The reflexive assumption that Los Angeles is a vapid wasteland is actually one of the things that makes it so interesting. In beloved and admired cities, people expect to find wonderful things. But when those wonders are obscured by traffic, pollution, or the myriad annoyances of a living city, it can provoke an existential malaise. Did the city fail? Was the attempt to experience the city a failure?
LA doesn’t have this problem, because it is blessed with an almost universal hatred. Although hate is too strong a word – it’s often more a sense of disregard, a widespread belief that there is no reason to even bother paying attention to LA. Instead of living with the disillusion of a charming image, LA is hidden behind negative clichés, like a cloaking device protecting it from the predations of misapprehended desires [ 1 ].
Over the years, this cloaking device has caused destruction of its own, with irreplaceable treasures and resources paved over for no better reason than total conceptual blindness to the fact that they existed [ 2 ]. But at least low expectations also make room for the unexpected. How amazing to expect a parking lot and find a forest. To brace yourself for gaping idiocy, and find tribes of passionate experts. To expect suburban blight and find mounds of wild mushrooms.
Of course we found mushrooms in Los Angeles. A mountain range is the literal heart of the city, dividing Hollywood from the Valley with chaparral hills and forested canyons. Yet it is still surprising to find fungi erupting lush and musty out of a desert dystopia. LA is like that sometimes. Dry, beige, stucco, and then, surprise! A lurid eruption [ 3 ]. The most extravagant example of this is the city itself, a tiny village suddenly exploding out of its borders and metastasizing up the hills. An unholy growth, a contagion, a sprawl.
LA is frequently used as the archetypal example of a sprawling centerless cityscape, its very name used as a metonym for everything that’s wrong with this structure. Disconnection, confusion, solipsism, erasure – Los Angeles! But maybe one reason LA is so universally disliked and mistrusted is because it is the shape of things to come. From the first freeway running up a dry riverbed to the first signal transmitted over the Internet, landing in Silicon Valley like a spore, the network form of its sprawl has been spreading. And it has won.
Most of the countries in the world have fewer residents than the urban area of Los Angeles. Which is not to re-state the obvious point that most people now live in cities, but rather to point out that the term “city” has already lost its meaning as a descriptive term [ 4 ]. Most of the largest cities are not comprised of an arboreal urban core with outward-branching suburbs. They are thickly woven, multipolar meshworks of infrastructure, spreading across entire regions, swallowing mere cities in their agglomeration. Landscapes like this are where most people now live.
Which leads to an interesting statistical quirk – LA is the most densely populated urban area in America. Not the “city,” mind you, but the Los Angeles Metropolitan Statistical Area, more dense on average than the New York Metropolitan Statistical Area, which grows relatively sparser as it branches ever farther outward from its arboreal center point [ 5 ]. LA’s infrastructure is more of a fungal form, oozing interwoven mycelia, occasionally sprouting tuberous organs to the sky.
With dense urban areas extending to the horizons, the fabric of these post-cities must be interwoven with nature. Not in the sense of a park, a small preserve that references nature. They must become a part of nature. Given any number of urgent problems facing us, it is no longer relevant to ask if such a thing is possible, but to simply find the best ways for it to happen. While Los Angeles does not serve as the model for how to build this, the fact that Los Angeles went first into this sprawling future may make it an ideal testing ground. Because LA is broken in interesting and relevant ways, or at least in ways that make it full of surprises.
And Machine Project likes surprises. This sense of wonder and discovery has guided what we do as we try to see what’s around us and find poetic conjunctions in what’s been ignored. Mushrooms don’t seem to have an obvious connection to a disjointed megalopolis, but there they are, their rhizomorphic forms an evocative mirror of each other, occasionally sprouting a fruiting body which may be poisonous, hallucinogenic, delicious, or all of the above.
Let us rejoice in the humble mycelia, spreading beneath fields and forests, parks and parking lots, with their quiet surprises and subtle beauty. Let us delight in the alien logic of intricate, sprawling, hidden organisms, and the secret fabric woven among us.
- One major exception is Hollywood. The ostensible objects of most tourist traps actually exist, but even historically, most of the movie industry wasn’t located in the Hollywood area, and it certainly isn’t centered there now, leaving thousands of Hollywood-seeking tourists gazing forlornly at the apartment buildings and t-shirt shops of Los Angeles. At the turn of the millennium, a massive shopping mall was finally built to corral this mythopoetic misdirection, a towering abattoir where disappointment could be processed for consumption.
- The most iconic example is the river the city was named after. But one of the most infamous-yet-forgotten examples was Clune’s Auditorium, later known as the Philharmonic Auditorium, a 2,600 seat Spanish Gothic theater built in 1906. Location of the world premiere of Birth of a Nation, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra for more than 40 years, it stood across from Pershing Square for nearly 80 years until 1985, when it was demolished for a failed building project. The site was used as a parking lot for almost 20 years, when it was finally replaced with a non-descript office building.
- The 1997 movie Volcano was a notable example of the idea that literally anything could erupt out of LA. The film was also remarkable for overtly blaming the newly opened Red Line subway for causing “Mount Wilshire” to burst out of the La Brea Tar Pits. Blaming public transit as the cause of the only natural disaster that the region is not susceptible to – easily one of the most Dadaist critiques ever made of LA.
Review of Volcano: Is this really a disaster movie? I think people around the globe would agree, if a volcano blew up Los Angeles, the world would be a better place… – Dunmore, Jon. “You Maniacs! You blew it up!” 20 Mar 2009.
- There is no single definition of “city” and “size” — there’s only an array of variables such as morphological contiguity and demographic behavior. Official municipal boundaries may actually be one of the least useful ways to describe modern megacities. See: wiki: World’s_largest_cities.
- Although parts of the officially demarcated city limits of Los Angeles are very dense, it only contains about 4 million residents – by global standards, that’s barely a burg. But the Los Angeles Metropolitan Statistical Area has around 18 million people (depending on how you measure it) with the density distributed widely across the entire area. The population of the New York Metropolitan Statistical Area is similar to Los Angeles – around 20 million people – but about half those people live within the city limits. The surrounding urban area of New York is a vast tundra of low-density urban sprawl, and as such, it is not to be spoken of in polite company.