Windshield Perspective: Thoughts on Invisible Los Angeles


To zoom in on iconic L.A. images like the Hollywood Sign, City Hall, a Palm Tree, Pink's Hot Dogs, Randy's Donuts, Venice Beach, the Capitol Records Building, Griffith Observatory, or any one of a number of other celebrated sites is to join the pantheon of mythmakers playing the same L.A. song. Not that each of those sites are not spectacular, it's just that there is so much more to see. From time to time over the years, new sides of the city find the public eye and new narratives emerge. This week L.A. Letters highlights a new exhibit spotlighting a street in invisible Los Angeles and a mixed-media anthology that shares the same zeitgeist.

"Windshield Perspective" is a current exhibit at the Architecture and Design Museum that "takes the most common of Los Angeles experiences -- a typical drive along a typical boulevard -- and exposes the visual impressions that are continually cast off from the urban landscape that lines the roadway. [It] is about the decorative, architectural, personal, and natural elements that comprise a single stretch of an overlooked boulevard."

The exhibit covers the short but dense stretch of Beverly Boulevard from Normandie to Virgil. The point is to take the veil of the windshield off to reveal the heart of the city: "The windshield is both a lens and a shield, a screen which acts much like a magnifying glass to clarify the view and as a screen to obscure the sight."

Like so much of the city, this area is a crossroads of ethnicities, industries and architecture. Overlapping areas include Historic Filipinotown, Koreatown, Little Armenia and Thai Town just north, the Rampart District to the south along with Little Bangladesh, and then there's the 101 freeway immediately north. Silver Lake is directly east. The stretch used for "Windshield Perspective" is undeniably one of the biggest crossroads of culture and neighborhoods in the entire city.

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The best known building in the area is perhaps the large public storage edifice designed in 1928 by Arthur Harvey. Much of the built environment is auto-body shops, bakeries, banks, bars, barber shops, churches, liquor stores, and taco stands. There are only five corporate businesses along that stretch, and they are all at the major intersections of Normandie, Vermont and Virgil. The exhibit reveals the other Los Angeles in multiple ways.

Focused on raising civic awareness to the beauty all around us, hundreds of photos and elaborate graphics, lined up by addresses, form the heart of the show. A 97-minute program of ambient sound-compositions created for the exhibit accompanies the experience. Derived from actual field-recordings from hundreds of hours spent on Beverly Boulevard, the six separate compositions are: "'Architectural Statements," "Juxtaposition," "Data Points," "Riots," "Decorative Language," and "What the Earth Might Hear."

Each recording is equally compelling; the last one was especially interesting because the collage of the sound of water flowing against the noise of construction sites represents the hidden history of the Boulevard. A small stream called the Bimini Slough passed through the vicinity of Beverly and Virgil for time immemorial and now, like so many other small streams and gullies around Southern California, the waterway has been tamed and contained by concrete, and blocks of buildings now hide the original swamp. One of the central outcomes of "Windshield Perspective" is that this pastiche and bricolage of architecture, culture and geography "reveals the very essence of the built city: messy, disorderly,impromptu, and vital."

Bimini Slough Ecology Park | Photo: Michelle Selvans/flickr/Creative Commons

As one who has always appreciated the pluralism, hidden beauty, and messy disorder of the city, the ethos of the exhibit resonated with me. From 1999 to 2001, I lived near Beverly and Western and would drive this same route to downtown almost daily. As much as I've always loved taking public transportation, most of my jobs and apartments over the years were not along the route lines. Most daily journeys around the city have always been in the car out of necessity. Consequently, side streets and faster thoroughfares less known have always been vital knowledge. A quote from the exhibit made me think of all the different streets I've used over the years: "This drive along Beverly stands for hundreds, if not thousands, of daily journeys through the city's landscape. The exhibit is about seeing and not seeing."

I thought immediately of both Jefferson and Eighth Street. I drove these streets because they were less congested, but I inevitably grew to love their subtle attributes. For the three years I taught in the Crenshaw District I took Jefferson from the east side, past USC all the way to Crenshaw, as an alternative to gridlock on the 10. I enjoyed zooming through Jefferson Park, past classic California craftsmen and quaint small businesses like Tak's Garden Supplies. Like many, I've also used Jefferson to get from Mar Vista or Westchester to go east all the way downtown. Jefferson goes east all the way to Central, and on countless occasions it delivered me home at a much greater clip than the freeway. Eighth Street, from Downtown to Koreatown past Crenshaw, is also equally low profile and loaded with urban vitality. Thousands of other Angelenos use these same streets but they are seldom shown on the silver screen.

Two plus years of research went into "Windshield Perspective." The project was curated by writer/professor/scholar Greg Goldin in conjunction with the Architecture and Design (A+D) Museum as a part of the much larger "Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A.," which not only includes the A+D Museum but also LACMA, MOCA, the Getty, Cal Poly Pomona, SCI-Arc, the Hammer Museum, and a few other programming partners. Initiated by the Getty, this landmark collaboration brings into proper light the magnitude of architecture and design in Southern California. Similar events celebrating L.A. architecture will continue this summer, like the forthcoming A+D exhibit, "Never Built: Los Angeles."

"Never Built: Los Angeles" is highly anticipated and on the same scale of public interest as "Windshield Perspective." Curated by Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell and designed by Clive Wilkinson Architects, the exhibition explores and examines a compendium of dazzling local projects that never came to fruition. Enthusiasts of Angeleno history usually think of the Olmsted Brothers' never-built greenbelt plan for the Los Angeles River, but there are a dozen others, equally inventive, that never made it past the drawing board.  

CE Noerenberg, Los Angeles River Railroad Terminal | Courtesy UCLA Special Collections/A+D Museum
CE Noerenberg, Los Angeles River Railroad Terminal | Courtesy UCLA Special Collections/A+D Museum

The perspective of celebrating invisible Los Angeles is also shared in an unrelated anthology, "Seeing LosAngeles: A Different Look at A Different City." Published in 2007 by Otis Books/Seismicity, this 200-page book is an intriguing mix of essays, poems and photographs that shed light on the city with the same verisimilitude as "Windshield Perspective." There are 20 pieces in the book by writers like Norman Klein, Kevin Starr, DJ Waldie, Martha Ronk, and Paul Vangelisti, among others. Covering regional history, literature, film and urban studies, I particularly enjoyed Guy Bennett's short poems on Los Angeles architecture. His cycle of poems, "Eight Architectural Miniatures," give crisp snapshots of specific regional addresses. Each one is only eight to nine lines, but they really crunch a juxtaposition of images. See this one titled, "8687 Melrose Avenue," quoted in its entirety:

Built blue to house bright
Forms, scale the surrounding
Aroused, float-altered
Extension to contrasting
Fragments symmetrical green
Spandrels rotate away via a
Plinth the sky-litatrium's cylindrical
Hinge-curves wedge inred glass
Phases this plaza poured in place.

Bennett's poetic polaroids are an excellent form to capture the diversity of architectural styles around Southern California. "Seeing Los Angeles: A Different Look at A Different City," offers a polyphonic onslaught of Los Angeles perspectives and images. Paul Vangelisti's essay, "Memory and Daily Life in the Invisible City," mediates on the plight of the poet in Los Angeles and working in the anonymity of what Vangelisti calls "the invisible city." Vangelisti edited a literary journal called "Invisible City" from 1971 to 1982. Vangelisti begins his essay by giving a nod to the Parisian poet Mohammed Dib, who lived in Los Angeles in 1974. Vangelisti recalls, "Dib would often smile his capricious, little smile and ask as the afternoon began to cool, if it weren't time to set off in my Datsun sedan and visit our invisible city, so that we may begin to add to it our own 'petites histoires.'"

Their journeys across the city together helped Vangelisti see that Los Angeles is the invisible city. Ruminating on a poetic of the daily life, Vangelisti explains, "some poets instinctively employ thedaily to create a context for their work, social, dramatic or otherwise. In a city where the image is considered truthful... a poet may look to his or her own isolate daily life to fashion a background against which language may be given room for serious play."

Similar to the idea in"Windshield Perspective" that the daily life is often over looked and unseen, Vangelisti writes, "I am suggesting that a preoccupation with our daily bread is a poet's attempt to ground his or her work if not exactly in some form of realism, at least in a realistic attitude or position within this wacky environment." The collision of poetry and daily life is a timeless tradition and the dislocated neighborhoods of Los Angeles are a fertile landscape to chart. Embedded within the invisible, congested streets is a chaotic vitality that defines the city with a greater resonance than the usual stand-ins projected in mass media. Poets capturing daily life and the common impulse envision "reality speaking through them." Furthermore, Vangelisti adds, "the poet may step momentarily outside the poem, to incite a kind of double focus on and in the path of experience, while emphasizing that both may become fundamentally altered by the encounter."    
The impact of the daily encounter awaits us all just outside our doorstep. "Windshield Perspective" and "Seeing Los Angeles" reveal the underlying magic within our daily landscape. Saluteto the Museum of Architecture and Design and Otis Books for shining a bright light on the hidden substance and attributes within the cultural and geographical matrix of L.A. Letters.

The Architecture and Design Museum will be giving a walking tour of Beverly in conjunction with"Windshield Perspective" on Sunday, June 9 at 11 a.m. See the website for more: www.aplusd.org

Top: Public Storage facility on Beverly Boulevard. Photo: jann_on/flickr/Creative Commons

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