American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader

By Keith L. Eggener | Go to book overview

Chapter 23
Fortress Los Angeles

Mike Davis

The carefully manicured lawns of Los Angeles’s Westside sprout forests of ominous little signs warning: “Armed Response!” Even richer neighborhoods in the canyons and hillsides isolate themselves behind walls guarded by gun-toting private police and stateof-the-art electronic surveillance. Downtown, a publicly-subsidized “urban renaissance” has raised the nation’s largest corporate citadel, segregated from the poor neighborhoods around it by a monumental architectural glacis. In Hollywood, celebrity architect Frank Gehry, renowned for his “humanism,” apotheosizes the siege look in a library designed to resemble a foreign-legion fort. In the Westlake district and the San Fernando Valley the Los Angeles Police barricade streets and seal off poor neighborhoods as part of their “war on drugs.” In Watts, developer Alexander Haagen demonstrates his strategy for recolonizing inner-city retail markets: a panopticon shopping mall surrounded by staked metal fences and a substation of the LAPD in a central surveillance tower. Finally on the horizon of the next millennium, an ex-chief of police crusades for an anti-crime “giant eye”— a geo-synchronous law enforcement satellite—while other cops discreetly tend versions of “Garden Plot,” a hoary but still viable 1960s plan for a law-and-order armageddon.

Welcome to post-liberal Los Angeles, where the defense of luxury lifestyles is translated into a proliferation of new repressions in space and movement, undergirded by the ubiquitous “armed response.” This obsession with physical security systems, and, collaterally, with the architectural policing of social boundaries, has become a zeitgeist of urban restructuring, a master narrative in the emerging built environment of the 1990s. Yet contemporary urban theory, whether debating the role of electronic technologies in precipitating “postmodern space,” or discussing the dispersion of urban functions across poly-centered metropolitan “galaxies,” has been strangely silent about the militarization of city life so grimly visible at the street level. Hollywood’s pop apocalypses and pulp science fiction have been more realistic, and politically perceptive, in representing the programmed hardening of the urban surface in the wake of the social polarizations of the Reagan era. Images of carceral inner cities (Escape from New York, Running Man), high-tech police death squads (Blade Runner), sentient buildings (Die Hard), urban bantustans (They Live!), Vietnam-like street wars (Colors), and so on, only extrapolate from actually existing trends.

Such dystopian visions grasp the extent to which today’s pharaonic scales of residential and commercial security supplant residual hopes for urban reform and social integration. The dire predictions of Richard Nixon’s 1969 National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence have been tragically fulfilled: we live in “fortress

-412-

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