Book: Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies

Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (Book) By Reyner Banham

Book Cover, Architecture of four ecologies

I agree that this was an outstanding book to begin my research, very light read and yet so full of information. This is a book written in 1971 about Los Angeles architecture and historical development from the turn of the century up until the 1960s. The writer (Reyner Banham) is a British Architecture critic and does an amazing job at describing the sentiment of Los Angeles as a martian Oasis through the eyes of an outsider (in multiple occasions making reference to Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust). I enjoyed the little nuances of Banham as he addresses the audience of his book (He keeps comparing LA with European cities, specially his hometown of London)

The main theme of the book is that of mobility and it’s effect on urban design and architecture in Los Angeles, by extending the analogy of the Southern California freeways to that of Los Angeles Urban sprawl, Banham creates the perspective of Los Angeles as a land of Libertarian sensibility  and peripheral growth of individual communities in the many foothills of the Los Angeles basin. This strange blooming of communities that sprout from the convenient amalgamation of private interests and public funds gives rise to the backdrop of landlocked communities which in turn provide a blank canvas that allow architects to truly articulate their vision of the American dream, and what a mural of phantasmagoric qualities, ever evolving and ever moving. Banham characterizes the somewhat discordant design philosophy of los angeles as a truly liberating experience when appreciated but also ponders on the, as of his time, difficulty that critics have to relinquish any abstract and coherent relation between it all (He mentions the difficulty in classifying themes and design philosophies in LA and the sense of ennui it creates with architectural historians and scholars that attempt to classify or gauge its permeation in other locales).

Facsimiles and Derivations

The book breaks down Los Angeles into four “ecologies” that allow for diverse and apparently mutually exclusive ecosystems (the beaches, the foothills, the plains(or basin), and the freeways) and elaborates on his classifications without being pedantic and while providing valuable information on major recognizable architects and the situations which allowed them to thrive in Los Angeles (See his chapter on the Exiles; Architects like R.M. Schindler and Richard Neutra) The idea of these four topographical characteristics being the ecosystems of LA seemed a little far fetched to me (although his reflection of LA’s Autopia is spot on, and I was amazed by the unknown-to-me fact that  Wilshire Blvd’s Miracle mile was constructed as the first longitudinal city with one main street, plenty of parking , and rows of houses behind, creating a beautiful singular shopping trajectory with no visible cars, only pedestrians and storefronts) Soon after completing the book i realized that his interpretation of LA was not outlandish, i was just trying to understand under the wrong paradigm, that of a person living in the 21st century Los Angeles.

Banham’s interpretation of Los Angeles in flux draws a heavy comparison to Paul Virilio’s idea of Dromology as the scoring tool for understanding post-war architecture and urbanization patterns. Virilio’s Dromology refers to the science of speed, and the idea that time is the causality of modern architecture. His study of the urban plane as a set of bunkers and the idea of the integral accident seem to strike a chord with LA’s present situation as a thriving society with a decaying urban infrastructure and makes me wonder why if even in Banham’s book (and before Banham’s time), LA’s catastrophic demise has been spelled out in plain and simple English, lack of resources, something that was not just built upon, but built into the architecture and infrastructure of this city.

(Citations coming soon…)

Quotes and Illustrations:

“What I have aimed to go is to present the architecture (in a fairly conventional sense of the word) within the topographical and historical context of the total artefact that constitutes Greater Los Angeles, because it is this double context that binds the polymorphous architectures into comprehensible unity that cannot often by discerned by comparing monument with monument out of context”

pg 5.

“one can most properly being by learning the local language; and the language of design, architecture, and urbanism in Los Angeles is the language of movement”

pg 5

Illustration  5, “map of the first five railways out of the pueblo, and the water distribution grid”

pg 15

illustration 25 and 26, Millard House, pasadena, 1923, Frank Loyd Wright, architect; Ennis house, Griffith Park, 1924,

illustration 28a gamble house, pasadena, 1908, Greene and Greene, architects


illustration 30, route map of the pacific electric railroad

illustration 44 hollywood bowl, Lloyd Wright, architectural design

pg 89

” ‘cultural values’ and ancient symbols are handled primarily as methods of claiming or establishing status”

pg 106

“watts…it’s doubtful if any part of Greater Los Angeles, even downtown, was so well connected to so many places – whatever local ecological disadvantages Watts may have suffered from its flatness and dryness, no place was more strategically ill-placed for anything, as the freeways with their different priorities threaded across the plains and left Watts always on one side…its isolation from transportation contributes to every one of its misfortunes”

pg 155

book reference: “The Day of The Locust” Nathanael West

pg 157

illustration 95a, Health house, Richard Neutra, 1929, architect

pg 171

Regarding Neutra’s architecture “You feel he begins to value brick or steel for their character as substances, not just their performance”

pg 176

reference to David Hockney, painter

pg 179

Downtown was not able to mature as epicenter or “authoritative downtown” of los angeles because of rapid growth in neighboring communities, Los Angeles as Bimodal, ” outward sprawl from a center which is older that the rest of the city”. its relationship to other parts of the metropolis “never carried the sense of moral and municipal hegemony that normally exists between a central city and its satellite suburbs”

pg 183-185


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