Streetscapes

Reflections on the Southern California Edison photography archive, published in “Form and Landscape,” The Huntington’s contribution to Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in LA.

San_Bernardino

From Ciclavia and Wilshire bus lanes to parklets and road diets, the present-day conversation about streets in Los Angeles clearly signals a shift in how we think about mobility. This new discourse, gathered under the catchy term “complete streets,” proposes that streetscapes include all users, from bikes, transit, pedestrians, and even nature. In short, Complete Streets policies challenge the privileged position the automobile has long held in Los Angeles’s streets.

Yet how traditional is this privileged position? Photographs from the Southern California Edison archives suggest that the car has not always dominated Los Angeles streets. The extensive Pacific Electric interurban trolley lines, which even in their absence still mark Venice, San Vicente, Brand and other boulevards with broad medians, are frequently captured by Edison’s photographers. [232624 and 232822] Surprisingly, the archives also document evidence of bus stops, benches and even cyclists. [231973]

Of course, a few historic snap shots do not conclusively demonstrate that the streets of Los Angeles were once exemplars of contemporary multi-modal planning as described by today’s Complete Streets advocates. But the Edison pictures do feel strikingly modern, perhaps because certain photographs evoke the iconic imagery, artworks and documents that imagined and illustrated the street as the locus for public life.

Paris is where this modern sensibility of the street as new kind public space was created and first celebrated. Along with the novels of Emile Zola and essays of Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, Gustave Caillebotte’s Impressionist paintings captured the street life and the spirit of the urban flaneur generated by Haussmann’s boulevards. The busy pedestrian life of Place de Dublin in Caillebotte’s 1877 painting “Paris Street, Rainy Day” appears echoed by a series of Edison photographs shot in San Bernardino. [275426 and 273667]

Meanwhile, a melancholy night view down a Long Beach street seems to offer a different perspective on the diner in Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting “Nighthawks,” suggesting that in addition to the crowd, loneliness and isolation also characterize the modern urban experience. [244860]

The modernist eye also enjoyed the aerial view offered by airplanes and the towers of the city, as seen in Edison images that transform patterns of pavement, traffic striping and even pedestrians, into abstract compositions of lines, shapes, figures vectors and voids that appear influenced by Bauhaus photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. [275439 and 250960]

Other photographs in the Edison archives evoke Jazz Age Times Square, reminding us that Downtown Los Angeles also has a Broadway, also populated with vaudeville and motion picture theatres, a Great White Way on the West Coast. Capturing what technology historian David Nye calls the sublime “electrical cityscape,” these photographs show us streetscapes defined by architectural lighting, neon and signs. [232577 and 241080 and 240914]

To understand the role signs have in making the modern streetscape, we must read Robert Venturi’s “Learning from Las Vegas.” Still relevant today in the era of supergraphics and digital media, Venturi helps us appreciate the architectural meaning of signs and oversized iconography. By visiting Vegas, Venturi guides us down the typical suburban retail strip, ubiquitous across Southern California and America. [348879] Along the way, if we stop at a Standard Oil Station for gas, we might run into Ed Ruscha or Dennis Hopper, documenting the commercial automotive strip along with Venturi. [254151]

Venturi goes further, telling us “Main Street is almost all right.” The Edison photographers visited numerous main streets, and Venturi would have approved of the honky-tonk streetscapes they found, filled with commercial advertising, billboards, neon art deco marquee signs and storefronts. [338639] In fact, architects and planners like Venturi helped inaugurate a main street movement that seeks to restore many of the small town commercial districts seen in the Edison archives. If the Edison photographers were to visit Fullerton, Monrovia, or Redlands again today, they would find little change in the streetscape, despite fifty years of history. [254419]

What is ubiquitous in these images of Los Angeles streets is the humble street light. Not surprisingly, the Edison photographs document a stunning array of street light types and styles.

The archives include a variety of single-lamp obelisks [241667] and posts, [230315] highway lights, [257869 and 255717] as well as the dual lamp crucifix. [251890 and 232211]

Since we are in Southern California, we find lamp posts topped with Mission Bells [234000 and 353329] – yet how do we explain light posts topped by a miniature Rialto Bridge? (They line the streets of Rialto, of course.) [234191]

The astronomers at CalTech and Palomar might look at lamp posts with first three globes, [233090 and 232360] then five globes, [257635 and 230479 and 231707] six planets, [233517] and describe whole new solar systems.

In the most dazzling displays, some lamp post constellations are crowned with elaborate suns or transformed into starbursts and supernovas. [230487 and 231234]

It is obvious that Southern California Edison would promote the transforming effect electric light and technology would bring to the expanding metropolis it was helping to create. But their photographs also illustrate the under-appreciated role that the utilitarian lamp post has in creating and giving character to streetscapes. In many of the Edison photos, a regular row of elaborate street lights is the only feature that distinguishes an otherwise rural road, still awaiting the arrival of the city and its sidewalks, storefronts, signs, and buildings. [231282] Looking at these pictures, we see that it is sometimes the stylistic difference between light standards that distinguishes one street, one neighborhood, or one place from another.

Little wonder, then, that one of the most popular photographic spots in Los Angeles today is collection of lamp posts from around the region, assembled in front of LACMA by artist Chris Burden. [353442 and 254220]

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