read::zebra's

Levittown / Los Angeles: Excerpted musings on spatial context

In Excerpts, Thoughts on June 14, 2011 at 10:18 am

My only experience with Los Angeles was during a week-long stretch of alternating rain and drizzle. The sun took a leave of absence and the low, omnipresent rain clouds went wild, cased the joint. It was December and, oddly, it felt like it. Because of this, I don’t feel like I really know the place. But today I finished an essay by Michael Maltzan about LA—its architectural fabric and spatial context. The essay was actually an excerpt from the introduction to a new book by Maltzan and edited by Jessica Varner called No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond. It’s not about Maltzan’s work but rather where his work occurs, illustrated through the arresting architectural photography of the well-known Iwan Baan.

Here are some excerpts from the excerpt:

“I was drawn to Los Angeles because it seemed real — perhaps the most real place I had ever known or been exposed to in my life. Multiple cultures and landscapes emerged through the light of the overexposed horizon in flashes of contradiction: fertile and arid, dark and blinding, restrictive and generous — spaces ripe with inconsistency. At first, my reaction to Los Angeles was the opposite of the reaction of most people, who find the relentlessness frightening, numbing or overwhelming. Instead, the sprawling, horizontal city-plane; the peculiar, verdant confusions of nature and garden; the mineral-like opacity of the light; and the constant pace of movement were eerily familiar and comfortable. Los Angeles felt like home.”

I loved the next part because of its absolute otherness. Having an architectural awakening growing up in Levittown? This inaugural icon of mass-produced, post-war suburbs?

Subtle qualities and diverse, ambient experiences stood out in the repetitious and seemingly monochromatic Levittown landscape. I found order and connective threads in the subtly shifting patterns across the façades of the tract houses, the calculated variations of shingle types, the periodic blooms of wild weeds in the storm sumps, the intense light in a place with immature trees, and the landscape of the in-between.”

Maltzan also explores the culture of LA, describing the experience of living in the city as being part of “a nocturnal workshop where the constant experiments leave no time to tidy up and reset the data in order to start fresh in the morning. In Los Angeles, you are both the experiment and the scientist.”

Finally he arrives at a design prescription for the city as it exists right now:

“From Los Angeles’s inception, the city has defined itself by its ability to continuously push the outer edges farther and farther out. Our temperament of expansion, which is tangent to Western thoughts of manifest destiny, resulted in disposable built landscapes and a defined horizon of endless development. The remaining artifact is both the iconic image of Los Angeles and the poster child for arguments about late-capitalist sprawl cities. Now the bounding perimeter of the city has been hit, and perceptual, psychological and physical limits of what it means to be in Los Angeles have arrived. … Architects, urban theorists, landscape architects, designers, planners and city leaders [must] produce forms that represent this city and its culture, as opposed to importing other urban models. Those models will not work in Los Angeles. They will eventually wither in the hard light that outlives all forms here — because only Los Angeles is Los Angeles.”

All photos by Iwan Baan.

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