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Angels with dirty traces

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The Provisional City: Los Angeles Stories of Architecture and Urbanism By Dana Cuff. MIT Press, 2001. 308pp. £27.50

Los Angeles has long been an object of fascination - not just for filmmakers, novelists and songwriters but also for academics. Outsiders came searching for what they felt was missing back home. Reyner Banham found a blessed autopia where aesthetic freedom ran riot, while Jean Baudrillard enjoyed a shiver in being liberated from the pseudo-depth of European 'high culture'.

American academics have been equally attentive, whether it is Mike Davis twitching at the inroads of military surveillance within the public realm, or Edward Soja detecting a new form of urbanism that might steer between Modernist dreams of social control and the free-market myths of PostModernism.

What has been common to these intellectual readings is the sense that Los Angeles somehow represents the pathological urban condition, a symbolic supernova of low-density development that is spreading elsewhere. The city of fallen angels has hardly ever been treated as an ordinary place where mundane economic and social activities take place. There have been glimpses of existential emptiness in films such as Wim We n d e r s ' Paris, Texas or Michael Mann's Heat, but precious little in architectural circles. Even the Case Study housing prototypes, intended to exploit the benefits of mass-market repetition, became chic, downsized manifestations of elitist design culture.

Now, however, Dana Cuff has produced a book that looks in depth at the everyday low-cost housing that was built in large estates in the cheaper areas of Los Angeles. The book spares no blushes in examining the political and economic forces that produced large-scale projects for poorer citizens. The book signals openly its part in the shift in American academia away from an obsession with European critical theory. The author is a Koolhaas fan (and why not? ) but the theoretical themes of the book are kept sparse, and instead the story is told in biographical and anecdotal fragments.

Cuff focuses on five particular projects drawn from privately and publicly funded examples, and fascinating tales they make too. First comes the emergency housing built for munitions workers during the Second World War, followed closely by post-war estates that adapted the barrel-vaulted prefabricated Quonset huts as temporary homes. The population of Los Angeles increased by 56 per cent in the decade up to 1950, and sprawl was rife. Cuff thus includes a section on the scheme in Westchester that was built by Kaiser Homes, the West Coast equivalent of the rapid-fire Levittowns that were springing up back East.

But perhaps the most fascinating of all is the story of the Chavez Ravine estate, a socialist endeavour from the 1940s and 1950s to provide dwellings for poor Hispanic residents. The promoters of the schemes fell foul of MacCarthyite witchhunts, and some were even imprisoned as Communist sympathisers. Then big money moved in to terminate the Chavez Ravine estate when the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team was so infamously sold to Los Angeles in the late 1950s.

The new LA Dodgers needed a site for a new stadium, and guess whose homes were cleared to make way for all that car parking.

Cuff 's outrage at such events is manifest, and she builds to a climax in which she throws herself behind the opposition to the development of the Playa Vista wetlands next to LAX airport. This controversy has embroiled many of the stars of the Los Angeles architectural firmament, including Frank Gehry, and testifies to the fact that the political and economic forces that Cuff identifies so expertly in her account are still alive and kicking in the city today.

Dr Murray Fraser teaches at Oxford Brookes University

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