Brutal Landscapes

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

@BrutalHouse is the Twitter feed of Peter Chadwick, an on-going celebration of an architectural style first codified by Reyner Banham in his essay, The New Brutalism in 1955. One of several new coffee table books that celebrates work built in this brutish style of poured concrete – massive, forbidding and until recently totally disdained - is Chadwick’s This Brutal World, 2016.

As a memento of our recent trip to Death Valley, a friend sent me a copy of Reyner Banham’s Scenes in America Deserta, 1980. This is a lesser (and late) work in the Banham canon, his seminal book being Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, 1960, a history of the modern movement in architecture that for several decades was standard text in graduate schools. Of particular local interest is another of his books, his eulogy to Los Angeles, The Architecture of Four Ecologies, 1971.

What lies in the mind of a man who as a newly minted Art History graduate celebrates the uber-functionalism of exposed structural systems in post-war British architecture, epitomized in the work of the Smithsons, Alison and Peter, reveres the late work of Corbusier (Marseille’s Unité d'habitation, 1952, and his Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut de Ronchamp, 1954) and a quarter of a century later falls prostrate before the landscape wonders of American deserts? It helps to know that he tours the American south west, heavily bearded, dark-glassed and Stetsoned in a rented Mustang, was famously photographed riding a folding bike (in its unfolded version) over a salt flat, and made TV programs for the BBC in the late 1970’s which attempted to explain the inexplicable urban vagaries of Los Angeles to British audiences.

He is thus exposed as an aesthete with a particular penchant for form and place and an overt awareness of his image in a small byway of celebrity culture. By coincidence (really), I have just read the English writer Geoff Dyer’s essay collection White Sands, 2016, which contains several pieces on his new home of Los Angeles. Both Dyer and Banham quote their compatriot D.H. Lawrence who famously toured New Mexico in the early 1920’s in search of nodality – that special quality that accretes to certain places and gives them a mythic resonance. Dyer first discovers this quality, in retrospect, when he remembers a hillock of compacted dirt in the corner of a park where he played as a child that was the locus for games and was called ‘the hump’. Banham becomes an early fan of the architectural style of Brutalism, which celebrates the massive, primal, imagistic force of poured concrete - and endured as a significant movement from circa 1955-1975. Lawrence is struck speechless by the raw emotive impact of the Taos pueblo (he recovered, of course, to write about it). Late in his career Banham becomes a self-described desert freak pondering the aesthetic qualities of vast landscapes of rock, sand and creosote bushes.

Brutalism is founded on the notion of an imagistic power inherent in the sculpting of forms that overwhelm their environment and can operate from the scale of Dyer’s hump to the Taos Pueblo and beyond to Kallman, McKinnell and Knowle’s Boston City Hall. Brutalist buildings don’t try to ‘fit-in’ they proclaim their differentness. Much of contemporary civilization relies on a built infrastructure that is inherently brutalist (viz. L.A.’s endless grid spreading from the ocean to the San Gabriel Mountains).

Landscapes can only be ‘brutal’, in this definition, by their formal association with this differentness, this dialectic of the anomalous human intervention (the brutalist building or system of infrastructure) within a homogeneous context: thus the mountains that ring many of our western deserts are ‘brutal’ by their association with the placid desert floor.

Banham long ago championed Los Angeles as something more interesting than a sink hole for the depression era diaspora from America’s dust bowl, the home of a meretricious film industry and the progenitor of the urban freeway as substitute for public transport. Perhaps he was reacting to its inherently brutalist topology of grid, freeway and floodwater management system (the much maligned, but appropriately concreted and channelized L.A. River).

Several waves of music, art, architecture and fashion have subsequently developed the reputation of L.A. (in all its colorful, edenic vacuousness), as a city making a credible cultural contribution to global civilization and as a place in which the well-educated, culturally literate, such as Geoff Dyer, might reasonably live and work.

When the New World emerged from its continental isolation a little more than 500 years ago, California came to exist in the European imagination only as a fabled Island of Amazons ruled by Queen Califia (Las Sergas de Esplandian, Garci Roderiguez de Montalvo, 1602). The world discovered California in 1848 when non-trivial quantities of gold were found at Sutter’s Mill which made San Francisco, the closest port to the gold fields, its pre-eminent city where greed personified flooded the town from all corners of the earth.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Los Angeles was nothing more than a murderous cow-town serving rapacious Anglo-Americans, relict populations of Californio Rancheros and their vaqueros - together with small groups of ghettoized indigenes, African Americans and Chinese. It was only with the establishment of the transcontinental railroad, the discovery of oil, the attraction of the health benefits of the desert-like environment and the founding of the movie industry that L.A. entered the twentieth century with a population swelled to truly urban proportions. Shortly thereafter, with the remnants of its decimated native peoples having long since been culturally assimilated, alienated or removed from the place they called Yang-na, The Valley of Smoke, the real estate boom began, and it has resonated across the flatlands, along the coast and up and down the canyons of the surrounding hills more or less continuously ever since.

The defense industry, Pacific Rim finance, and now Silicon Beach contribute to the economy. The entertainment industry continues to add to the city’s wealth and allure. Tourism thrives under mostly sunny skies. These are the foundations of a New World civilization, the Los Angeles that Banham came to interpret, and Geoff in Venice, (his joke, not mine) Dyer might practice his elliptical irony whilst in search of place in the Land of the Lotus Eaters.

Dyer finds his resonant ‘humps’ in Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, on L.A.’s west side where he visits Theodore Adorno’s house on South Kenter Avenue – where, and thereabouts, 1930’s European academic and high-culture émigrés wound up in an unlikely mid-century conflation of eternal sunshine and gloomy intellectualism – and at Muscle Beach in Venice where arcane rites of physical hygiene are practiced.

Neither he nor Banham attempts to confront the little that is left, in terms of artifacts, architectural evidence, language or other mythically resonant representations, of the Native American cultural efflorescence that once flourished in the territory now ceded to this global city, which together with San Francisco, is the West Coast light of the neo-liberal world.

I had always assumed that the bulk of what does remain was in the collection of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian in Pasadena, now administered by the Autry Museum of the American West; was in the boxes of John Peabody Harrington’s linguistic, ethnographic and native flora collections deposited in the Bureau of American Ethnology and now housed in the Smithsonian; in A.L. Kroeber’s collection at Berkeley’s Museum of Anthropology; or in other institutions across the State. It turns out, however, that this corner of southern California suffered the depredations of its own Lord Elgin.

Berlin’s Ethnological Museum houses a vital collection of over 1,000 Californian Indian artifacts collected between 1837 and 1914. Schwed and Garfinkel’s paper in The Journal of Californian and Great Basin Anthropology, Vol. 36, #2, 2016, tells the story of how this came to be. The King of Prussia tasked Ferdinand Deppe, a talented painter and naturalist working in the Royal Court to travel to California and collect Indian artifacts for his Royal Museum. Deppe was so successful he was later employed by other wealthy German aristocrats to acquire objects for Berlin’s Zoological Museum. In concert with a European shipping magnate, Deppe established trading relationships that Charles Wilcomb went on to use in the final shipment of some 500 Californian artifacts to Berlin on the eve of World War One. Unlike the Elgin Marbles (sculptures, moldings and other architectural elements from Ancient Greece purloined in Athens while Elgin served as British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire), which are subject to on-going efforts by Greece for their return from the British Museum, no such movement is afoot to return these spectacular baskets, feather blankets and ritual objects to their rightful owners.

The paper includes black and white photos of some of these extraordinary works of utilitarian and ceremonial art and one is reminded of the profound contextualism practiced by native cultures: taking from their world precisely the resources necessary to coexist with it equitably and with honor. Their brutality was confined to each other and their enemies, but never, it seems, to their natural environment which they tended with reverent care.

In Los Angeles, the Tongva, linguistically a Shoshone tribe, established their settlements on the mutable banks of the river and journeyed to the mountains in the hot summers: the real brutalism of the L.A. basin resides in the holocaust wreaked upon them by successive waves of Old World immigrants. Whatever we interpret in this conurbation today as ‘Brutalist’, is but a glinting, heat irradiated reflection of the killing fields that came to overlay the land, and from which only the white man walked away unscathed.

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