“Visiting houses in Beverly Hills or Bel Air can be an hallucinating experience; an overwhelming sence of déjà vu mingles with an overwhelming desire to sidle along corridors with one’s back to the wall and to kick doors wide open before passing through.” More like scenes rather than anything else is Banham’s interpretation of the Western metropolis of the West. Standing so far away from his Englishness and the strict academic role of the historian enables him to experience, question anything absolute, and to create une histoire autre about architecture and the city. Like others before him, he comes from another tradition; he is an outsider, a foreigner, an immigrant of academia. Away from another émigré, his master Pevsner and the German thought forced on him, he grows younger and unconventional; an intellectual hippie who tranforms from flaneur to chauffer. He gives up his beloved Bickerton, gets a driving licence and a car in order to “read Los Angeles in the original”, echoing the earlier generations of English intellectuals who taught themselves Italian in order to “read Dante in the original”. “I love the place”, he states just before he enters his car, “with a passion that goes beyond sane or reason”, then turns on the engine and drives through the coasts, hills, valleys and freeways in order to reveal another reading of the city through his brand new original eyes. Always at the edge of the world and in a different direction, he goes on and identifies his four ecologies not only as places or monuments to explore by car but also as places where architecture satisfies no need in most cases but emerges in the sake of a dream, or what he calls “the great middle-class suburban dream”.
Hollywood, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Bel Air – all hills thus rich suburbs, “the higher the ground the higher the income” – are places so entirely different from Norwich, the city he was born and grew up. Bel Air sounds like the dream place to live, even the name itself is persuasive enough to a sun-loving Brit, like Banham, who had to suffer from the Toxic Air and the gloomy weather of London. Even though L.A. is nothing like Norwich, London, Europe or even the cities of the American east coast, he has a robust memory of this particular urban landscape, a sense of familiarity and an overpowering desire to expose the uncanny. Los Angeles has little history to demonstrate but many stories to tell. The cityscape is more like a dreamscape and the architecture being re-framed through the planning of directors, production designers, and set decorators, is no longer part of everyday life but part of a narrative. If then the scenographer replaces the architect in the same way the director can take the place of the historian. In that sense, Banham, the man of many disguises, writes a script instead of history which then turns into a movie. A real pioneer hippie; he leads the way, re-establishes the new age hippie trail and takes along the reader- viewer to an hallucinating trip. In the place where anything is possible, a hi(ppie)storian under the effect of his drug – criticism – can see what’s already there in a different way but always aware of his altered perceptions. Whimsical places, surreal experiences, fantasies, desires, and dreams, are elements all waiting to be re-discovered. In retrospect, it all derives from Hollywood, anything found there is enriched by its creative spirit. Without a doubt, Banham acknowledges the great impact cinema had on his perception and way of interpretation but then again he aims to be critical about it. The scene where he visits a house in the Hills, inspired by the cliché scenes in private detective movies of the 40’s is a pure moment of sarcasm and criticism. He promplty becomes both a narrator and actor, so it stays unclear whether he wants to be Alfred Hitchcock, Humphrey Bogart or himself; the music of Vertigo playing in the background on the one hand and a heroic detective Banham figure solving mysteries on the other.
An Interpretation of dreams; that’s what L.A. is all about, it’s a frame through which one can understand the city, “it’s a frame of mind”. Enough about the city though, another dream in desperate need of interpretation is Banham’s. It is extremely hard to read Banham’s mind, the only thing clear about it is that his intention to write a manual of the city is probably an explicit lie. His mind’s eye emanates from a fusion of history with present, reality with fantasy, integrity mingled with humor and irony opposed to ideology. In other words he slips away like a lizard or like a chameleon reliant to the environment. As his biographer Nigel Whiteley would say he transformes from working-class intellectual to pop professor and then to a cowboy. Reading L.A. is an attempt for him to show how he fits in, better than anyone before and around him; his narrative is well staged and it involves himself as much it involves the city. Looks like it is not certain if Banham declares his love for L.A. or the other way round. He happens to be talented in many ways, he is an historian, critic, professor, pop art lover, screenwriter, director, actor, hippie, and junkie among all the other things. What needs to be brought to everyone’s attention though is that Banham is a fake. He is not a chameleon nonetheless but a man with many costumes or disguises, which becomes more evident during his cowboy phase. “He looked liked he had just stepped out of a western, like a cowboy straight out of central casting”, says Tim Street-Porter, “he was kind of overdoing the whole look – Stetson, cowboy shirt, turquoise-studded belt, jeans, shoestring tie, the whole effect contrasting bizarrely with his East Anglian accent. It was his signature uniform and made him look startling and really quite impressive.” What Banham is going through in the 70’s can not be only accredited to a gradual Wild Westrnization, it seems more likely that he is dealing with or faking even a Post-middle age crisis.
(Image from Reyner Banham Loves LA – 1972)