Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

city limits

  • Comment
The changing demographic of urban Europe means architects must consider and speak out more on race and cultural issues, believes Mike Davis, who points to the experiences of Los Angeles and the lessons that can be learnt by eleanor young. photograph by da

Earlier this month the New York Times reported the UK government's prediction that Leicester will be the first British city with a predominantly non-white population. As an urbanist with roots in the US and UK, Mike Davis finds this fascinating. He sees the culture and politics of race deeply embedded in the built environment. His best-known book, City of Quartz (1990), is a radical critique of Los Angeles based on the fault lines of race and economy. Today (Thursday) he will be lecturing at the Tate Modern as part of events around 'Century City' and earlier in the week he kicked off the RIBA's series on masterplanning.

Davis has been living in Hawaii with his Mexican wife since a US$315,000 (£216,000) fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation 'fell from the sky' in 1998. He has been exploring the city and the environment and has written two books: the third in his LA series, Magical Urbanism (2000); and a counter-imperialist narrative history, Late Victorian Holocausts (2001).

Now he is teaching history in New York.

But Davis has not deserted LA.'Wherever you are in the US, Los Angeles eventually comes to you.' He feels that despite the European tradition of social democracy, the starkness of the US urban experience is increasingly relevant to Europe's cities.

Davis' later books on LA, Ecology of Fear (1999) and Magical Urbanism, show how LA's development offers some hope for a multicultural city under the pressures of the twenty-first century.

Davis is self-deprecating about his architectural sensibilities, but has strong views about how architects should work within the city: 'Architects and urbanists need to be toolmakers.' Magical Urbanism examines how groups and individuals lay claim to the built environment and 'retrofit' the city. He thinks that a 'kit of ideas' that people can adapt themselves would add a great deal. To do that involves a transformation of the profession to make it diverse in its make up and responsive to its environment - in dialogue with its inhabitants. 'There is a tradition of architects treating Los Angeles as a free-fire zone, ' he says. His role when teaching at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) was to counter this and 'show the textures and reality of place', to 'condition' design.

He thinks the city planners in 1940s LA got it right with their garden city-style housing. He feels this 'powerful tradition' still offers 'a coherent alternative to the hyper-segregated city that emerged [in LA] after the Second World War'.

The US is dealing with suburban polarisation on a massive scale, with suburbs stretching 150km outside city centres and underwritten by a 'racial script' of segregation. The exponential growth of 'edge' cities has led to environmental and social problems. Davis considers this as a challenge to architects and designers. In the UShe sees the salvation for the increasingly polarised cities in the people many 'Anglos' dismiss: Latinos. After years of 'cultural dominance of suburban prejudice', the cities are now being filled with urban people who display 'incredible ingenuity' despite prejudice and proscriptive laws.

Born in 1946, Davis was brought up in Anglo-west-side Los Angeles, 'what most people think of as southern California'. He left school at 16 when his father died and worked as a meatcutter. He became involved in radical politics and for a while was a professional political activist. After working in a Communist Party-owned bookstore and a stint as a long distance truck driver, he got a scholarship from a butchers' union to take a degree in economics and history at the University of California, LA.While studying for a PhD he lived in London and Belfast, joining the editorial committee of the New Left Review and getting involved with its publisher, Verso. Verso published Davis' first book, Prisoners of the American Dream (1986), and later Davis' rejected PhD thesis, City of Quartz. After various lecturing jobs in the US Davis joined SCI-Arc, which he only left following his award in 1998.

City of Quartz implicates architects in the development of exclusive fortress America and the destruction of public space. Davis' denunciation of Frank Gehry's work - a section entitled 'Frank Gehry as Dirty Harry' describes a library of his as the most menacing ever built ('a bizarre hybrid . . . of dry-dock dreadnought and Gunga Din fort') - led Gehry to publicly confront Davis and later to try to win him over by inviting him to his studio to see plans for the Walt Disney Concert Centre. Davis says he now has sympathy for Gehry's dilemmas: 'He had conceived of a huge magnet of vibrant public space but the trustees had demanded that it be gated and closed.'

Davis believes that 'precisely the most needed forms of architecture are what is not being built'. But he is conscious of the commercial restraints on the profession.

'Architects are well aware they are dictated to by economics, ' he acknowledges. He is keen to explore the limits of what is possible and led a project at SCI-Arc looking at the design for a night-time meeting place for black kids - something highly unlikely to be built in the US, where architects are 'more likely to end up designing prisons than social housing'.

He highlights a 'persistent problem' of architects, that they get hung up on design details: 'They have to separate actual design from the larger context of urban vision'. He is a 'great fan' of Lord Rogers, who is also contributing to the RIBA masterplanning series. 'It was incredibly important that someone of his stature stood up and spoke out, ' he says.

With Lord Rogers, as with the US'New Urbanists, Davis believes it is ideas rather than forms that are most important. He admits that he is 'curiously agnostic about aesthetic or design issues', but he is always alive to their urban implications. 'I just wish the likes of Frank Gehry were more outspoken on these issues.'

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.