Los Angeles: City of the Future? / BBC2 / 1992

Los Angeles: City of the Future? / BBC2 / 1992


Back in the centre, shining from its circular turrets of bronzed glass, stands the Bonaventure Hotel, an amazingly storeyed architectural symbol of the splintered labyrinth that stretches sixty miles around it." Like many other Portman-teaus which dot the eyes of urban citadels in New York and San Francisco, Atlanta and Detroit, the Bonaventure has become a concentrated representation of the restructured spatiality of the late capitalist city: fragmented and fragmenting, homogeneous and homogenizing, divertingly packaged yet curiously incomprehensible, seemingly open in presenting itself to view but constantly pressing to enclose, to compartmentalize, to circumscribe, to incarcerate. Everything imaginable appears to be available in this micro-urb but real places are difficult to find, its spaces confuse an effective cognitive mapping, its pastiche of superficial reflections bewilder co-ordination and encourage submission instead. Entry by land is forbidding to those who carelessly walk but entrance is nevertheless encouraged at many different levels, from the truly pedestrian skyways above to the bunkered inlets below. Once inside, however, it becomes daunting to get out again without bureaucratic assistance. In so many ways, its architecture recapitulates and reflects the sprawling manufactured spaces of Los Angeles. ➡︎

The documentary was filmed shortly before the Justice Riots of April 1992, which seemed to bear out the film’s emphasis on L.A.’s malaise, and it had little of the irony or whimsy of Reyner Banham’s much more famous BBC documentary Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles (1972), which was more fun to watch but arguably less accurate. Where Banham sees LA’s urban landscape as hugely entertaining with hints of social injustice, Soja’s analysis for the BBC finds LA full of social injustice despite its catering to pleasure —Soja was not only interviewed in the program but was credited as an ‘Academic Consultant’, so presumably shaped it editorially. […] Soja’s foreboding delivery seemed in tune with the cinematic LA I had recently encountered in films such as Grand Canyon (Lawrence Kasdan, 1991), Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton, 1991), and Terminator 2 (James Cameron, 1991), as well as, musically, in Henry Rollins and Orange County punk (which I often listened to and sometimes still do). ➡︎

Even now, the only people I know who go there are architectural tourists. And they tend to leave disappointed, because the hotel is less the Super-Late Modern time capsule they expect than an oversized and poorly laid out 1970s hotel that has been serially — though haphazardly and unsuccessfully — updated over the years. As any nostalgist knows, the most depressing kind of architectural space is that one that is slightly and tentatively rather than resoundingly out of date. An architectural sensibility 30 or 40 years old is often intriguingly weird; one 10 or 15 years old is usually just cringe-worthy. ➡︎

In writing about postmodernism, Jameson wanted to provide nothing less than a totalizing vision of cultural production at a specific moment in history. That is one of the reasons the Bonaventure Hotel in the heart of downtown Los Angeles was so central to his argument: it is, as he memorably described it in the opening pages of the book, “a full-blown postmodern building” that is also “a total space, a complete world, a kind of miniature city”. Not only was it the product of a commercial conglomerate (Mitsubishi Corporation and John Portman & Associates), but the 1970s design, by John C. Portman Jr, reflected an entirely new spatial experience that was, as Jameson knew from experience, disorienting (“I always go the wrong direction so I’m very sensitive to the right maps”, he confessed). He borrowed the concept of “cognitive mapping” from the urban historian Kevin Lynch as a way to talk about “class consciousness” at a time when the whole experience of space was changing. To know where you are, in his formulation, involves a process of knowing who you are with, where you fit in to the grand scheme, and whether or not you can imagine yourself as part of a collective. Subsequent critics have taken this mapping challenge literally, but in doing so many of them have missed the point. “Cognitive mapping”, Jameson explained, “is not just something you do when you need a map. It’s a way of forcing you to grasp representation as a problem, as a dilemma.” ➡︎

Not everybody in L.A. found Jameson’s take persuasive: The writer Mike Davis knocked it (rightly, I think) for being insufficiently political, for failing to note that the Bonaventure, funded in part with redevelopment money, rose from the rubble of the old Bunker Hill. Davis found Jameson’s references to the populist nature of the hotel’s architecture particularly galling. “To speak of its 'popular' character,” he wrote, “is to miss the point of its systematic segregation from the great Hispanic-Asian city outside.” ➡︎


▶︎ Notebook on Cities and Culture S4E39: The LAleph with Edward Soja / 2014

◼︎ Westin Bonaventure Hotel Tour With The L.A. Urban Rangers: Great Adventure or Postmodern Dystopia? / Sophie Duvernoy / LA Weekly / Jul 12, 2011

◼︎ Surveying L.A. Pomo: John Portman & Associates / Katie Okamoto / Metropolis / May 30, 2018

▶︎ Design and Architecture: Remembering John Portman, architect of Bonaventure Hotel / Frances Anderton / KCRW / Jan 02, 2018

◼︎ Exploring Downtown's Calvin S. Hamilton Pedway / Eric Brightwell / KCRW / Jun 26, 2013


◼︎ Postmodern Geographies: the Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory / Edward Soja / Verso / 2010

◼︎ Opening the Canon: Edward Soja / Mark Shiel / Mediapolis / Oct 30, 2017

◼︎ The wrong kind of time capsule: Notes on an afternoon inside John Portman's Bonaventure Hotel / Christopher Hawthorne / Jan 04, 2018

◼︎ This is a headline / Eric Bulson / The Times Literary Supplement / Oct 19, 2016

FUN! / Vince Staples / Calmatic / 2018

FUN! / Vince Staples / Calmatic / 2018

Silent Observers • DTLA / Miguel Rodriguez / 2018

Silent Observers • DTLA / Miguel Rodriguez / 2018