Wisdom and Whimsey

Date Posted: 08.13.2019

By Daniel Solomon,

Daniel Solomon’s Notes on  Swimming to Suburbia by Craig Hodgetts

I cannot think of another book, or another work of any kind, that I immediately admired so thoroughly and disagreed with so completely. Swimming to Suburbia is a reflection on a lifetime in Los Angeles, as my LOVE versus HOPE is a reflection on a lifetime in San Francisco. They were published at the same moment, and at the same point in the lives of their venerable authors.

Some things about our respective books are similar; each grow from a deep love of the peculiar cities that nurtured us, and each express their love through similar aspirations to writerly-ness—rare for an architect, let alone two. Craig may dream of being Raymond Chandler as I dream of being Dashiell Hammett—Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade (not such different protagonists)—Robert Mitchum or Humphrey Bogart, two good (not too good), weary men enjoying the complex evils of the city, as surfers enjoy waves.

The affinity that we each have for the other’s writing may signal that the books are not so deeply oppositional after all; maybe they are the works of siblings—one more rambunctious, the other a little stuffy, but connected, sympathetic, both committed to the idea that a life, a life’s work and the place it occurs can be so infused with one another to be indistinguishable. Swimming to Suburbia is both an autobiographical self-portrait, and the clearest, most vivid picture of Los Angeles I have ever read.

The chronology of the chapters shows that Craig has been on the edge of the edge of LA hipness for a lifetime. How many people had Uber and AirBnB figured out in 1970? The whole of his book, especially the title essay, is laced with phrases that sound like contemptuous negation of everything that LOVE versus HOPE holds most dear. I must extract a few pungent quotes:

Now it is not at all convincing to argue that the central structure and hierarchic patterns which once wove houses and shops into what was known as a city have more than a tedious utility.

…the now-meaningless symbolism of place and adjacency …has no need for the puffery of conventional symbols

Isn’t it a distinctly post-modern luxury to dwell in the midst of a sham reality where the only consensus is diversity.

…row merrily through this shipwreck of icons …a visual racket as violent as a Prohibition shoot-out

And that is just a sample.

On my first time through Swimming, I thought that these passages were simply (or not so simply) a much more elegant rephrasing of the little aphorisms that made Berkeley’s (arch-fiend) planning professor Mel Webber famous fifty years ago. He saw the future cyber city as “the non-place-urban-realm”, and he was the champion of “community without propinquity.” Catchy phrases, and prescient. For Mel Webber, the traditional (whatever that means) city had no meaning, and architecture was completely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Them’s was fightin’ words for me fifty years ago, and again when I first read Craig’s more literate version—a devastating assault on everything I have tried to do and preach in my most recent fifty years.

But wait—not so fast. Something doesn’t add up. Craig is far too good an architect and too serious a student of architecture for him to think all that doesn’t matter. And his attachment to his beloved Los Angeles is no different from my Milanese, Viennese, Roman, Parisian and New York friends’ attachments to their home towns. In fact, what are all those cool, intelligent people doing in those “traditional” cities, if the non-place-urban-realm is where it’s at? Shouldn’t they be living in Lille, or Tyson’s Corner or Atlanta?

Generations of artists and architects have found their spiritual home in the iconoclasm of Los Angeles, free from the stuffiness, standards and notions of rectitude that operate in most other places. Ed Rusha is, like Craig, an essential Los Angelino. His droll, non-judgmental observations of parking lots, crummy apartment buildings and gas stations clearly capture an irresistible life force in the banal. Ed Ruscha and Craig Hodgetts are part of Los Angeles’ time-honored predisposition to treat principles of urban design or principles of any sort with disregard, disinterest and disrespect. Paradoxically, there is a powerful principle at work in this contempt for principle. That principle is the impact of place on our sensibilities, the primacy of place in shaping who we are. Craig Hodgetts is Los Angeles.

One of the main ideas of LOVE versus HOPE is summarized in the following passage:

If urbanists care about sustainability, sustaining urban culture should be the first order of business. The way they cook stews and make music in New Orleans; the way they dance in Havana, dress in Milano, use language in London, look cool in Tokyo, wisecrack in New York.

In this regard, at least, Craig is my kind of guy.

Consider quotes from the last paragraph of Craig’s Swimming …chapter.

dislocations and distortions of the basic city fabric can accommodate eccentricities like the Blue Whale or the Brown Cow… scenography and urban function are no longer mutually exclusive… expand our definition of urban form to include explicitly scenographic intent: we can create a “good shot.”

That sounds to me more like Colin Rowe than Mel Webber, in a Los Angeles that is not very different from Rowe’s Rome—Collage City. On first reading, our two books appear to be locked in mortal combat, but in the depths of our DNA, Craig and I are at least half-brothers.


Craig Hodgetts’ Notes on LOVE versus HOPE, Housing and the City BY DANIEL SOLOMON

If you are ever up for a romp from Brunelleschi, on to Diaghilev, then on to Anita Ekberg, and back again (believe me, you should be) then Daniel Solomon’s multifaceted plea for walkable, engaging cities should be at the top of your list. My goodness, the man has managed to embrace nearly the whole of urban history in a few pungent pages that leap from Nabokov’s love of butterflies to the urban design theories of Heidegger and Colin Rowe. Within those bookends lies a field of elegant prose that veers from near manifesto to romantic description, with sometimes agonizing reflections on a promising personal project set adrift by the imperatives of specialist legislation.

Of course there are villains and heroes. A subtext (well, more overt than that ) indicts Modernist architectural principles for the human costs associated with contemporary urban form, but valorizes the dark alleys where noirish transactions are wont to take place. In his relish for the full spectrum of human urban experience, Solomon often has to balance his own passion with the legacy of the New Urbanists, a powerful if tarnished movement which he helped to form.

That tension, and its considerable intellectual demands, forms the backbone of the book, which mixes personal accounts with rumination, profiles of the protagonists—Catherine Bauer Wurster is singled out in detail as a siren whose infatuation with all things modern led to widespread adoption of the principles of Modernism—and historic references, to construct a thoroughly researched, fair-minded discussion.

What Solomon calls “the tyranny of empiricism” and its progeny: slab cities, swaths of vacant land, the residue of barely digested Corbusian imperatives, is weighed against a city in which “soulfulness—myth, history, memory, love of place, the hopelessly subjective” determine form as well as experience. In Solomon’s view, cities like Rome, which lay behind cinema masterpieces like La Dolce Vita, exemplify the layering of history, politics, and architecture he holds up as models of urbanity, while utopias like Brasilia, and rational settlements such as those in China, are proof positive of the failure of modern city planning.

In support of his argument, there are examples drawn from his own work, with cogent, well-reasoned explanations of the frustrations born of the modernist hegemony as he wonders aloud whether it might be possible to re-enact the charms of the Parisian courtyard apartments, which have only one staircase, “in an era of rating systems, points, and prerequisites, of universal codes and prescriptions, of measures that measure the measurable.”

If this sounds like a contradiction in terms, don’t be alarmed—because Solomon feints and fakes with consummate skill, revealing his “tricks” to cloak generic, program-driven projects with context-savvy articulation. The key to that strategy is his determination to assert the primacy of a livable city over any theoretical mandates, making it clear, by naming names—Derrida et al—that he considers architects so besotted to have been hopelessly subverted.

Thus, the confrontation between Love and Hope in the title. The principles he follows, and cites, favor irregular sites bounded by buildings that hug the streetscape, ideally with a base of continuous retail uses. “It is about place-making in a complicated world in which many forces are unleashed to rob places of their distinctiveness, meaning, and sustaining power over the quality of our lives.” Its counterpart, the city of Hope, is a vast plain, marked by isolated free-standing buildings, with few destinations. Regulations dictate spacing according to height for solar access. Hope, in that case, is for the future, when the regulations are relaxed, and proper infill can be built.

Throughout, Solomon balances his very personal convictions with a sober reality-bats-last appraisal of the current state of urbanism, with a glum recognition of geopolitical forces, the aspirations of architects, and the pervasive effect of the Internet. Prognoses aside, Solomon perseveres, with against-the-grain examples of his firm’s current work which, one imagines, might seem retro to today’s up-and coming cadre of designers. “Hang it up!” One can hear them saying. But they’d better think twice, because Solomon’s passion, his resourcefulness, and yes, his wry humor, can clearly go the distance. As a scholar, a storyteller, and committed urbanist, his prescriptions could well turn out to be a much needed RX for our ailing cities.