nature. Our society’s ability to alter and affect nature, from recombinant DNA to plastic surgery, from theme parks to virtual reality is so pervasive that the “real” in nature is slipping inaccessibly beyond layers of hyperreal. Perhaps logically, the industrial era which saw the destruction of so much of the natural world has been replaced by a post-industrial service-oriented world which promotes tourism of a repackaged, reproduced and re-presented nature. Nature is becoming more and more something that we visit on the weekends or watch on an IMAX screen. There is a distance from, perhaps negligence of, nature that has a long history in Los Angeles. Mike Davis showed us how the few serious planning attempts to balance both nature and urban growth, such as those of Olmsted Brothers, Robert Alexander, and Garrett Eckbo, failed primarily from lack of political leadership and the pressures of speculation. Such neglect of the “real” nature of Los Angeles is perhaps not exceptional given the industries of simulacra which reside here (Disneyland, Hollywood) and the city’s foundation upon simplistic myths of nature. The lecture series intended to address this negligence and distance by provoking issues which challenge the way we see nature, for how we see nature in turn determines how we produce it, protect it, and use it in the future.

Oil wells crowding out houses and palm trees northwest of downtown at the turn of the Twentieth Century.

Back to December 1995 Newsletter