Every few weeks a big story about Los Angeles lands on the internet, hoping to deliver the ultimate citywide diss while lazily employing half-century-old stereotypes. Usually we laugh it off because we’re shallow losers and, like, who has time to read and stuff, but every once in a while one of these antagonistic LA essays really gets to us. This week, Martin Filler’s New York Review of Books piece reviewing the exhibition catalogues for the architecture shows Overdrive and Never Built is the object of our disaffection.
Update: Also check out my haterating of that New Yorker piece “Leaving Los Angeles”
Which got me thinking. I could write an impassioned response (like Brady Westwater already did). Or I could assemble a collection of images to prove it wrong (like I did for that one Hollywood story). But then I had a thought: This man had worked SO HARD to include nearly every tired L.A. stereotype, so why not reward him for his achievement?
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Hi Los Angeles Hater! Stereotype Rating for “LA’s Alternate Realities.” Points are awarded on a sliding scale for each ridiculous stereotype, factual inaccuracy, or literary low blow incorporated into the piece. Here we go…
How can the most architecturally innovative part of the United States also be such a thoroughgoing urban mess?
- Oooookay, then! Starting off strong! Backhanded compliment bonus +2
- “Thoroughgoing urban mess” +1
Los Angeles can boast, among other showpieces, Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall of 1989–2003, Charles and Ray Eames’s own Case Study House Number 8 of 1947–1949, and Raymond M. Kennedy’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater of 1926–1927—to name three of my favorite landmarks there.
- Naming Disney Hall as one of your “favorite landmarks” +1
…yet LA is also a highway-strangled, traffic-choked expanse of artificially lush desert with no discernible organizing principle save for the allées of palm trees that filmmakers reflexively use to establish a recognizable sense of place.
- “Highway-strangled” +2
- “Traffic-choked” +2
- Extra point for excessive hyphenation +1
- Palm trees +2
- Ouch! Palm trees in the FIRST PARAGRAPH? Extra point for that, bro. +1
- Film industry reference, with first-paragraph bonus. +2
- LA is a desert +1
- Also, as many have pointed out, LA is not a desert. It’s a Subtropical-Mediterranean climate. +1
Describing the persistent incoherence of Los Angeles, Dorothy Parker famously jibed that it was ‘seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.’ More sympathetic observers like the British architectural historian Reyner Banham have long pointed out that it’s futile to apply traditional standards of urban design to this 469-square-mile sprawl, which they see not as a dysfunctional megalopolis but as a prophetically modern phenomenon.
- Thanks, we heard that joke before, too… IN THE 1930’s. +2
- “Sprawl” x mention-of-square-mileage bonus = +469
- “Dysfunctional megalopolis” +1
Yet to comprehend why the City of Angels remains so enduringly weird to outsiders, it is not architectural specialists but rather imaginative writers—from Nathanael West and James M. Cain to Evelyn Waugh and Joan Didion—to whom we must turn.
- “Enduringly weird” +2
- Referencing dead writers who wrote depressing things about LA +3
- Joan Didion is not dead nor totally depressing, of course, but he includes a photo of her, so, Joan Didion photo bonus +1
- With Corvette Stingray to reinforce LA’s auto-centric nature +1
Both surveys are accompanied by extensively illustrated catalogs, offering non-Angelinos a chance to reframe their imagined views of this quintessentially quirky conurbation.
- Using the non-locally preferred spelling of “Angelinos” +3
- “Quintessentially quirky conurbation” (with alliteration bonus) +2
…attempts to give the city’s notional center something like the round-the-clock vitality of New York’s Times Square or London’s Leicester Square have failed time and again. The few parts of Los Angeles that sustain a viable pedestrian nightlife—like Westwood Village, with its busy movie theaters and restaurants near the UCLA campus, and Los Feliz, a hipsterish enclave closer to downtown—still present a problem, for most visitors need to drive there in order to walk around.
- LA doesn’t have a center +1
- LA isn’t a 24-hour city +1
- LA doesn’t have viable pedestrian nightlife +1
- LA’s Urban Design Shortcomings in a Single Paragraph Trifecta bonus +3
- Naming Westwood Village (no disrespect, Bruins!) as the city’s best example of “viable pedestrian nightlife.” +2
- “Hipsterish” +1
- Dude, come on, of all the places he could have picked: The Red Line goes RIGHT to Los Feliz. +10 (+ one Metro day pass)
Not only were such sensible recommendations ignored, but within fifteen years the Los Angeles Railway, a trolley system that served a vast north-south swath of the region, would be dismantled, in part because of what many believe to have been a conspiracy by General Motors and others to kill off the competition.
- “Sensible recommendations ignored” (aka we’re crazy) +1
- General Motors conspiracy theory reference +2
- Bonus for watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit too many times +4
As Overdrive makes clear, all sorts of vernacular architectural responses to LA’s dominant car culture arose to meet the particular demands of an increasingly mobile population, with innovative forms such as the drive-in restaurant, the drive-through car wash, and, heaven forefend, the drive-in church (the most distinguished example of which was Richard Neutra’s Garden Grove Community Church of 1959–1968). Not for nothing did Moore organize his study of the city’s architectural features into a series of “rides” to be seen from a car window.
- Car culture/car window +2
- Drive-in/drive-through +3
In a country where personal “freedom” invariably trumps the common good, this pair of enlightening but cautionary surveys reminds us of the late and much-lamented Ada Louise Huxtable’s ever-timely admonition that “Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves.”
- Oh no he di-int just use Ada Louise against us! +3
TOTAL SCORE: 549*
*I have no idea what this score means or how Filler’s article ranks according to other stories about LA. But I think this means that I’ll have to do this again. And again. And again.
Update: If you liked this, check out my haterating of that New Yorker piece “Leaving Los Angeles.“