Pollyanna Rhee, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is a historian of the built & natural environments. Rhee spoke with LA Forum board member Antonio Pacheco about her forthcoming book, Natural Attachments:The Domestication of American Environmentalism, 1920–1975,to discuss how two disasters,the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake and 1969 oil spill, played a role in the formation of environmentalism in Southern California.

This interview was conducted on May 4, 2022.


Your upcoming book, Natural Attachments, focuses on topics surrounding the development of environmentalism and domesticity in Santa Barbara. Can you share a bit of background on how you arrived at this topic?

The earthquake happened fairly early in the morning, so there weren’t actually that many casualties, but there was a lot of property damage and then a reservoir broke and that destroyed a fair bit of property as well. A good deal of State Street and areas around downtown Santa Barbara were wiped out. This allows city officials and business leaders to put forward a couple narratives that you also hear in other natural disasters, like that the buildings that were destroyed were shoddy and not aligned with the character of the place, while the buildings that had been built in the Spanish Colonial Revival style all came out of the earthquake fairly unscathed. This isn’t true, but it was one of the arguments they made, and within a couple hours, people had gone full swing into reconstruction mode, envisioning the revival of the city. It became this great opportunity to remake the city in an aesthetically uniform style and in a way that creates a narrative showing not just that the built environment can be improved, but that this recovery reflects the power of the community of Santa Barbara based on its ability to rally around this large urban project.

You explain in your book that the 1925 earthquake offered an opportunity to transform Santa Barbara. Natural disasters often justify enacting changes that ruling classes wanted to do anyway. I’m curious about the scope of this transformation in Santa Barbara following the earthquake.

He was interested in new materials and in finding new ways of applying them. Some of these new materials were helpful in making homes more affordable, for example, or for allowing him to do things he wouldn’t have been able to do on a particular budget, so I think that he really wanted to design things for everybody. Someone I had a conversation with recently said that you could really spend your whole life in Paul Williams buildings: you could live in a Williams house, go to a school in a building designed by Paul Williams, shop at buildings designed by Paul Williams, and so on. And I thought that comment was so excellent. Thinking about someone spending their whole life visiting his buildings and operating within them made me think about his overall project, which was to make buildings that are useful to so many people. And then he worked for so long that there were just opportunities to do so many different kinds of things, so many styles came and went, etc. all that contributes to the length of his career and the variety of that work.

Right, which seems like a common occurrence that you see across the US during this period. I’m thinking of the Great Baltimore fire of 1904 or the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, where basically the entire city burns down and is rebuilt bigger and better. Were there any specific communities that were displaced through this rebuilding?

Something I’m working on right now is looking at US Census records from 1920 and 1930. If you go to Santa Barbara today, there is a short strip on De La Guerra Street that makes up the remnants of the Chinatown where members of the Chinese community once lived. There’s not a lot, really just a little plaque that says, “this was China town.” It wasn’t just Chinese residents, but also Japanese residents who lived in this couple block area, but they held a really high concentration of people from East Asia. One interesting thing in the archive is that there are a lot of instances where people who aren’t white, whether they be Mexican, Chinese, or Japanese, are perceived to be suspicious of white people and their efforts to rebuild. There’s always a resistance on the part of these communities to take part in this larger Santa Barbara community project. There’s not a whole lot that I’ve been able to find the other side, I don’t really know what their responses were. The story told is that the Chinese population moved out of this area and out of Santa Barbara more generally after the earthquake, but at least if you compare the Census records from the 1920 and1930, the Chinese population actually remains pretty stable. There’s a type of historical erasure to say that they left. I think this also happened with Hurricane Katrina at a much larger scale, of course: People say, “the population left and were able to come in.”

So did Santa Barbara’s Chinese community embrace the Spanish Colonial Revival regime?

I’m not sure. As far as I can tell, they stay, but they’re not as much a part of what’s thought of as this big community rebuilding effort. Because of the lack of records on the other side it’s hard to tell many do stay. A lot of them were grocers, merchants, cooks, they worked in laundries. They make up a lot of the service economy of Santa Barbara during this period.

The reason I ask is because there’s something so pervasive about the impulse for aesthetic unification, especially during this period, and I would be curious to learn more about their attitude toward this effort. If the 1920s represent the tail end of the United States colonial project of bringing California into the Union, you can see this effort toward aesthetic unification making sense from the perspective of the time, perhaps even to different communities.

Yeah, there is this really interesting way that architecture writers of the time made this argument that California architecture being built in the 1920s and the early 20th century more broadly is somehow more American than what was being built in the Northeast because it’s part of this longer genealogy from Spain to Mexico and then the United States. There was a perception that it was more aligned with the natural and climatic conditions in California and therefore, you could make this argument that it’s actually a type of very indigenous American architecture, especially with its precedents on the east coast being Georgian architecture and the like. I think the ways that these architecture writers are also part of this national project is really fascinating, they wanted to make sure that California is seen as a culmination of the United States, rather than like the Far West.

Totally, the teleology of manifest destiny was supposed to come to fruition in California.

It’s an interesting time in terms of how the United States is thinking about what constitutes American identity. You have Citizenship Acts and Immigration Acts in 1923 and 1924, and then also you have the rise of the Second Ku Klux Klan during this decade as well.

Right, these violent ruptures surround not only what is American in terms of architecture and landscapes but also who is considered an American.

And what does America look like in a place like Southern California specifically.

This question of what is American architecture and whether that is tied to European or “Indigenous” antecedents involves a lot of synthesis and myth-making. There’s a similar thing happening with the landscape. Most of the plants that you think of as quintessentially Southern Californian — like the palm tree or the Jacaranda — aren’t native species. There’s a kind of piecing together of the landscape where imported plants, native species, agricultural crops, and other plants from across the Americas come together here. How does that reality meet the kind of essentialism of the environmental movement that comes later?

The United States of the 1920s takes issue with immigrants if they’re people, but if there are plants coming from somewhere else in the world, that’s actually, a sign that California provides the ideal conditions for any plant from any part of the world. It says something good about the region, so you see California really being celebrated as a place where anything from any part of the world can grow, a place containing every other condition in the world that exists in this one state. It says only good things about California. There were plans for a type of planetary botanic garden that was supposed to go up the Pacific Coast Highway. Because Santa Barbara is also advertised as the northernmost point of southern California and the southernmost point of Northern California, it has all of these special qualities that nowhere else in California also has. The fact that it’s on this South-facing coast, whereas the rest of California is primarily West facing is also part of this. These ideas are all mobilized to frame Santa Barbara as exceptional in a lot of ways. People will talk about plants coming to California from places like Australia and becoming “citizens” that are naturalized into the landscape; they used the language of immigration to say “this arrived here and now it belongs here.”

How does your research deal with that tension between people and plants being accepted in different ways?

One of the overarching goals I had with this project was to show some of the complexities, not just of environmentalism as a type of social movement but also as an encapsulation of people’s political priorities. There is a sort of culture in those priorities that is refracted through place; it’s not actually that straightforward, there are these contradictory elements. People make decisions based on firmly held intuitions about what they know about their immediate environments. Maybe the takeaway from it is to see the power of Nature, or what you think of as natural in your environment, especially if you live in a place like Santa Barbara that’s beautiful and ideal in all these ways. You can actually create this framework that tells you what is natural and what isn’t natural quite easily, but you don’t really have a way to defend it in a court of law; in a way it’s a very privatized politics.

It’s not like an outsider can really appeal to a neutral or objective idea of nature, but people can say “this belongs here because it fits within this environment,” they make the types of arguments that appeal to people who have a lot of social capital. It’s actually really difficult to challenge a view of what’s environmentally appropriate if the argument is between what’s beautiful or what’s not. I think it tells us a lot about the priorities of people who have local political power or civic power in our society. I think it might suggest a lot of limitations of environmentalism, if the scope of it is localized like that. Some Santa Barbara residents, especially after the oil spill and within the immediate aftermath of it would say things like “why don’t they drill in Alaska or the Middle East? Why do they have to drill here in our beautiful environment?” The issue isn’t “We should use less oil or try and find some other alternative,” it’s “we don’t need oil drilling here.”

Your research draws out how borders, both political and physical, bring conceptual limits to environmentalism. One would assume that environmentalism in its truest sense would be a planetary concern, but the sentiments you just mentioned speak to a different perspective.

Part of the research involves trying to find an explanation for why environmental issues have so often been siloed out from other political issues and from public policy. The idea that environmental issues are somehow external to our economic considerations, that we have to think about how the economy is doing before we think about the environment, or how white affluent people see environmentalism as a type of luxury, even when you think about conservation groups that are into hunting and fishing, are examples of this siloing. These things have a veneer of affluence around them. Many people have a pretty narrow frame of reference in terms of which environmental issues are important and who they’re important for and whose priorities are being articulated within the environmental movement. That’s the story I am trying to tell. It’s not a story of the environmental justice movement, which was coming up around the same time, but of a certain type of white affluent environmentalism that is often seen for its limitations, that is at fault for framing environmental issues as an aesthetic issue or cultural quality of life issue rather than a justice issue.

It seems that when environmentalism gets framed as an aesthetic or quality of life issue it takes on a consumerist bent.

Right! It becomes another type of environmentalism that is, as Thomas James writes, a mindset where you eat organic things and that’s enough. It focuses too much on individual action rather than structural ways of thinking about environmental issues. It didn’t necessarily need to have that scope in the first place, but a lot of people, especially after the oil spill and during the ensuing anti growth period deploy the environment in terms of “we have to maintain our boundaries so we don’t further develop land.” You can see how it’s really aligned with a certain type of perhaps contradictory politics.

This perspective is fundamental to California politics. The homelessness crisis is often framed as an aesthetic quality of life issue for homeowners rather than as an economic justice issue for people who are unhoused.

Yeah. It manifests in terms of what type of housing gets built. You can definitely see analogs to things like housing or public funding of schools in the way the politics of affluent environmentalism play out in California, for sure.

Photo Credits: Mission Santa Barbara destroyed by 1925 Earthquake, UC Berkeley Bancroft Library Online Archive of California
Oil on Santa Barbara 1969, United States Geological Survey.

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