Swimming to Suburbia: Some Thoughts on the New City and How it Came to be That Way by Craig Hodgetts

An essay based on Craig Hodgetts’ talk to the LA Forum.

Swimming to Suburbia

Some Thoughts on the New City and How It Came to Be That Way

By Craig Hodgetts

L.A.’s streets and avenues are stitched together from a mosaic of discrete city grids which are discontinuously linked by dislocations, swerving axes and polar rotations.  These grids open vistas, frame trivialities and reveal anomalies.  It is a system of altercations and inconsistencies—of thoughtless breadth and pragmatic anticipation which has bred, albeit carelessly, the culture of cruising, hatchbacks and convenience corners, which exemplify the present vision of the future city.

In short, the city grid is the medium from which all other media emanate.  People do things with it:  they plan excursions and funerals, meditations and trysts, with the abandon of an action painter.  The city is perhaps less an artifact than a benevolent flux in which to pursue individual destinies.  Yet it seems that our ability to understand and modify urban destiny has in both theory and practice been hopelessly mired in the cramped space of our most elementary perceptions.   In other words, given the universe of energy and its corollary matter, we are only able to measure and perceive the “physical” world, and consequently have developed systems of architectural “order” related to the ability of various urban objects, buildings and so on to reflect light.  Because of this fixation, the planning of most cities is still at the toy block stage, while much of the rest of the world has discovered electricity.

We generally see walls and roofs as shaping our cities, but there are those of us who are frustrated by the limits of construction and its control of making and memory, and there are others who recognize the inconvenient weight and the permanence of stone as a natural way to dominate the culture as a whole.  I would propose that our idea that the stone image confers status by its simple existence must be re-examined in light of the relative effort required for its realization.

Imagine, for a moment, the ponderous task of coordination in the times when even basic size and shape could only be communicated with difficulty.  A world lacking FAX and stats, limited to messengers toting papyrus rolls in boats up the Nile, could hardly be blamed for the rigid geometry which came to signify civilization.  That geometry was a useful tool.  It got things done, enabling legions of people to work on a single product, even a simple, elemental one:  there was a necessary symbiosis between the monolithic communications network and the task at hand.  So it comes as no surprise to find the design for the network itself carefully incised into the rock, in effect memorializing the “chain of command” which may have been the real invention of such a culture.  Thus the definition of power and rank came to reflect the rigidity of the medium in which early civilizations worked (imagine the consequences of People Magazine in stone), with the resulting geometry inferring a like status at some future time.

By the late Middle Ages, the routines and sub-routines of city building inherited from the Romans had become the structure by which urban life was evaluated.  The medieval city became a familiar artifact, so much so that Giotto’s toy-like depiction of formerly monumental edifices as tilted, colored, even charming objects-at-ply defies their status, reducing them to the engaging companions to urban life that they had become.  Buildings themselves became entertaining pleasure objects, as plentiful as Walkmen; they made you feel good, dressed up your life, and provided a defined context in which you could relate to others.

The city, like a good host, was where it was happening, and the creative nature of man was not only supported, but even exemplified in the complex structures of its plazas and streets.  Henceforth, the synthesis of man and city was to become increasingly reciprocal, evolving steadily away from the paternalistic patterns of imperialism to the point where it became a complex communications organ capable of extending the dynamic interchange of man to man, man to institution, and man to his work.  It became the “communitas:” a place which, in my view, functioned as a kind of media center, where the grand and the accidental could find appropriate accommodation, while the exchange of goods, information, and judgements could multiply indefinitely.

Free interchange characterized the city center.  But by the time Sixtus V had re-erected the obelisk at what was to be the Basilica of St. Peter, the Roman in-crowd had moved on.  And in cities throughout the world, with the rise first of wide-spread publishing, then of railroads, telegraph, radio and telephone, the essential function of communication began to operate without particular reference to its center.  Suddenly, the now-meaningless symbolism of place and adjacency was seen to be less compelling than the complex symbolism inherent in a gigantic task, whether it be the building of pyramids, cathedrals, spaceships, or even cities themselves.

The society which discovers a stimulant such as this task, which, after all, requires extraordinary talents and diverse communication, has no need for the puffery of conventional symbols.  Thus the waning of architectural symbolism in the recent past makes sense.  By engaging ourselves in the creation of a symbolically charged and represented task, we have finally devised a way to make an object, a symbol and a center which requires the most diverse creative energies ever assembled.  This object realizes the potentiality of our technology to take us beyond the realm of the city and of architecture:  it is the Apollo.  The Apollo is a monumental object by the measures of profile and height, but when compared to the static mass of a pyramid it is sufficiently buoyant to be tossed at the moon.  While the pyramid required grunts, lots of them, not eurekas!, the Apollo is about eurekas!, which are the social lubricant par excellence.

The Apollo is a locus of creative thought, not a geographic center.  It suggests that our civilization is busy evolving uses for traditional architectural implements which reach beyond static celebration to the pursuit of performance itself.  Norman Bel Geddes alludes to a similar translation of values in his famous comparison of a rose window to a radial aircraft engine, but stops short of the suggestion that the engine in fact “is” the 20th-century rose window (or was, until the digital display).

Now it is not at all convincing to argue that the central structure and hierarchic patterns which once wove houses and shops into what was known as a city have more than a tedious utility.  Gridlock, rot, and the telephone have taken care of that argument.  But what about Los Angeles?  It is, they say, a non-space, an obese sprawl masquerading as an urban cliché, a city in which the City Hall is just another off-ramp, where, if you are looking for the “real city,” you might just as well go to the beach.

The beach is benign, providing equal accommodation for all—so long as you’ve got your umbrella, your radio and your suntan oil.  As a city metaphor, it suggests a benevolent framework which replaces hierarchies, haves and have-nots, towers and centers, with a uniform network of services and delights.  It provides an invisible structure without visible corollaries to the activities which it is able to sustain.  The beach and, by extension, Los Angeles, is a new city, frustrating to architects and planners who seek correspondence between physical form and tradition, but perfectly suited to generative moment.

Los Angeles is frustrating because the ways in which we have studied cities in the past—analyzing their solids and voids, their bumps and valley—is no more relevant today than are the fingers of phrenology which attempt to “scientifically” plumb neurological depths by describing the surfaces of the skull.  This is because cities have become as quasi-electronic as the brains they house.  Any analysis must address this reality.  As Keith Jarrett has remarked:  “There’s electricity in all of us!”

Similarly, if Los Angeles is reduced to a Nolli map, it seems opaque and uninspired when compared to its European cousins.  Yet we must remember that the functional shape of the new city is best described by the flux of its electronic network.  The city is made up of variegated, constantly changing rhythms of bookings, orders, transactions and contacts too rich in information to be subjected to holistic analysis.  The “skull” of the modern city cannot be cleverly sliced for diagnosis and cure:  It is an entity requiring the sophistication of a brain-scan rather than the ministrations of a triple-0 pen.  Los Angeles is a holographic city.

Let me give an example of the implications of such an analysis by comparing three musical compositions:  a Gregorian chant, the Eroica Symphony, and composer Terry Riley’s “in ‘C’.”

In the chant, we are offered a vision of unanimity:  a single melodic line thick with voices of every timbre, without so much as a rhythmic defection, reflects the quality of Medieval agrarian society.

In the music of Beethoven a marked tension is apparent as themes and sub-plots vie for attention, yet the whole is clearly dominated by a single powerful idea—much, it would seem, like the Renaissance city.

Finally, the work of Terry Riley, each of a series of three- and four-note phrases is played as often as each member of the ensemble chooses, producing a slowly evolving field of harmonic events often characterized as non-music.  In fact, as is the case in a holographic image, the relationship of each unit of the piece to the whole is absolutely typical.  Each moment is the whole at the same scale, even though the whole is articulated in its parts.

I believe that Los Angeles has the qualities of the Riley piece.  Here, a grab-bag of style, convenience and opportunity surrounds each individual like a microcosm of the whole city, offering short-range choice from tacky to flamboyant, catering to lifestyles from monkish to raffish, creating opportunities even a champion self-stylist could never exhaust.

Consumptive, competitive, and creative, the mythic avenues of this city, lined with trees of all species and kaleidoscopic homes, have a logic born of the individual.  One man’s fantasy is another’s reality in a clash of advertisements, décor, wide screens and architectural bravado which flickers preposterously along tree-lined avenues with all the gaudiness of screen gems.

Or do they?  Isn’t this capsule recreation of eras long gone, taken as a whole, a differentiated style unto itself?  Isn’t it a distinctly post-modern luxury to dwell in the midst of sham reality where the only consensus is in diversity?  Are Trigger’s hoof prints just another hieroglyphic?  At the Chinese Theater?

Los Angeles is a city committed to images, but never to sources.  An advertisement shows the bulk of the new Beverly Center as the chapeau on a dressed-to-kill model.  A later ad shows it in steamboat drag, complete with stacks.  A few miles away a landlocked nineteen-thirties Coca Cola bottling plant renders the steamboat in stucco.  A saucer-shaped restaurant rotating atop a severely modern office slab bills itself as a crenellated antique.  A serious downtown hotel takes “Things to come” too seriously, with comic results.  A gigantic Man on Horseback lights a cigarette at the focus of a long axis while multi-million dollar homes look on.

Who’s kidding whom?  Are the inhabitants of this place simply gullible?  Or are they able to row merrily through this shipwreck of icons as though it were a Sunday cruise?  Every weekend abandoned corner lots in vacant corners of cities-within-the-city with names like Eagle Rock, Alhambra and Arcadia are blasted by the giant lights and motor generators of mobile furniture showrooms.  Without the benefit of so much as a tent, with NCR’s safely in the truck, and while soft sculpture surrounds them on the crumbling asphalt, the omnipresent Valley housewifes solemnly confer with their designer counterparts.  They are afraid it won’t go with their wall hanging.  The color is wrong.  The color is money.  Surely the crew of the discovery could not have felt more incongruous had they uncovered a grandfather clock rather than a black monolith in that pit on the moon.

If one avoids freeways, which promise reassurance in the form of a guaranteed destination, the surface of this planet L.A. is endlessly rewarding.  It is an encyclopedia of mini-gardens and barely throttled power boats.  It is like stepping off the Rue Montparnasse to explore the back alleys of Paris.  No matter that Melrose Avenue is 120 feet wide, that it seems to carry more traffic than the autobahn, it is an alley nonetheless, and the pattern of freeways and street grids is topologically, emotionally, and urbanistically Beaux-Arts.  No wonder Banham loved them.

Freeways focus traffic as if they were lenses, beaming the cars directly to the next interchange, blitzing the axis with a mega-dose of car-energy so intense it overwhelms.  What would loom as opportunities in the landscape of lesser cities—sites charged with a view, perhaps a prominent bend, a vista—here are flung at the passing tide in a volley of words and images which ricochet from billboard to billboard, dazzling with a visual racket as violent as a Prohibition shoot-out.

I question the fact that nobody “exploits” those locations.  Why do so few buildings address the shifts in axis which mark subdivisions long since annexed?  And then I remember that there are cars in front and behind.  There is a blonde in that one, the radio is on, and in the distance a string of cobra-like lamps stretches like a veil over a parade of billboards.  And the carphone is in my ear.

In fact, unless there is some particular fixed asset out there—like oil—which must be consumed on the very spot, every backyard is exactly equal to every other backyard.  And it is the producer sunning by the pool, surrounded by telephones and bikini’d cuties of either sex, who makes all the deals.

The magnificent images of cities designed to emulate, and even magnify, the manifold processes of industry and culture and crime and indulgence are not unlike Gainsborough’s painting.  They tranquilize, mystify, and romanticize the vitality of an as of yet uncongealed city which could be getting you off.

In this context, physical manipulation of the gross city fabric seems superfluous at best.  Presumptuous and potentially damaging, cosmetic adventures like the Bunker Hill exercise seem destined to appear, like tidied-up office lobbies, wherever developers have a stake.

It might instead be more meaningful to address the way dislocations and distortions of the basic city fabric can accommodate eccentricities like the Blue Whale or the Brown Cow.  Or one might consider how the message-beeper, phone banks and express mail have already created a cybernetic city.   One might ask how chain stores can be given significant roles which exploit their cumulative importance.  Los Angeles has already evolved a unique texture in which these elements are the principal determinants.  We are already the beneficiaries of a meta-urban state which offers proof-positive that scenography and urban function are no longer mutually exclusive.  This condition suggests that uncoupling the diagram from the experience may be the catalyst which expands our definition of urban form to include explicitly scenographic intent:  we can create “a good shot.”

The dream each of us dreams is the locus of each individual, heating and cooling whole districts in a dynamic, sensory, always interactive experience linked to the fluid nature of the city itself.  As designers, the architectural project which faces us is to disassociate ourselves from the fixation on buildings and to instead look in the rearview mirror.

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