In the MIT Technology Review: three books on Los Angeles

The MIT Technology Review recently put out an issue on cities. When asked for a contribution, I realized I could take the opportunity to write an essay considering three of my favorite pieces of writing on Los Angeles: Christopher Rand’s The Ultimate City, Reyner Banham’s The Architecture of Four Ecologies, and Jan Morris’ “The Know-How City.” Besides having been published in roughly the same era, spanning the late 1960s to the mid-70, all three frame the city — a little-understood place, then as now — as not just a creation of high technology, but as a kind of machine in itself:

Los Angeles is vast and practically formless, a city so unlike any other that it can hardly be called a city at all. That, at least, is the impression the past few decades of writing on the Southern California metropolis has tended to offer. Hardened into received wisdom, this presumption is now repeated even by astute contemporary observers. But there’s more to Los Angeles than that tired critique suggests.

To see Los Angeles clearly, one needs to go half a century into the past, when three writers came to take the measure of what was then the fastest-growing city in the rich world. Though each brought a distinctive and formidable stock of world experience and historical knowledge, all came to understand postwar Los Angeles by recognizing how technology gave the city both purpose and possibility.

“All modern cities are machines, but LA is even more of a machine than the others … it is a humming, smoking, ever-changing contraption,” Christopher Rand wrote in his 1967 book Los Angeles: The Ultimate City, which began as a three-part series in the New Yorker. The lack of water and threat of earthquakes made this place particularly dependent on technology, he argued. Cities, since the very beginning, had relied on water management, but the complexity of LA’s water system, fed by a giant aqueduct that diverts water from the Owens Valley some 200 miles to the north, was far greater than anything that had come before. 

Read the whole thing at the MIT Technology Review (subscription required).