Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles: South LA

“I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original” -Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies

This provocative Esotouric bus adventure begins downtown and works its way south through Vernon, Bell Gardens, Santa Fe Springs and Downey, and through the past two centuries, exploring some of L.A.’s seldom-seen gems. Turning the West Side-centric notion of an L.A. architecture tour on its head—just like Banham’s book did for the historical monograph – the bus goes into areas not traditionally associated with the important, beautiful or significant, raising issues of preservation, adaptive reuse and the evolution of the city. The locations all speak to the power, mutability and reach of the Southern California Dream. Some of the tour stops are:

Rancho San Antonio (1840). One of the oldest adobe structure in Los Angeles County, it was built by the Lugo family, whose rancho spread all the way to South Gate–the south gate of the property. This fascinating home sits smack dab in the middle of a 65-year-old trailer park on the banks of the Rio Hondo River in Bell Gardens. Between the layers of context at this site is the history of migration and growth in the Southland, from Spanish land grants to the dust bowl to the vast waves of stucco suburbs.

The Clarke Estate (1920). A lost masterpiece by tilt-slab concrete architect Irving Gill, this Mission Revival-inspired dwelling features symbolic leaves pressed into the walls and feels like a time capsule from a simpler California.

Johnie’s Broiler (1958/2008). A cautionary tale about historic preservation, this beloved Downey diner with its landmark neon sign was illegally demolished by a renter who wanted to park use cars in its place. The site was barred from further commercial use due to public outcry, and has been restored as a Bob’s Big Boy.

No other city has so fascinated architecture critics and scholars of urban and cultural studies than L.A., that sprawling, self-referential zone of mystery and glamour. British writer Reyner Banham was the first to love Los Angeles for what she was, her ugliness as well as her beauty. In the early 1970s he abandoned his academic preconceptions to revel in this city of freeways, foothills, beaches and suburbs, built on mobility and flux by a series of invaders. Along the way, he discovered extraordinary spaces in neighborhoods that were often overlooked for being too remote, too industrial, or simply occupying invisible “flyover country” beneath the great L.A. freeways.

In this city on the edge of the western dream, nothing was like what came before. Status was no longer communicated through the construction of stone palaces that looked like they fought every step of the journey over the Rocky Mountains, but rather by freeway access and wacky drive-thrus, light, ventilation, organic design and a sensitivity to a built environment— commercial and architectural innovations which would have been unthinkable anywhere and anytime else.

Gone was the unified vision of a city, and yet there was a method to L.A.’s madness. What Banham saw was something far more complicated: behind this urban sprawl was a pattern, almost a language, which could not be understood through old modes of architectural and urban criticism, but which had to be viewed through the organic facts of its own ecologies.

Esotouric guides Richard Schave and Kim Cooper studied under Banham as undergraduates at UCSC, and both were deeply influenced by his work. In Fall 2007, we launched the “Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles” architectural series in tribute to our late professor, who showed us our native Southern California through fresh eyes.

ABOUT REYNER BANHAM: Reyner Banham(1922-1988) was a prolific architectural critic best known for “Theory and Design in the First Machine Age” (1960) and “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies” (1971). Professor Banham taught at the University of London, SUNY Buffalo and the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he was Chair of the Art History Department.