Banham’s Four Ecologies Revisited: A series of images revisiting Reyner Banham’s view of Los Angeles thirty-five years after his seminal book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971) was published.

Jessica Bronson

The book was considered not only one of the canonical surveys of the city of Los Angeles, but an extremely important and new way of viewing and analyzing city planning. Upending traditional urban surveys, Banham considered Los Angeles as a total landscape: an architectural object in itself. Architectural historian Anthony Vidler writes, “…rather than surveying major monuments and historical buildings one by one, [Banham] took on the whole fabric and structure of [the] urban region. In this attempt, Banham worked to develop an entirely radical view of urban architecture, one that has had a major impact on the discipline of architecture history.” Banham not only examined the “high” architectural monuments of the city routine to such urban surveys, but simultaneously and at length considered the proliferating everyday architecture of the city, such as fast food restaurants traditionally bracketed off because of their ephemeral, temporary qualities. In fact, it was the throw-away quality of much of the landscape of Los Angeles that fascinated Banham most and what he felt underpinned the city at large: its plug-in quality – the ability to erase and replace architecture over and over as the time and need required. Vidler continued, “[Banham] provided a road map for the study of urban architecture not just in its geographical, social, and historical context – this was already common practice among social historians of architecture in the late 60’s – but as an active and ever-changing palimpsest of the new global metropolis. Not incidentally, he also entirely redefined the architecture that scholars were used to studying, now embracing all forms of human structure from the freeway to the hot dog stand, and a plurality of forms of expression not simply confined to the aesthetic codes of high architecture.” Banham wrote at length about the city’s infrastructure. For him, the freeways, aqueducts, and other systems Los Angeles deployed to colonize the land ultimately allowed for the bright, colorful, and casual architecture Banham rejoices in as an architecture representative of an authentic response to the California landscape, the objects of modern mass production (cars, surfboards, movies), and the loss of historic precedent as an agent for progress.

Catherine Opie

Being a visitor from Britain, Banham wrote his book as something of a travelogue. The result of this writing is a love affair with the city. Banham’s impressions of Los Angeles read as if he were writing about an exotic culture which fascinated him, and whose mystery, through close analysis, he sought to unveil by getting behind the layers of his infatuation. His analysis, categorized Los Angeles into four foundational ecologies he found pervasive: Surfurbia (the beach), Autopia (the freeways), the Plains of Id (the flatlands), and the Foothills. To Banham, each of these ecologies in effect produced their own authentic response in the way people built. Banham appropriates the term “ecology” for his architectural analysis, a term more often used in biology or zoology concerned with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings, because he wished to understand the total artifact of the city, as a dynamic ecosystem not entirely different in principal from those found in nature. Los Angeles: The Architecture of the Four Ecologies is Banham’s ode to Los Angeles, undertaken in the spirit of a naturalist, who adapts to a locale (Banham had to learn how to drive while in Los Angeles), seeking to reveal and recognize an instance of an indigenous culture’s authentic response to and evolution with the environment, without reference to known categories of description, and all-the-while making-do with what is available at hand from the physical surroundings.

Alex Slade

Moreover, Banham looked at the ecologies as simultaneously a product and producer of the city’s infrastructure which would ultimately become the foundational element of the city – itself worthy of architectural analysis – and ultimately producing the conceptualization and sense of place. The net impression the reader is left with is not a sprawling city composed of incidental small towns, but instead an image of Los Angeles as a total, complex entity; a megastructure (if you will) analogous to a medieval hill town that seemed to erupt from its site and had now taken on a life of its own. Despite the scattered, sprawled, seemingly incoherent character of Los Angeles’ communities (sometimes geographic, other times social), it is the infrastructure of the place that unites them all and creates the foundation upon which the city is built.

James Welling

For this series of images, Banham’s text was revisited to explore what has changed in the intervening years since its publication. Do the four ecologies still hold? How have they been transformed? Are there new ecologies? Is Los Angeles still a city that can be understood geographically or will new modes of representation and classification have to be developed to continue to be able to “read” the shifting terrain? When undertaking the project of producing a portfolio that looked at Los Angeles through the prism of Banham’s ecologies (Autopia, Surfurbia, the Foothills, and the Plains of Id: each coined to lend clarity to an “undefined” or “post-urban” city) there was an interest in understanding how a generation of artists might describe the city one generation later through the same, or new, filters.

The artists participating in this portfolio are Jessica Bronson, Catherine Opie, Alex Slade, and James Welling. Each artist was asked to consider the Los Angeles of Banham for their work in this portfolio. Despite evident references to Banham’s four ecologies, these works also depict a Los Angeles in conflict with Banham’s thinking. The works present a Los Angeles uncomfortable with its sprawl and pervasive automobility; still wholly reliant on machinery, infrastructure, and equipment as a way to mediate (if not tame) the landscape. Moreover, the works vacillate between a strange optimism about the future of Los Angeles and a tarnished view of the landscape of which Banham was such a champion.

The work by Jessica Bronson represents the essence of Banham’s populism and the architectural ecology of the Foothills, by referencing the disposable character of architecture and it’s environs. It captures the uneasy relationship of the city to the natural environment, and the infrastructure enabling it. In her image, a garbage truck is situated perpendicular to the roadway, and against an anonymous structure. Is it tearing it down? Is the truck stuck? The logo on the truck is a decal of the cover of the recently re-released Four Ecologies book.

Catherine Opie’s image is an older image she decided to revisit on the occasion of this portfolio. A bit of countryside has been colonized with a sign-as-lawn advertising for the (then) future town of Valencia (a suburb of Los Angeles). The sign no longer exists today and has been built over with houses. The juxtaposition of the lush landscaped sign in an otherwise arid context speaks to the synthetic quality of Los Angeles enabled entirely by the infrastructure of imported water. In the thirty-five years, since Banham wrote Four Ecologies, the land in this photograph has been erased, flattened, shaped and watered to allow a city to grow upon it. Los Angeles is still growing outward, making place of no place.

The image by Alex Slade speaks to Banham’s embrace of the fundamental feature of Los Angeles, the machinery of sprawl. In Slade’s image, one faces a condition of anywhere, or everywhere, the construction of new developments at a presumed periphery of the city obtainable through the object of Banham’s affection: the automobile. And in this image lies a sign at the lower left directing the viewer to another place surely constructed: a feature cited in Banham’s study whereby places in Los Angeles are not in fact places unless they have a sign to make them evident.

James Welling’s image replies to the sunny optimism of Banham’s portrayal of the city. Poised in Banham’s “Surfurbia”, the work contains two images of run-down buildings – likely built around the time Banham was conducting his survey of the city. The passage of time is written on their surfaces. They are weathered but still speak of former architectural ambitions and cozy relationship with the beach. Electrical connections present in the image speak to their ongoing use and, evidence that they have not been abandoned.

-Warren Techentin

These images were originally created for ForumPortfolio 2006. Click here for more information.