City of Fantasies: Reyner Banham and the Architecture of LA

Richard J. Williams

In the late 1960s, revered journalist Adam Raphael described Los Angeles as a ‘stinking sewer’. The southern California metropolis was perceived to have no culture and little architecture of merit. But for English architectural critic Reyner Banham, Los Angeles was a city of fantasies. In the landmark BBC documentary Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles (1972), he mounts a case for Los Angeles as a ‘super city of the future’ as he tours the progressive Case Study Houses project, which commissioned major architects of the dayto create inexpensive and efficient model homes. Banham argued that these modernist buildings ‘showed the world that machine-age materials like glass and steel could be beautiful, even pretty, and make a proper setting for beautiful objects.’

In this HENI Talk, Professor Richard Williams discusses how Reyner Banham transformed the world’s understanding of Los Angeles, and revisits some of the district’s iconic houses by architectural greats such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Ray Eames, Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig and John Lautner.

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[Voice of ‘Baede-kar’ from Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles]

Welcome to Los Angeles, super city of the future, metropolis of southern California. For the benefit of discriminating visitors, this car has been equipped with Baede-kar visitor guidance system. Now you’re ready to go. So that you can concentrate fully on your driving, switch off the guidance system when you hear the tone. Have a nice day.

[Voice of Reyner Banham from Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles]

I honestly don’t know how helpful the gentle voice of ‘Baede-kar’ would be, it could really be a distraction under these kind of conditions.

You see, I think freeway driving is interesting in itself. From up here you see the most weird extraordinary places and things…. And everyone would say “Barbie dolls, for god’s sake!” and look round for a better look and drift over into the next lane and prang some little old lady from Pasadena in her Boss Mustang and bash! That would be the end of a beautiful guided tour.

[Richard Williams]

Reyner Banham, for me, was very interesting because he was my way into thinking about the city of Los Angeles and why I wanted to explore the place.

He was quite unusual. He started out first of all working for a theatre in Norwich and he was quite a theatrical person himself. The latter part of the war he was an aircraft fitter. He was apparently invalided out. So, he started doing something completely different. It’s ‘63 I think that he gets an invitation to go and speak at a design conference in Aspen, Colorado, and I think it’s at that moment he starts visiting the US quite seriously.

[Voice of Reyner Banham from Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles]

In terms of form, Los Angeles breaks all the rules. And yet, I would maintain, it is still in spite of that, a great city and a significant city.

[Richard Williams]

He was a prolific architectural critic and he was a very respectable architectural historian. A really major figure in post-war British architecture.

[Voice of Reyner Banham from Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles]

‘Baede-kar’ is a fiction. A joke tribute to Karl Baedeker the father of the modern guidebook. A useful fiction. Devising a guide is a good way to explain a city. And Los Angeles needs some explaining because its normally regarded as an unspeakable sprawling mess, though not, certainly not by me.

[Richard Williams]

At the time, the understanding of Los Angeles was very peculiar. LA was an example of what cities were not supposed to be. Although it was vaguely understood to be a place that was booming, that was doing very well. It was a place that was thought of as having no culture, no architecture of any interest at all. In the late 1960s, the great journalist Adam Raphael described it as a ‘stinking sewer’. It was a place that was really not thought of as having any value at all, so, to take it seriously would have been something quite novel.

[Voice of ‘Baede-kar’ from Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles] We really ought to level with you. This guided tour isn’t taking you to any of the tourists spots you might expect. Because we believe that the discriminating visitor will want to see what the city of the future is doing to cure the evils of the past.

[Richard Williams]

On one hand it’s got a whole realm of fantastic architecture just by the roadside. You’ve got restaurants in the shape of hotdogs, or bowler hats, or hamburgers, or whatever. There’s a whole genre of architecture which is frankly ridiculous. On the other hand, it’s got some very serious modern architecture and it became more and more apparent just how rich it was in those areas.

[Voice of Reyner Banham from Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles]

Los Angeles is certainly unlike the London where I usually live and move and have my being. And it’s as remote as Mars from Norwich the city where I was born and brought up.

[Richard Williams]

In the film, Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, which was made in ‘72, he talks about Norwich. He calls it a ‘standard issue English cathedral city’. But on the other hand, he says that one of the things that you could do there was go to the movies

[Voice of Reyner Banham from Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles]

In those days, it was the ‘Penny Pictures’. And there, when we had the penny for admission, we were transported to Los Angeles.

[Richard Williams]

The film shows the film house that he used to go to and it’s just a shed, more or less. A very unpretentious place. So, he’s fascinated by America from the beginning. I think that ultimately is what drives him to do a whole lot of work on American architecture but also, eventually, to move there, in the mid ‘70s.

[Richard Williams]

He learns to drive in order to make sense of the city. And he is absolutely in love with driving. He had a very intense knowledge of the place but also, he projects all kinds of fantasies on it. Freedom is one of the big fantasies. He is acutely conscious of social class and for him LA, and southern California in general, represent a place that is free of the restrictions of social class. LA is, as we all know, it’s a place that has all kinds of social and racial divisions. Banham doesn’t really see those things.

[Dialogue from Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles]

Reyner Banham: Can I get through to San Pedro this way?

Security guard: No sir, you cannot.

Reyner Banham: Well, there’s a road on the map.

Security guard: Yeah, but this is private road, you can’t get through here.

Reyner Banham: I didn’t know there were any private roads…

[Voice of Reyner Banham from Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles]

And here, over the ocean, in Pacific Palisades is the house that really taught the world’s architecture lovers to come to Los Angeles. The house that Charles Eames the great chair designer and film maker created in 1949 and showed the world that machine-age materials like glass and steel could be beautiful, even pretty, and make a proper setting for beautiful objects.

[Richard Williams]

Houses of the ‘60s and ‘70s, they tend to get talked about in relation to the Case Study project. These were houses that were sponsored by a very progressive architectural magazine called Arts & Architecture. They are very simple, very pragmatic, very economical.

The Stahl House, designed by Pierre Koenig, is one of the most interesting modernist houses. It’s very small. It’s up in the Hollywood Hills. Two things I particularly like about it. One is the glazing, the fact that so much of the house is glass and that glass makes a beautiful frame for the view. Beautifully photographed by Julius Shulman, it’s a really, just lovely, moment in architectural modernism.

The other thing is the pool. The pool is at least as big as the house. This is a house that really celebrates the climate, this outdoors lifestyle, a sense of freedom, a sense of wanting to be in this very seductive landscape. LA is a city full of fantasies.

[Voice of Reyner Banham from Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles]

Well, I don’t know whether it’s really a style or whether it’s really a frame of mind. Whether it isn’t a special kind of Los Angeles mass produced fantasy for people to live in. Dreams, domestic dreams, that money can buy. But dreams like the dreams of Hollywood.

[Richard Williams]

Perhaps most of the population has come to LA in order to live out some kind of fantasy. Whether it’s a fantasy of being in the movies, or it’s a fantasy of just simply living close to nature, and that’s very strongly present in the architecture.

[Voice of Reyner Banham fromReyner Banham Loves Los Angeles]

Houses like this always bring out the Hollywood private eye in me…

[Richard Williams]

A bit later on, you get houses which are much more demonstrative, much more expressionistic. Architects like John Lautner, who built an extraordinary house called the Sheats House. This is a house which is one of the most extraordinary houses in the city. It is spectacular in every way. It is a totally hedonistic house. It’s built around a pool. It looks like the most extraordinary party house you can imagine, mirrors everywhere – incredible place.

[Richard Williams]

The original cover of the Banham book Los Angeles is A Bigger Splash, by David Hockney. He chose that image and that image is pure hedonism.

He describes a place that is fundamentally about enjoying yourself at a certain level. So, the idea of a city that is hedonistic is still a really powerful idea. He’s basically saying this is city that functions on its own terms, you have to understand it as something new, something novel, something different. It’s a fantasy but it’s another Englishman going to California and finding in the lifestyle something very appealing and attractive.

[Voice of ‘Baede-kar’ from Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles]

And now at the end of your sightseeing day, you are headed towards the ocean and one of most famous and best loved sights in all of Los Angeles, the sunset.

Archive

Alamy Stock Photo

BBC Broadcast Archive

Getty Images

Shutterstock

 

Music

Audio Network

 

Full list of images shown:

American Flag

Makromedya / Getty Images

 

One Pair of Eyes: Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

First broadcast: 11 March 1972

BBC Broadcast Archive / Getty Images

 

LA Driving Under Palm Trees

cipella / Getty Images

 

Aerial Shot of the City of Los Angeles

Aerial Filmworks / Getty Images

 

Young woman running in surf at beach

Caiafilm / Getty Images

 

Hollywood Sign on Mt Lee in Los Angeles

Aerial Filmworks / Getty Images

 

Close up torso of sweaty barechested man

Pigeon Productions Inc. / Getty Images

 

A man does a slam dunk

GoodSport.Video / Getty Images

 

Encino Park Liquor

Photograph: Cbl62, 2008

(CC BY 3.0)

 

Watts Towers

Sabato Rodia, 1921-1954

As seen in:

One Pair of Eyes: Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

First broadcast: 11 March 1972

BBC Broadcast Archive / Getty Images

 

Standard Station

Edward Ruscha, 1966

As seen in:

One Pair of Eyes: Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

First broadcast: 11 March 1972

BBC Broadcast Archive / Getty Images

 

Cinerama Dome

Welton Becket & Associates, 1963

Photograph:  Andreas Praefcke, 2008

(CC BY 3.0)

 

Historic Downey McDonalds and Museum

Photograph: Northwalker, 2014

(CC BY 1.0)

 

Theme Building

Pereira & Luckman Architects, 1960-1961

Picture Palace / Getty Images

 

Norms Diner on La Cienega Blvd, Los Angeles

David George / Alamy Stock Photo

 

Lovell House

Architect: Richard Joseph Neutra, 1929

Photographer: Julius Shulman, c.1950-1967

Image 761-10

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

 

Hollyhock House

Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright, 1921

Photographer: Julius Shulman

Image 3782-02

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

 

Hollyhock House

Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright, 1921

Photographer: Julius Shulman

Image 3782-03

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

 

Shubert Theater Complex

Photographer: Julius Shulman, 1974

Image 5092

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

 

Old Movie Countdown

RoGa_Pictures / Getty Images

 

Rear View Audience Watching Villain Movie in Theater, 1920s

Archive Films / Getty Images

 

Rear View Audience Watches Movie in Theater, 1920s

Archive Films / Getty Images

 

Man Launched out of a Cannon into the Sea

Digital Vision / Getty Images

 

Cameramen cranking cameras outdoors for camera, 1925

Archive Films / Getty Images

 

Man in captain’s hat talking to + passionately kissing woman on beach, 1927

Archive Films / Getty Images

 

Surprised senior man in bowtie + hair standing straight up, 1920

Archive Films / Getty Images

 

Man (Fatty Arbuckle) sits on a hole in a fire hose to keep the water from spraying out, 1920

Silverwell Films / Getty Images

 

Eames House

Case Study House No. 8

Architects: Charles and Ray Eames, 1949

As seen in:

One Pair of Eyes: Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

First broadcast: 11 March 1972

BBC Broadcast Archive / Getty Images

 

Stahl House

Case Study House No. 22

Architect: Pierre Koenig, 1960

Photographer: Julius Shulman, 1960

Image 2980-8

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

 

Stahl House

Case Study House No. 22

Architect: Pierre Koenig, 1960

Photographer: Julius Shulman

Image 2980-5

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

 

Stahl House

Case Study House No. 22

Architect: Pierre Koenig, 1960

Photographer: Julius Shulman, 1960

Image 2980-14

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

 

Stahl House

Case Study House No. 22

Architect: Pierre Koenig, 1960

Photographer: Julius Shulman

Image 2980-19k

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

 

Stahl House

Case Study House No. 22

Architect: Pierre Koenig, 1960

Photographer: Julius Shulman, 1960

Image 2980-20p

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

 

Stahl House

Case Study House No. 22

Architect: Pierre Koenig, 1960

Photographer: Julius Shulman

Image 2980-20k

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

 

Stahl House

Case Study House No. 22

Architect: Pierre Koenig, 1960

Photographer: Julius Shulman, 1960

Image 2980-2k

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

 

Sheats Goldstein Residence with a walking girl in Slow Motion

Hugo Will / Shutterstock

 

Sheats House

Architect: John Lautner, 1963

Photographer: Julius Shulman, 1980

Images 5824-06

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

 

Sheats House

Architect: John Lautner, 1963

Photographer: Julius Shulman, 1963

Images 3494-06

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

 

Sheats House

Architect: John Lautner, 1963

Photographer: Julius Shulman, 1980

Images 5824-08

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

 

Sheats House

Architect: John Lautner, 1963

Photographer: Julius Shulman, 1980

Images 5824-08k

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

 

Sheats House

Architect: John Lautner, 1963

Photographer: Julius Shulman, 1963

Images 3494-03

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

 

Sheats House

Architect: John Lautner, 1963

Photographer: Julius Shulman, 1980

Images 5824-15

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

 

Sheats House

Architect: John Lautner, 1963

Photographer: Julius Shulman, 1980

Images 5824-01ke

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

 

Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture Of Four Ecologies

New York: Harper & Row, 1971

 

 

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