A Los Angeles Primer: Lincoln Boulevard

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Deep into my exploration of Los Angeles, I took my first trip to London, a city whose built environment one assumes contrasts in the starkest, least flattering way against that of the city I came from. A classic London architectural tour would take you past all the city's least Los Angelinian aspects: Edwardian buildings lining the Thames, Big Ben, the glories of the neo-Gothic. Eschewing this pathway, I instead wandered without aim into the areas least in line with London's self-image, all the while reflecting upon the many conversations I've had with Brits who'd left this native land of theirs, made a beeline for Los Angeles, and proceeded to enjoy their subsequent absence of regrets. Everyone cites writers like Christopher Isherwood and artists like David Hockney as this movement's visionaries, and I still find the freshest perspectives of the city from their countless spiritual descendants, even if they've lived in Los Angeles a dozen times as long as I have.

You'll mostly find them in the coastal northwest around Santa Monica, which seems well on its way to spearheading a new generation of British colonies. I rode out there one day to talk with Bath-born architecture and design journalist and broadcaster Frances Anderton on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. Having grown up in a town known for its preservation of the image of one particular, long-gone England, Anderton found in Los Angeles an escape, as many of her countrymen do, from "the crushing burden of history." And to the city's ahistorical, untraditional aesthetic tendencies she credits not just the reflection of a kind of freedom, but the production of a kind of beauty.

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"I appreciate London," she told me. "I can definitely see its glories. I can't say I love it. I don't love the buildings of the Edwardian era that line the Thames. I don't love Big Ben. I don't love the neo-Gothic. I love Melrose Avenue. I love the bizarreness of — what's a street that's kind of ugly? — Lincoln. Lincoln is everybody's ugliest street, but I still sort of love it: the bizarreness, the juxtaposition of the billboards against the funny little huts selling tacos cheek-by-jowl with the car showroom and the big open sky." She described, perhaps, a street only a transplant could truly love. Then again, the word "love" may not quite apply; perhaps only a transplant could truly understand Lincoln Boulevard, an understanding born of not having grown up so frequently using but more than mildly resenting it.

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In his study "Los Angeles Boulevard: Eight X-Rays of the Body Public," architect and uprooted East Coaster Doug Suisman considers the thickly symbolic nature of that oft-maligned street, "the width of the road, the vitiated architectural typology, the spatial vastness of the parking lots, the uncontrolled riot of signage, and the presence of unadorned utility poles and wires" that "all combine to make Lincoln one of the city's most intense 'strip' environments." In the very term "strip," he hears not just "violent and erotic associations" but what critics feared as an implied "stripping away of architecture's (and indeed civilization's) defenses against a pathogenic urban form, whose pure commercial determinism was denounced as both vulgar and dangerous."

Lincoln, the length of U.S. Highway 1 running from the vicinity of Los Angeles International Airport, through Venice, to the north of Santa Monica, can for miles at a time look practically undeveloped and, from the right angles, even idyllic. But it does indeed have stretches, and substantial ones, where the aforementioned riot of clashing colors, forms, styles, and scales often bemoaned in Los Angeles — more often bemoaned, these days, than witnessed — plays out at full pitch. As in any riot, those not directly involved can't help but stare, outwardly aghast but inwardly thrilled. Some even contribute to what Suisman references as the "many words and pictures devoted to the sideshow deformities of the boulevard's Pop architecture, with an enthusiasm bordering on camp." That vein of bad-is-good architectural criticism, so kind to the Lincoln Boulevards of the world, enjoyed a moment in the 1970s and 80s, but has since matured. What do we see on Lincoln now, when we look hard enough?

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Scottish photographer Stephen McLaren recently produced "Drive Lincoln", a series of images of which we run the risk of forgetting the rest of the world sees as freakish: a heap of old furniture spilling out onto the sidewalk, nearly all of it re-painted pink; a 99-cent store's row after dizzying row of primary-colored ketchup bottles, pineapple cans, cake mixes, and popcorn packets; a deteriorating plaster wizard gesturing toward a smog-check garage; a fellow employed to stand all day holding aloft a sign advertising "CASH 4 GOLD"; a neon-lit psychic's storefront offering ten-dollar palmistry sessions. What an impression for the visitor, only just emerged from the airport. "This is the first road many visitors to America experience," says the tellingly titled photographic survey's introduction. "Cars give it a reason to exist."

In "Drive Lincoln", a middle-aged man washes his car. This seems as standard a Californian sight as they come but for the vehicle itself — a tri-wheeled pod, rounded at every corner, coated in the same bright green that adorns Westchester Psychic Palm Readings. But it wouldn't surprise me to spot such a curiosity in the flow through Lincoln's center. The traffic's very constancy would make it invisible, yet its eccentricity often exceeds that of the motels, liquor stores, garages, and eateries (either omnipresent national chains or visually amusing, slightly forbidding one-offs) lining it. However you traverse it, you can still read the boulevard, host day and night to every kind of not just car and truck, but motorcycle, scooter, and even bicycle (McLaren snaps one with a trailer sprouting ten-foot-high American flags), as an endless hymn to mobility.

You can now live in Los Angeles without developing an obsession with the automobile, but not, I would contend, without an obsession with movement itself. In the beginning of this new age of bike lanes and Metro trains, it retains all the importance it had in the optimistic heyday of the freeways. On that subject one must still defer to Reyner Banham, an observer and enthusiast of Los Angeles who wrote his most famous book on the city in that era and who, of course, came from England (where he happened to work with Anderton at the Architectural Review). On the question of how to bridge the wide "gap of comparability" between Los Angeles and, say, London, Banham advises beginning by learning "the language of design, architecture, and urbanism in Los Angeles," "the language of movement. Mobility outweighs monumentality there to a unique degree [ .. ] and the city will never be fully understood by those who cannot move fluently through its diffuse urban texture, cannot go with he flow of its unprecedented life." Think of Lincoln Boulevard as one of those language courses — always the most effective — that plunges you straight into full immersion, sink or swim.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

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