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Is Our Discussion of L.A. Architecture Too Focused on Cars? 

Thursday, May 30 2013
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"Los Angeles' identity is inextricably linked with the automobile," reads the first line of wall text opening the Getty's current show about postwar architecture in Los Angeles. In case you miss reading that line, the entire first room of the exhibition proceeds to hit you over the head with its hypothesis: Photos of drive-ins, sketches of car designs, a poster of Disneyland's Autopia ride. There's even a section of freeway art, something I have to admit I never really thought existed, but here it is, presented on a wall almost as its own particular genre. A 1961 painting by Roger E. Kuntz of shadowed overpasses marching into infinity. Michael Light's 2004 aerial photograph focused on the sinewy tangle of the 5/10/60/101 interchange, with downtown's towers fading away in the distance.

Even the name of the Getty's show puts the focus on driving: "Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future 1940-1990." We not only drive, we over-drive!

This isn't the only exhibition highlighting driving in the regionwide Pacific Standard Time Presents initiative. There are car-centric elements everywhere. Also at the Getty, Ed Ruscha's photography retrospective features gas stations and entire streets shot from an automobile. Over at the MAK Center, there's freeway art from the 1970s and Plexiglas display cases that feel like you're peering through the windshield of a car. At the A+D Museum, the show is named "Windshield Perspective."

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If that weren't enough, promotional materials for the initiative, featuring beautiful images of three iconic L.A. structures — LAX, Capitol Records and Samitaur Tower in Culver City — have cars added in as illustrations. We are now digitally parking cars in front of buildings to promote a show about architecture in Los Angeles.

Is driving what we talk about when we talk about L.A.'s modern architecture?

"When we think about Los Angeles at the end of the 20th century, we see ourselves in cars. ... In cars before the freeways became 24/7 hells — burdened with nostalgia for the libidinous freedom that the freeways once implied," says D.J. Waldie, the renowned L.A. architecture writer (who himself doesn't drive). "All or even most of Los Angeles can't be summed up by automobiles, but driving remains the simplest metaphor for what is utopian and what is dystopian about Los Angeles."

So where other cities studying their architecture of the same period might include exhibits on parks or plazas, we get photos of landscapes harvesting oil — Getty Oil, I might add, in the Getty Museum — to feed those cars.

Not that cars and driving haven't made their way into our museums before. The Los Angeles art world grew up by borrowing the visual language of car culture; movements like Finish Fetish, with its glossy, synthetic surfaces, couldn’t have existed if not for the automobile. In the first Pacific Standard Time highlighting art of the same postwar period, we had works like Ed Kienholz's Five Car Stud, with vehicles surrounding a brutal, racially charged scene, and the hood of a Corvair ornately painted by Judy Chicago.

But in this architecture-focused go-round, it feels like a simplified argument. Freeways are our monuments! Parking lots are our public space! We made buildings shaped like the things inside them because we were going too fast to see what was inside!

It was with trepidation that I headed to the A+D Museum to see "Windshield Perspective," which is up through July 9. In my mind the title represented the worst stereotype of L.A., the idea that the city was designed for the car, its architecture is best appreciated from that car, and God forbid you ever get out of that car.

I was pleasantly surprised when I threw open the door and saw the curator, architecture critic Greg Goldin, standing there with his bike. I interviewed him while he was wearing his bicycle helmet.

The exhibition also was not what I expected. "Windshield Perspective" examines L.A.'s built environment using a stretch of Beverly Boulevard from Virgil to Normandie, about 12 blocks. After looking for the one street that perfectly summarized L.A., Goldin realized he could focus on any street — except for one like Wilshire, because it has been subjected to "explicit, self-conscious city-building," he says. "We wanted to see the city as it has made itself, with its own hands, and not as it has been made by those who sallied forth with big ideas, about architecture, urbanism or any other commanding view."

A continuous ribbon of photos and text that rings the room documents the history of every single building on that 0.9-mile stretch. Some you've noticed and wondered about, like the Citibank that was built as a replica of Mount Vernon; others you've ignored but will gain an appreciation for, like the Dewey Pest Control building that used to be covered in Heath tile. In the exhibition, designed by Todd Erlandson, Lara Hoad and Andrew Byrom, there are life-size cutouts of this ad hoc urbanism — hand-painted pupuseria signs and (my favorite) a Grecian pillar painted as a barber pole — along with photographs of street life and a series of maps tracing Beverly's development.

While it is about buildings, Goldin's exhibition actually subverts the celebration of modernism in all the other PSTP shows. "We're duking it out with them," he says. "This is the idea that the real design of L.A. is happening in the streets, that we’re making and remaking the city here on places like Beverly." Goldin likes to use the term “built reality.”

Sure, there are the clichéd references to the car as a "lens" or a "shield" or a "scrim," but in the end this is the most progressive of all the PSTP shows so far. Not only does it acknowledge a different type of built environment but it also asks its viewers to question how they should best engage with it.

The name "Windshield Perspective," as it turns out, is a provocation. It's not really about driving at all.

For two years Goldin walked these blocks, knocking on every door, attempting to talk to each resident and business owner, he says. Goldin hopes this will inspire other Angelenos to do the same. "We want to get people to see one street, but then I want people to go out and find their own streets."

The question is whether viewers — most of whom will arrive via car — will see it that way, too. "I firmly believe that over the past decade Los Angeles has seen a fundamental shift in how Angelenos view, experience, interpret and interact with their built environment," says Nat Gale, a policy analyst in the Mayor's Office of Transportation, who consulted with Goldin on the exhibition and has helped manage Villaraigosa's rapturous support of rail expansion, CicLAvia and the city's new Car-Free L.A. initiative. "If a handful of people walk out of the exhibit with a new concept of their daily commute, and take a moment to get out of their car to explore a new area by foot, I think the show has succeeded."

As I was biking home from "Windshield Perspective," I stopped to walk the stretch of Beverly featured in the show. A U.S. Public Interest Research Group study had just declared that Americans drove fewer miles over the last decade. Evidence of this was everywhere. Crowded bus stops. Bikes negotiating the pedestrian-heavy sidewalks. A busy Red Line station, just across the street from the Mount Vernon–on-Vermont. Four-dollar-per-gallon gas at the Chevron.

I remembered another line from "Overdrive," a 1941 quote from E.E. East about L.A.'s auto-centrism: "Will it become the accepted pattern of tomorrow's cities, or have we built upon a foundation of sand?"

According to Christopher James Alexander, the "Overdrive" curator with Wim de Wit and Rani Singh, our changing relationship with the car is a reason their survey ends at 1990. "By the late 1980s, people’s attitudes toward the car and the freeway change radically," Alexander says. "The 1990s usher in a new era, rooted in the promotion of public transportation and increased neighborhood density, in order to facilitate the region’s ongoing growth."

He also points out that in the same car-crazed section, you'll find oddly familiar visions for subways and light rail: "These same schemes are now being constructed throughout the region, decades after they were first proposed."

Pacific Standard Time Presents gives us a chance to see how L.A. was made modern, but it also chronicles the rise and the fall of the car in Los Angeles culture. Maybe, by seeing this narrative so persuasively presented in museums, alongside the artifacts of other cultures, we can finally admit that our affair with the automobile is history.

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