May 02, 2008

Learning From Los Angeles

Another Moe's remainder: "California Crazy & Beyond: Roadside Vernacular Architecture" (Jim Heimann, Chronicle Books 2001), a fun, good-natured, and sunny book on programmatic architecture that I devour in a day or two's part-time reading between work assignments. It concentrates mostly on 1920's and 1930's commercial buildings in the urban and suburban bits of the great Southland, the natural habitat for such architecture, but there's plenty to go around elsewhere, including some long-gone weirdos in Oakland, of all places (Berkeley, not surprisingly, didn't really go in for that sort of thing).

It's inevitably missing one of my fave programmatic buildings, the old dinosaur-shaped house that used to lurk in the desert scrub next to the Lucerne Valley Cutoff south of Barstow, a building that's now just littered about the Mojave in a thousand pieces of decayed wood and shot-up plaster in the middle of nowhere, but that used to squat just off the isolated dirt track there with a certain fun humour and rough style (I don't think it was ever completed, but I do remember it at one time being recognisably a dinosaur).

And that's part of what makes this book a pleasure: the reminder of the difference between fun and irony. Postmodernism so often appropriated earlier programmatic architecture for art by wrapping it in irony and sucking the fun out of it; but an essential element of much programmatic architecture is its sense of unforced humour and silliness. Knowing allusions to the originals might be cute and sometimes whimsical, but they're rarely much fun.

And where did they all go? "Who Killed Our Monstrosities?", as an unnamed writer quoted by Heimann puts it. It's hard not to sympathise with that sentiment, but the danger with things like this is nostalgia-driven preservation and even reconstruction; these things really live in their own present, make sense in their original time and place only. When removed, they become self-conscious signs of signs, signs of themselves in effect. But of course the real monstrosities are out there now, waiting for the future to back-validate them. We just don't know it, I guess.

(One of the other little pleasures for me with this book is seeing glimpses of the way Ventura Boulevard used to look like, this so-familiar untidy long strip of a short slice of my life, apparently once dotted with nicely weird and silly buildings in a semi-rural setting, now just the Ur-strip-mall…).

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