After the Four Ecologies

After the Four Ecologies by Gesa Büttner Dias

This is an excerpt from the essay Evocations of an Absent Everyday: Fifty Years After The Four Ecologies published in the Cornell Journal of Architecture 12 edited by Val Warke, Hallie Black and Todd Petrie from Cornell AAP.

Fifty years ago, in 1971, Reyner Banham published his seminal account, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, on a then-understudied city.[1] In it he declared Los Angeles as unique, without precedent, and non-exemplary: an ecosystem of itself. Written during the first wave of environmental awareness, Banham demonstrated how to read a city as a constructed landscape, an asynchronous geospatial condition. In his manifesto, Banham synthesized his celebration to Los Angeles by dividing the city into four distinct ecologies: Surfurbia, the Foothills, the Plains of Id, and Autotopia. The tone of the text, balancing the perspectives of first encounter, everyday encounter, and studied encounter, was immediate and provocative, making the book ever more difficult to categorize.


Los Angeles

Over the last fifty years both Los Angeles and Banham’s ode have become a standard, gone out of fashion and have had their comebacks, riding out the trends of the times. Banham saw Los Angeles neither as prototype nor the apocalypse of all urban landscapes, and while the city might not have changed that much since then, the world around it has. Today, Los Angeles is most similar to metropolitan regions in the Global South and the Pacific Rim, and not just for the climate. The city is rich in civic and real estate development, and yet has a thriving informal, do-it yourself sector, only recently discovered by the cultural sphere.

Thanks to Hollywood, synonymous with popular culture, the image of Southern California urban life has been prototypical far beyond Banham’s imagination, with suburbs outside of Shanghai or Chongqing named after Orange County or Palm Springs. Even more pervasively, the everyday urban scenery of Los Angeles has entered the American, if not global, subconscious. As a neutral presence stripped of its geospatial specificity, Los Angeles has been the background of movies set no matter where in the US, past or future. The city is omnipresent yet invisible, as if the object of a non-authored subliminal advertising scheme. Just what is the advertisement is for? What is the everyday of Los Angeles?

I imagine Banham’s first encounter with LA similar to mine: from the window of a plane, on a flight from Europe, with a stopover for refueling on the East Coast. Even though I read Four Ecologies long after I moved to LA, it was still as if Banham had sat next to me on that first flight over the sprawling city, pointing out the endless vistas of blooming purple Jacaranda, aquatic blue beans of backyard swimming pools, and gridded streets only distorted where demanded by topography and the curved cul-de-sacs of an occasional new urbanist housing development. I was in love, despite better knowledge, despite having lived all my life in dense, post–World War II reconstructed cities. Welcome to the 1950s ideal architecture, unconstrained by historic city layouts.

Banham, born in England, acknowledged his Eurocentrism unapologetically and was fascinated by the image of the traveler during colonial times. His interest in Los Angeles was in what Anglo-Saxon culture looked like when transposed onto a Spanish colonial past on the North American continent. After fifty years, his Four Ecologies division of Los Angeles into beachfront, hillsides, plains, and freeways remains as relevant as ever. And the perception of the hillside, beach, and car culture has changed little—yet the Plains of Id, the city’s flatlands, deserve further investigation.

There is a gaping absence in the book on the everyday culture in the Los Angeles plains and its stories not just of Euro-American migration, but of Black diaspora, and Asian and South American immigration. Banham neglected to describe the intricacies and injustices that formed a de facto and de juris segregated cityscape, neatly aligned with his division of the ecologies. A few years later, Bernard Tschumi published an essay further investigating the plains, in which he introduced the concept of sanctuaries, or enclaves of distinct cultures, as essential organizational principles of the LA flatlands.[2] In a careful re-reading of Banham’s text, a schizophrenic relationship to this, his third, ecology becomes apparent. On the one hand Banham considered the plains as the least specific location, resembling other urban formations in the Midwest. And at the same time, he credited them as home to the LA vernacular and the inspirational resource for the architectural lineage from Rudolph Schindler to Frank Gehry and beyond.

[1] Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (London: Penguin Books, 1971).
[2] Bernard Tschumi, “Sanctuaries,” Architectural Design 43 (September 1973): 575–90.


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