Reyner Banham once spoke about the architectural properties of French fries. I would have loved to have been there. This week I’m rereading your exciting Los Angeles book, The Architecture of Four Ecologies, and I’m flipping through magazines from twenty years ago.
I’m reading Banham again because his generous and perceptive view of Los Angeles always seems like a comfortable read. In March 2021, only the opening of the book seems to bring the breadth of heated concrete in that city, with its highway pillars and playful flow between the urban and the desert, to the flaccid darkness of the closed house.
And I’m looking in old magazines because Banham sent me back to GTA 5 and then GTA 5 sent me back to a print ad Wipeout Fusion, a double page, once seen and never forgotten, in which London was chosen as a location for the development of a multi-pound big money anti-gravity racetrack, and citizens are not happy about it.
STOP THAT THIS TRACK IS BUILT, says the inscription on a rubber stamp in the upper left corner. (Those letters, like the copy’s Tax-Payer’s Alliance tone, are perfect.) At the bottom of the ad, we learned how the track will affect London in terms of pollution and safety. But most of the double page is occupied with rendering. Here is the Thames with this impressive running track around it, passing Tower Bridge and curving over the Tower itself. Two worlds mixed together. The horror and the beauty of it. No one would ever try such a thing, right? But if they did …
I want GTA 5 to be treated as Wipeout. I wish there was a burning of magnesium from those sci-fi escapes. I wish it had its vibrant futuristic zipper and that kind of ghostly connection to the road, so dubious and elastic in the curves, so strangely sticky on the straights that you can almost feel the radioactive connection buzzing between the ship and the surface, that single stylus pointing where the whole thing turns. But venturing into the strange Craigslist world of GTA Online has revealed that this game has at least tracks that are worthy of Wipeout – things that span a vast city most often delivered in terrifying stretches of striped Beetlejuice tubing, tracks placed over a city, but they rarely connect with it, a deeply self-centered transit system for speedheads and will -‘- the-wisps – a ghost country. Stop the construction of this trail, etc.
That’s why I love racing in GTA Online, not racing itself, although they can become quite complex and demanding, the best of them forcing you to change vehicles on the fly, turning into a jet as soon as the track runs out , and going back to a car to preach a terrible fall on a Nebraska-sized ramp. I love them because they are so strange and subversive. GTA 5 took more effort than any game I can imagine, looking carefully at a real place – Reyner Banham’s favorite city – and, in addition to some weak puns, thinking about how to bring its textures and gaps and absolute material reality to the digital space of an open world sandbox. Los Santos feels genuinely worn out and traveled. It makes sense, since the movements of the virtual fire department. It even has the right LA light, that flat glow that brings out the best in stucco and glass. And then Online allows for these looping and arcing race tracks that just can’t be understood. It is surrealism based on realism.
It is strange to think that it was only because of an accident that I discovered all this. If I hadn’t stumbled on the race options, I would never have known that these tracks were all around us, built in the city, but separated by some kind of playful dimensional barrier. And suddenly it all makes sense: I love the joy of these tracks, which means that I love that this game that cares so deeply about a form of realism is suddenly abandoned. And when she lets go, the canvas for her imagination is the very city she has looked at for so long and so carefully to recreate in the first place. Here, as Dorothy Parker could have put it, here is the disciplined eye and the savage mind that is present in almost every game in some way – but now we understand both and the point at which they collide!
What happens when they clash? The best tracks, my favorites, are not marked so much by what they do – what kind of looping acrobatics they employ – but by how intensely they look against the city that they can barely recognize. Unless you are willing to steal a helicopter, Los Santos is home to a pretty useless height: the skyscrapers are all there, but you can never see the best bits. At the races, however, you do – you drive past the top of the Bank of the United States Tower, with that crown of sunshine that took on such a vibrant air before it was shattered on Independence Day, and then passed the Fox building , also known by its real name from Nakatomi Plaza. The bleached sepulcher of the City Hall suddenly looks very small – you have to dive to pass this building that, in its own way, also scratched the sky. These are places that open world games often need to include, but they may have difficulty making use of, just as your imagination of real Los Angeles may include those beautiful pictures of helicopters and other things, but the reality of your trip is highways and Shake Shacks. (Don’t knock too.)
Strangely, the strips also affect the scope of the island in GTA 5. The upper floors are suddenly within reach, but a totally different mode of automatic travel – many long straight lines and wide curves – establishes a different map on the spot and reveals the inherent proximity everything in the game. This is where GTA 5 diverges from the real Los Angeles, which is as vast as it looks (and the land so old). In the main campaign, navigating the cruel streets, you can fall into the simulated expansion. But up here, with the air around you and point B visible, even when you run away from point A, you begin to understand the tricks that were employed to compress everything.
Ultimately, online tracks are so enjoyable, I think, because of the things like these that they accidentally reveal, and also because they depend on this interaction between the fantastic and the mundane that can often define the real city. 7-11s and Circle-Ks abound, but a man once dreamed of building a museum in Griffith Park that would contain a life-size replica of the Parthenon within its main gallery. One of its best buildings was inspired by a novice architect and a literal dream. Its HQ of water and energy is a modern and airy pagoda located between lakes.
The final twist is that the fantasy architecture of the tracks is delivered with the kind of sun-damaged utility that the game employs to add a patina of age, history and realism elsewhere. The tracks are deeply physical objects, with buttresses and pillars supporting them, and their material is worn and their colors look somewhat faded – they are part of what Banham memorably calls “the monuments of the highway system”. In fact, they reminded me of the pleasantly traveled feet texture of a soft piece: better days have come and gone, but a certain uneven glow remains.
Rereading Banham last week, I finally understood something that, to my shame, he makes deeply explicit in the text. Los Angeles is no more a city built on highways than New York, Barcelona, Tokyo or Capetown. Instead, “the less densely built urban structure of the Los Angeles basin allowed more conspicuous adaptations to be made for motorized transport than would be possible anywhere else without destroying the city.”
He continues: “Los Angeles has no urban form in the commonly accepted sense”, which certainly sounds true to many of my friends who go there for the first time and find it formless and always spreading, a consuming flatness that refuses to house to become significant in the mind and to congregate in places, directions and fragments of urban meaning. He has no urban form, perhaps, but jeepers have themes and a unique idea of himself that lives in the minds of the people who love him, hate him and want more. An idea that can be reproduced using realism or surrealism – or, at best, both.