Urban Collage

To drive through the open rolling countryside … at 7:45 a.m. and suddenly be caught in half-mile-long lines of commuters waiting to get through the traffic-lighted intersection of Jamboree Road and MacArthur Boulevard is a puzzling experience. But lift your gaze to the horizon; then you realize that those distant shoeboxes are commuter destinations. [1]

There is a high-rise hotel with a conical pointed roof protruding through the trees. Then you see a Nieman-Marcus store, housed in a brick palazzo – windowless, but with a passable cornice. In front is the parking structure, four storeys high, beautified with the literal addition of pastel stripes, the most universal symbol of the area. This is a place which grew in parcels of little private estates, their individual presence marked by vestigial gates bearing names such as Tysons 2. From the humblest of beginnings – distribution depots, start up software companies, professional buildings to house lawyers and dentists – the scale has ballooned. Suddenly, here in the middle of nowhere is Bloomingdale’s, and Taco Bell, and Holiday Inn, next to Woolworth’s and Nordstrom. [2]

Descending into traffic that is bumper to bumper in both directions, one swirls through mosaics of lawn and parking, punctuated by office slabs whose designers have taken the curious vow of never placing windows in anything other than horizontal reflective strips. Detours mark the yellow dust of heavy construction that seems a permanent feature of the landscape. Tasteful signs mark corporations apparently named after Klingon warriors. Who put Captain Kirk in charge of calling companies Imtrex, Avantor, and Synovus? Before that question can settle, you encounter the spoor of – the mother ship. …the mark of that mind-boggling enormity reads MALL NEXT FOUR LEFTS. [3]

At the entrance, there is the logo for the building, the identi-kit for the isolated empire within, with reminders that what lies beyond is private property – emphatically both private and property. As the glass doors firmly close, the mental realm changes. We are inside, contained, separate, part of the system, a consumer, a peruser, a cruiser – membership has its privileges. Up the escalator, down the stair, along the bricked passageway, numbed by the incessant whirring and the mechanical breeze. Vaguely reassuring icons drift by like freeway signs: the information kiosk; the chain shoe store; the trickling fountain; the food fair garnished in neon. [4]

A frenetic air is evoked by a crowd of people jousting and shouting while waiting in line outside a popular eating spot that specializes in Greek cooking. Groups of shoppers press by on the narrow sidewalk eager to reach the newly renovated nineteenth century commercial block. Inside the new development, labyrinth walkways, comprised of escalators, stairs, catwalks and ramps, force potential buyers past every shop. Window displays of clothing, records, tapes, candy, fudge, pastries, cards, electronic gadgets, magazines, toys, and t-shirts entice the young consumers. [5]

…there are banks of touch-sensitive video screens which will guide you around all 122 of the store’s departments. In three languages, they can advise you on the conversion of English collar sizes to their Japanese equivalents, the location of the fresh fish department, and the whereabouts of the Sotheby’s office up on the seventh floor which offers Japanese bidders a satellite link to its London auctions. Should you tire of Seibu’s own attractions, the screens can offer a selection of noodle bars in the neighborhood, complete with menus and maps of how to find them, and a listing, updated daily, of the programmes at local cinemas. [6]

The Lobby Level is considered level 1. Flower Street is on the Lobby Level. On the second level (one level above the Lobby), you will find the Figueroa Street Entrance, the California Ballroom, and the first of the retail shops, including the newsstand, ELSONS. Retail shops, from flowers to furs, can be found on levels 2 through 6. [7]

On a sunny day, you might find anything from t-shirts to Afrocentric jewelry to art prints, all sold from the wall of McDonald’s parking lot. On Fridays and Saturdays, the detailing van parks behind the Chevron station. The owner/operators set out chairs under a blue tarp, creating an instant magnet for passers-by to stop and chat. [8]

Not only are the yshivas, synagogues, and charitable offices indistinguishable form the other neighborhood buildings, the sectarian divisions within the community are equally opaque to outsiders. Only on Friday afternoons, when bevies of school girls, some in red plaid uniforms others in blue, ignore one another on the street, or later in the evening when the intersections are congested by swarms of bearded men in either contemporary or nineteenth century costume does any of this become apparent. Similarly, the network of gay bars and after hours clubs in Silver Lake are almost ostentatious in their anonymity. They display no signs, windows are boarded up or blacked out, and even street numbers are sometimes lacking. Only by following the weekend comings and goings of initiates (or their enemies) is one able to realize that some other program exists among the warehouses and body shops. [9]

A dark, blue mini-van, equipped with a color television, speeds down the EXPRESSWAY. The driver, a COLONY housewife, is taking her two young children to a performance of Bozo the Clown at an ENCLAVE entertainment center. Upon entering the expressway, the van descends into a linear and focused tunnel of concrete separating inside from outside. In the vortex created by the speed of the rapidly moving traffic, papers, dirt, and trash swirl about between the pavement and the embankment. At the upper edges nature in the form of trees and shrubs retains and screens the view beyond its walls. Signage hovering over the expressways on billboards and walls of abandoned buildings urges viewers to “Elect Barbara Garret.” As the van moves from north to south, a noticeable change in the surrounding context occurs. The densely built neighborhoods that formerly bordered the expressway gradually give way to isolated houses clinging to their sites. Boarded-up, burnt-out remnants encroach on these dwellings foreshadowing their own fate. Speed obscures detail. When passed at sixty miles an hour, images become blurred, vague, and indistinct. [10]

California Spanish-tile-covered Asian postmodern buildings. Pink bronze reflective glass. Unintended intimacies: town houses built right up next to the elevated speedway. A vaguely British office castle with an enormous archway cut right through the middle of it – a portcullis eight stories, count them, eight stories high. Blue reflective glass. The Marriott. Unfinished cement walls. A Mercedes symbol four stories high, right next to a place that calls itself Leather Land. Women in expensive silk whipping by in jacked-up Ford Ranger 4×4 pickups. A starkly green field full of alfalfa. It’s all so close, so immediate, so reeling. …. Billboard: VANTAGE BEATS MARLBORO. A sign that says LAST FREE EXIT. It points to a flyover that is uplifted by highway sculptures in cruciform. They are so huge, they would be worshipped by Toltecs. The toll plazas, by contrast, try to be cozy. They are made of wood and have shake roofs. Corporate America: Digital. The Hilton. An office building with both crinkled multiple corner offices and curved glass, with the word on the top – OXY – right up against the highway as it dips and churns. The Galleria with its Westin Hotel, featuring barrel tops centered on circular windows, and Marshall Field’s. And Macy’s. And parking garages matching the curve of a ramp as it swirls around like the frozen contrail of a jet fighter on the attack. Dark male brown marble facades, meant to connote not just wealth, but old European wealth. Stop and Go Fax Send and Receive Service. More homes right up against the elevated highway. Gold-bronze-pink windows. Something called the Grand Kempinski. With the Grand Kempi’s nightclub. Crystal Wood Town Center, Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor, J.C. Penny. … A roll of curved horizontal glass off an office slab in a series of waves exactly repeated by a roll of water falling beneath it. Atria. Steel pylons carrying power, ah yes, power. A billboard: MAKE YOUR NEXT DATE A TWO-BAGGER. Two people pictured, each with potato chip bag over head. Billboard: SO MANY MESSAGES, SUCH LITTLE TIME, METRO CELL CELLULAR. Billboard: PICK UP THE PHONE INSTEAD OF THE PIECES. FIRST STEP CRISIS PREVENTION CENTER. [11]

Our car has left the elevated track and has dropped its speed of sixty miles an hour to run gently through the residential quarters. The “set-backs” permit vast architectural perspectives. There are gardens, games and sports grounds. And sky everywhere, as far as the eye can see. The square silhouettes of the terraced roofs stand clear against the sky, bordered with the verdue of the hanging gardens. The uniformity of units that compose the picture throw into relief the firm lines on which the far-flung masses are constructed. Their outlines softened by distance, the skyscrapers raise their immense geometrical facades all of glass, and in them is reflected the blue glory of the sky. An overwhelming sensation. Immense but radiant prisms… As twilight falls the glass skyscrapers seem to flame. [12]

By car you can orbit many of the valley’s new communities – with wistful names like Crystal Ball and Club Pacific – but you need an invitation from a resident to get inside. Almost all have electronic gates and, in the more pricey neighborhoods, uniformed guards in reflective sunglasses. Visible through the bars are children on in-line skates, retirees out for walks. On weekends, barbeque smoke wafts over the walls. [13]

The entrance to Lordvale is distinguished by what its developer is pleased to call an “active water feature.” That is a collection of trucked-in rocks, over which water is pumped. The sound of this new waterfall is not as pervasive as that of the Pike, but its size does catch the eye of the highway’s drivers as they speed by. There are perhaps two hundred town houses in Lordvale, arranged in eight-packs. The rhythm of their facades is garage door, front door, garage door – each unit being the mirror image of the one on the other side. They are stained in variations of two colors – beige and gray. [14]

The sky is as dark as the ground; the stars, piercingly bright, a million astral specks that have fallen onto the city. On this light-studded scrim the stationary lights appear confident, the moving ones, like tracer bullets, utterly determined, while the pervasive blackness throws everything else into oblivion. The city a giant switchboard, its million points switched either on or off. [15]

Broad, rather vague roads traverse these patterns, not vague as to their direction, which normally relates directly to the four compass points on an extremely rectangular grid, but vague as to their status and destination. A substantial four-lane highway will apparently stop at a white fence and a grove of trees, but will be found to have merely narrowed at an unwidened two-lane bridge over a dry wash, the trees marking the line of the stream; or the trees may stand on the property line of a farm that has no yet been bought back for widening. In either case, the road may, or may not, return to full width after the interruption. Or again a road may suddenly come to a dead stop against a couple of mighty black irrigation tanks, indicating a still-undisturbed agricultural holding, on the far side of which, maybe a mile away, the road may or may not resume its straight course. [16]

…nearly ten miles past any signs of inhabitation, you unexpectedly come across an exit for 339th Avenue. The exit is marked by a standard green interstate sign indicating a narrow, paved right-of-way which quickly recedes to the horizon and vanishes. It is an arrogant claim on the open desert, staked out in defiance of all probability, waiting for the inevitable expansion of the city to catch up. [17]

[1] Grady Clay, Close Up: How to Read the American City (London: The University of Chicago Press, 1973) p 118. Irvine, Orange County, California.

[2] Deyan Sudjic, The 100 Mile City (Orlando: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1992) p 117. Tyson’s Corner, Washington DC.

[3] Joel Garreau, Edge City: Life on the New Frontier (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc, 1991) p 7. King of Prussia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[4] Trevor Boddy, “Underground and Overhead: Building the Analogous City,” in Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space, ed. Michael Sorkin. (New York: The Noonday Press, 1992) pp 123-4.

[5] Rochelle Martin, “Travelogue,” in Dichotomy 10, ed. Leonard Enz and Deborah Gardin. (Detroit: University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture, 1994) p 40. Detroit, Michigan

[6] Deyan Sudjic, The 100 Mile City (Orlando: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1992) p 216. Seibu’s Department Store, Tokyo.

[7] William Whyte, City: Rediscovering the Center (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc, 1988) p 216. Bonaventure Hotel, Downtown, Los Angeles, California.

[8] Margaret Crawford, as told to Mark Skiles, “Margaret Crawford’s Greatness Close to Home: My Daily Trip down La Brea,” in Offramp 6, ed. John Colter and Mark Skiles. (Los Angeles: Southern California Institute of Architecture, 1996) p 62. La Brea, Los Angeles, California.

[9] Roger Sherman and Harrison Higgins, “Order Out of Chaos: LAs Other Landmarks,” in Offramp 6, ed. John Colter and Mark Skiles. (Los Angeles: Southern California Institute of Architecture, 1996) p 71. Silverlake, Los Angeles, California.

[10] Rochelle Martin, “Travelogue,” in Dichotomy 10, ed. Leonard Enz and Deborah Gardin. (Detroit: University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture, 1994) p 32. Detroit, Michigan.

[11] Joel Garreau, Edge City: Life on the New Frontier (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc, 1991) pp 218-9. Dallas Galleria, Dallas, Texas

[12] Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning, translated by Frederick Etchells (London: Architectural Press, 1947) pp 189-90. Originally published as Urbanisme, Paris: Editions Cres, 1924. Radiant City.

[13] Willam R. Newcott, “Believing Las Vegas,” in National Geographic, December 1996 (Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1996) p. 80. Las Vegas, Nevada.

[14] Garreau, Edge City: Life on the New Frontier (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc, 1991) p 73. Route 128, Boston, Massachusetts.

[15] Lars Lerup, “Stim and Dross: Rethinking the Metropolis,” inAssemblage 25 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994) p 85. Houston, Texas.

[16] Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of the Four Ecologies (New York: Penguin Books USA Inc, 1990) pp 168-9. San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, California.

[17] Albert Pope, Ladders (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996) p 52. Phoenix, Arizona.

© 1999 Alan A Loomis | Delirious LA

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