What Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne learned after a full year of historical reading on the city

Last January, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne kicked off a year-long project to explore his city through its literature. He picked 24 – plus three more reader suggestions – of the “most significant books on Southern California architecture and urbanism.” The Reading L.A. project covers the city's growth, development, design, infrastructure and culture, including well-known titles like Reyner Banham’s 1971 Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, as well as less prominent books like David Brodsly’s 1981 L.A Freeway: An Appreciative Essay. His final installment of the series was published earlier this week.

“Twenty-seven is sort of a ridiculously big number of books to consider in one year,” Hawthorne says. “It did catch up with me by the end of the year.”

The project and the process were driven, he says, by a desire to highlight interesting works on the city, but also to push himself out of his comfort zone in terms of his knowledge and understanding of the city. And understanding the city is the key challenge, says Hawthorne, who’s been at the Times for just over seven years.

“This is a city that, at least in my experience, is tough to get to know. And I found when I moved here even, having a sense that I understood something of the history, particularly the architectural history, it proved to be a hard place to get a handle on,” Hawthorne says. “After four or five years of working and living here I began to feel that I at least had a solid sense of the place. And in part it was that sense that prompted me to do this. I wanted to avoid being complacent and feeling that I really understood the city. And in some ways it was a way to put myself back in the early months of my tenure here when I really didn’t feel that I understood the place.”

Reading and analyzing books dating back to 1927, Hawthorne’s series documents the history not just of Los Angeles, but the evolution of how the city has been interpreted over time. Paramount in these 27 titles are three books, according to Hawthorne. The first is Carey McWilliams’ 1946 Southern California: An Island on the Land, a skeptical yet enthusiastic study of the city, which, as Hawthorne writes, is “easily the most significant volume ever published on L.A.'s civic and urban character.” The second, Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, followed 25 years later with an unabashedly favorable look at the city’s aesthetics and culture through the lens of its multiple – and varied – centers. The third is Mike Davis’ 1990 City of Quartz, which Hawthorne praises for its prescient exploration of the privilege and division that has guided the development and culture of the city, but also bemoans for its “knee-jerk far-leftism.”

“They really deserve their place at the top of the canon,” Hawthorne says of these three, “mostly for having tried to embrace the entirety of the city.”

He also recognizes more specialized and focused books, looking at, for example, the history of life in a post-war suburban subdivision (D.J. Waldie’s 1996 Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir), and the L.A. school of architects like Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne and Eric Owen Moss (Charles Jencks' 1993 Heteropolis: Los Angeles, the Riots and Strange Beauty of Hetero-architecture).

Enmeshed in these and the rest of the books in the Reading L.A. series are a number of recurring themes that helped to inform some of Hawthorne’s criticism over the course of the year. The historical conflicts related to mobility, for example, provided background for his analysis of the “Carmageddon” freeway closure in July. Another recurring theme is the history of boosterism in L.A. and of marketing the city to those outside.

“The idea of the city seeing growth in and of itself as a major industry and then marketing itself accordingly was an idea that I was able to apply to a lot of my pieces on contemporary L.A.,” Hawthorne says.

Reading through these works also helped Hawthorne better grasp the historical underpinnings of the state of the city’s development today. He says the city has had a deep history of dramatic changes, and that it’s currently in the midst of maybe its biggest.

“L.A.’s at a really important transitional moment, as it gets denser and it moves past the single family house and private automobile paradigm that drove so much of its development in the 20th century,” says Hawthorne. “I felt that and I intellectually believe that, but before I made too many pronouncements about that I wanted to really go back and understand how that related to the history of the place.”

What makes this transition so much more significant than, say, the development of aqueducts or the spread of subdivisions, Hawthorne argues, is that the city is moving briskly away from some of the clichés and stereotypes that define many people’s understanding of the city.

“If we can agree that the city has been linked with suburban development and private mobility, and those two things are both either being called into question or breaking down to some degree, what happens next? How do we establish some kind of identity for a post-suburban future?” Hawthorne says. “And that doesn’t mean the freeways are going away or cars are going away or single family houses for that matter, it just means that those things won’t define the character of the city in the way that they have.”

Just what that character will be is as much shaped by the transition underway as by our understanding of the city. For Hawthorne, this year-long literary trip has bolstered his perception of the city as a product of its past. But, he says, even the most overarching  studies of the city can’t and don’t describe what is emerging in the L.A. of today.

“What the books have suggested to me,” Hawthorne argues, “is that we really don’t have – and need – a new framework for understanding the city at this moment in its history as it undergoes this transition.”

Photo credit: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

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