Essay by Warren Chalk. First published in Architectural Design, September 1968.

There’s a little bit of VIP in all of us. All those ‘only-when-you-get-to-ride-in-a-millionaire’s-car’ things in a Plymouth. The Plymouth VIP…And The Beat Goes On…

 

This is Los Angeles, alluring city of the Angels. Los Angelinos, instead of spreading their wings, however, are doing their thing on the freeways – ‘Widetracking’, as the General Motors ads have it.

A strong case for LA affecting a whole generation of designers was made by Cedric Price, at a Victor Gruen lecture in 1962 at the Architectural Association. It was one of the first significant documented recognitions of Los Angeles as an alternative city prototype; an acknowledgement of suburbia and of the significance of the automobile. There is little point in raking over the fires of old controversies; of prolonging the argument for or against centralised cities or sprawled suburbia’s. It may not be an either/or situation, Los Angeles being what it is, neither city nor suburbia, but megasuburbia. All one can say is that it is a categorically different environment from European and American/European city patterns of the past – an extensive network of freeways and mobility patterns that has undermined and destroyed the concept of a single-centre city, and given new value and multidirectional meaning to suburbia.

According to one observer, this is a city of illusion, ‘anything may turn out to be anything else, and there is no way of knowing because nothing has a shape of its own. This is why Los Angeles has the best and the biggest signs in the world… without them, the orientation of Southern Californian man would be obscure; he would have no way of knowing where he is or who he is. Most people on the planet know who they are. And, if by chance in doubt, a glance around them gives the answer. Not so the Los Angelino, if he is in a thatched Tahitian, hut, he must ask himself, am I in the South Seas, Disneyland, or in a restaurant on La Cienega? Then he may discover he actually is in his chiropractor’s waiting room, or at a local supermarket’s pineapple sale.’

 

Los Angeles, in short, is an ephemeral experience of low-key or non-architectural situations that have to be seen to be believed, lived in to be understood.

 

White Hot Special – See Your Dodge Boys – Tell Them The Fever Girl Sent You – Dodge Fever


This is not a city for aesthetes or architects’ architects, who, although they may deny it, arrive, grub around looking for Schindler houses, and pass on angry, bewildered or even hopefully feeling obsolete. This is no European black and white situation – high art and architecture on a pedestal. Here everything works, but nothing is more important than anything else, it’s all the same. But if one has to single out one major coherent factor – significant city object – it would be those land piers, the freeways.

 

The effectiveness of the Southern Californian freeway system and its ability to handle the mounting volume of traffic is incredible. This is the most spreadeagled, and consequently car-conscious, city in the world, and its freeway system, designed to meet a very special demand, is the only system so far that fills that need. There are, of course, complaints – why with this super system should not traffic flow be more fluid and peak hour congestion overcome? What is forgotten, however, is that only 42 per cent of the projected 800-mile freeway system has so far been completed, handling 30 per cent of the weekday traffic. Between 1980 and 1985 – the target date for completion – the LA freeways will be capable of handling 60 per cent of the total traffic.

 

One trouble seems to be that the excellence of the system heightens the LA obsession with the automobile, leading to frustrating congestion at peak hours. To alleviate this, ‘Sig-Alert’ broadcast warnings of obstructed routes, accidents, and pile ups Motorists may then select alternate routes to avoid trouble spots. Over radio station KGIL, helicopter air-watch pilots relay warnings of blockage on the freeways to drivers below. These whiry-birds, called Sky-Knights, not only control traffic, but play a large role in reducing crime and maintaining order. In fact, the chopper may be the best police tool since the LAPD radio prowl car.

 

Finally, however, responsibility lies in the hands of the driver. A recent Chrysler Corporation advertisement asks, ‘Is your sixteen-year-old son a better driver than you?’, and goes on to list ten pointers to better driving. More interesting is the fact that car dealers for the same corporation, since 1964, have loaned over 33,000 cars to more than 40,000 high schools and colleges, free of charge, for driver education courses.

 

Not all Angelinos are good drivers. But Americans are, by European standards, very well disciplined and obedient to the lore of the freeway. ‘Dig those crazy Los Angeles freeways!’ reads the postcard; and driving on them, negotiating intersections, with the essential pop music of the Charlie Tuna show, or Wolfeman Jack coming over strong on the radio, is an exhilarating, strangely enjoyable experience.

Amid the incredible press of new cars you realise that this is indeed an automobile culture. With 50 yellow pages in the phone book devoted to the automobile, Los Angeles has reached the threshold of private personal mobility in the downtown area alone over 66 per cent of all available land space is utilised by the automobile. This is Autopia, the mobile city. Freedom is a motor car. To hell with traffic engineers, architects and planners, the car is not just a means of transportation, it is a way of life. What is required, before a positive approach to the urban transportation dilemma can be found, is an unselfconscious responsibility to society, rather than a hidebound preconception.

 

Consumer choice demonstrates that in spite of its inadequacies, the car is the most efficient, adaptable piece of urban transport hardware so far devised, from the standpoint of the ultimate user, it cannot be equalled in performance. It is the strongest candidate for delivering the goods and the goodies. The car is, in turn, freedom, choice, mobility, status symbol, toy, sex symbol. It is also a myth and a God. In what other city are you a second class citizen unless you own a motor car? Unfortunate people without wheels are forced to ride buses, but the system is slow and inadequate. In spite of Reyner Banham’s optimism, a bus ride across town can take hours. In a city measuring, from Malibu to San Diego, Santa Monica to San Bernardino, some 70 miles by 40 miles, walking is such an absurd proposition that freeways are dreary stretches only for the car. And certain areas, such as Beverly Hills, have no sidewalks, and pedestrians run the risk of being picked up on vagrancy charges.

 

It Speaks Eloquently About You …. Yet Barely Whispers ….

Wherever Cadillac Goes, It makes Complimentary Remarks about its Owner …. Speaks Softly about His Determination to Drive Performing Luxury ….

 

The car is a communications medium. Passing through the environment, it conveys a message, Regardless of how arbitrary it appears to the uncommitted observer, it exists strongly in the mind of the owner; a fetish, womblike comfort, phallic power and speed, satisfying the inherent gregarious nature of people to see and be seen. Wear your new car like a new suit of clothes. All the good things of life, instant door-to-door mobility, articulated obsolescence, mobile wardrobe, garbage can, air-conditioner, stereo and ashtray embody the car.

 

Customising veteran Dene Jeffries, reduced to painting white rally stripes on a ‘Boss Yellow’ Camero, shrugs off the whole personalised Kandy-Apple metal flake thing of the early 60s as just a passing fad. But three years after Tom Wolfe’s Kandy Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamlined Baby first hit the book stands, a visit to the custom car show at the Anaheim stadium near Disneyland dispels all doubt, closes the gap. It is still very much the same – noise, people, and a rock-and-roll band with mini-skirted teenyboppers clustered round the stand; and then there are the exhibits, the kick hot-rods and customised cars. Unlike the shock-roof design-conscious paint jobs of Binder-Edwards and Vaughan, the Kandy Kolors are brash, belligerent, and wholly delightful; guaranteed to produce real cultural convulsions in most Europeans.

 

There is another side to this too. The Detroit stylists, conscious of the people’s interest and involvement, have had to adjust their skirt lengths. Aware of changing trends, the swing is towards a more continental sports look. Mercury Cougar, Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camero and Corvette, are all trend-changing, in spite of futile attempts by pressure groups to put the accent on safety. The number of imported sports cars in the show-rooms along Wilshire is another indication; high-powered swooshers…. The GTs like Lamborghini’s Miura V12, Toyota 2000, Jaguar XKE, and the new Porsche 911L. The city’s wealth and opulence provides, in the luxury class, a situation second to none. Where else but Beverly Hills can one see three Rolls Royce parked in a driveway? A real ‘his’, ‘hers’, and one for the maid shakedown. Conspicuous in this automobile environment are the intrinsic car-oriented structures, the immediate service satellites, garages, gas stations, body shops, automotive repair clinics, car washes, and driving schools. And the second generation drive-in parking structures, cinemas, banks, markets, stores, and even crematoria – the outward signs of a mobile society.

 

Detractors of the motor car in Los Angeles may have a legitimate beef with smog as one of the visible signs of this Autopia. The fumes from the exhaust of four million cars, held by inversion between a layer of cooled surface air coming in from the Pacific and a layer of hot air from the desert, give air pollution control officials a headache. There is talk of gas rationing, and laws stipulate that new cars have anti-smog devices. But they are about as efficient – and ease the conscience as effectively – as a filter cigarette.

 

Possibly, the car technologically is a low-capability, high-performance turn-on. Along with the helicopter, transistor radio and portable TV set, it is also one of the most significant urban toys. A model for the kind of instant feedback necessary to create a random responsive environment.

 

New symbols of new myths will have to be devised around the new modes of transportation if they are to succeed – to become acceptable and desirable in the mind of the public. Only then will the all-pervading myth of the automobile be dispelled and replaced permanently and irrevocably.

 

It is possible that Los Angeles was at its peak as a new city prototype in the 1950s and may have outlived its usefulness. The system of values that it represents is due for reappraisal. It is alarming the way local planners are trying to shape the future of the city on patterns of the past – struggling up the down ramp with archaic preconceptions for building up central areas with simulation New York, Chicago high-rises, or introducing projects for rapid transit down the Wilshire corridor. Neither of these are as revolutionary or remedial as the experts would have us believe.

 

We need to tear away the layers of professionalism; change the rules of the game; alter the context in such a way as to recharge the whole organisational value structure.

 

People have perceived the world and responded to it, usually, not through their own potentialities, but through a limited spectrum, made functional by external stimulation. Hopefully we may enter a phase where man learns to play games with the new hard- and soft-ware at his disposal.

 

Right now, the Angelino ‘Widetracking’ indicates a try-it-and-see attitude, reflecting a total rejection of any tight-up scene – heedless of the criticism accompanying any innovation. Curiosity working through self-imposed spectrums reveals the symbolic power of LA and its motor cars.

 

A sign on the freeway signalling an off-ramp evokes a simultaneous succession of customised responses. Similarly the car symbolises a life-style difficult to ignore.

 

Consumer excitement generated by a better alternative, characteristic of the space age, blows the mind.